Rio de Janeiro is driven by a passion that pulses through its veins and drifts from samba streets down to the beach, where it takes an afternoon snooze in the sun. Come Carnival, the vibrancy erupts into a 6 day, non-stop celebration of music, love, life and all its endless diversions. From the dizzying heights of the Sambodromo Parade, where samba schools spend all year perfecting moves and crafting elaborate costumes in the utmost secrecy, to the never-ending stream of street-party blocos that sweep past picking up everything and everyone in their wake, Carnival is the time when Rio shines. A city blessed by abundant natural beauty, endless sunshine and a culture born from infectious smiles and strutting on the side-walk in very little clothing, it is little wonder that Rio wins the prize for the king of all street-parties. Yet while carnival is all about getting swept up in the moment, at some point you are going to need to make decisions, like when to jump to the next event and where to find a cocktail, handsome stranger, drag queen, lifeboat….and that’s when you need an insider’s guide.
The Warm Up: Carnival is a marathon, not a sprint, and like the world’s finest athletes, Cariocas make sure they get a lot of good, solid practice in before the big event. So while 2013 Carnival celebrations officially begin on the 8th of February, ‘ensaios’ (practice blocos) begin popping up as early as December across town. If are looking to practice swinging samba hips with some of Rio’s chicest locals, one of the best places to start is Spanta Nenem, a series of insider parties held at the Sede de Remo do Flamengo (Rowing Club) that combine live samba with stunning views across the Lagoa.
Dressing the Part: From the elegant transvestites of bloco Banda da Ipanema to the Beatles-infused samba of Sargiento Pimenta, fancy dress gives Carnival its added edge. There’s nothing quite like letting lose with a street full of fancy-dress nuns. Turned up short of sparkle? Then head to Saara, a colorful street-market bazaar where you can pick up all kinds of weird and wonderful treats, from feathered head-dresses to full-body gorilla suits, while grooving to old school funk from Saara’s own radio station.
Brass Bands, Drag Queens and Secret Blocos
While the Sambodromo is the face and commercial focus of Rio’s Carnival Blocos are its beating heart, with the best ones taking place in hidden corners of the city often far from the traditional tourist track and beginning as early as 6 am, to deter those who aren’t passionate enough to get up at 5 am, or push on through from the night before. Keep track of what happens when with a downloadable app from WikiRio’s Carnival Guide. It doesn’t always include details of the latest, underground blocos, so you may need to make friends with a local.
Ones Not to Miss:
Carmelitas: Kick things off with Carmelitas on Friday in bohemian Santa Teresa, meander through the cobbled streets dancing like a madman and dressed as a nun, before stopping in for food and more fun at Bar do Mineiro. (Friday)
Orquestra Voador: The Brass band antics of a group of friends have now grown to one of Carnival’s most popular blocos, with 50,000 people following them down the wide avenue in Flamengo last year. Look out for them playing intimate gigs at venues like Circo Voador or Studio RJ, where you will find yourself suddenly surrounded by trumpet players. (Tuesday)
Banda da Ipanema – One of the oldest blocos founded by bohemians under the dictatorship, Banda da Ipanema now attracts Rio’s glamorous drag queens. Towering heels and head pieces of fruit are the order of the day. (Saturday)
Sargiento Pimenta – Beatles tribute mixed with old samba classics kick starts Monday morning in the heart of Botafogo. – (Monday)
Simpatia e Quase Amor- While all blocos warrant the rapid romancing of strangers, this one has a reputation for inspiring free love. (Sunday)
Get Off the Streets: When you eventually tire of wandering the streets, head for the Sambodromo to catch the Carnival magic in full throttle and watch the different schools compete, or down to Marina da Gloria, a music venue overlooking the water that draws big name DJs like Fat Boy Slim and Eric Morillo.
S.O.S – No-one can party without stopping for 6 days straight. This is where cocktails come in, for however much drinking ice-cold skols on the street can serve its purpose, sometimes you need something with a bit of kick. While Astor and Palaphita Kitsch offer great bar snacks and stunning views, The Belmonte in Leblon and Barzinho in Lapa make for strategic points to take a time out. For punchy caiprinhas and a large steak with all the trimmings, head to Braseiro in Gavea, where the crowd of beautiful people flirting on the street outside can make it feel like Carnival every day of the year. The perfect pick (me) up.
The Resaca – Any Brazilian worth his ice-cold choppe knows that the Resaca da Carnival is just as important as the main event. How can you still be jumping through the rafters come Tuesday, when at the back of your mind little voices are mumbling about making it to the office the following day? Make like a true Carioca and spend the rest of the week sleeping it off, ideally while swinging in a white hammock overlooking a pristine beach. Jump on a plane and head of to the idyllic surf spot of Praia da Pipa, or pick somewhere closer to home. Three hours from Rio, Buzios‘ 23 beaches offer endless opportunities for restorative dips, while the white sun-loungers and beach club Rocka, are the perfect spot for long afternoon snoozes.
The Basics - Finding accommodation in Rio can be both very expensive and tricky. Hostels like Z.Bra or Hoztel are very hip but can get booked up well in advance. With a larger group, look at renting an apartment, although avoid Craigslist scams. You can check Gogobot for vacation rentals. For a unique experience that combines high count Egyptian cotton with stunning views, try Tuakaza, set up in the Tijuca forest yet just 10 minutes from the heart of the action.
Based in Rio de Janeiro, Lauren Holmes is a freelance writer who spends her time between bars and beaches, all in the name of research. Born in NYC and raised in London, Lauren’s passion for Latin America continues to grow … although she still hasn’t learnt how to samba. Follow her on Twitter.