It’s that time of year again when one city goes crazy and the whole world watches – the Rio Carnival! Over the next week photos of all but(t) naked, big breasted mulatas shaking their tail feathers, giant fire breathing floats adorned with writhing Adonises in gold body paint, and outlandish Fruit-bowl-hatted drag queens will plaster the world’s media.
For the foreign visitor (of which millions come year after year) the appeal is clear, yet it can be difficult to really understand what it’s all about and, even more so, to know how to get right to the heart of the action. Luxury travel gurus Dehouche have been based in Rio for the past 7 years, and although they often steer the more faint-hearted away from the city at this time of year, if Carnival’s what you want, look no further. Here is their potted guide to the festivities:
Firstly it’s worth mentioning (then forgetting) the Carnival balls or ‘bailes’. These are the only remnants of the festivities which really hark back to the European origins of the festival (think Venice’s grand masked balls). These are now little more than tacky, overpriced parties although some do have a specific appeal. The Copacabana Palace still hosts the oldest and most traditional ball every year, which is a fantastic, once in a lifetime event for those who are feeling flush.
The principal face of the Rio carnival is the competition between the different Samba Schools (multi million pound samba institutions mainly based in favelas around the city). This is where you see the processions of floats, unbelievably elaborate fancy dress, hundred strong massed drumming bands and those famous mulatas. The main competition happens on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights of Carnival. The ‘premier league’ of the Samba Schools, to name some of the better known ones – Mangueira, Salgueiro and Beija Flor, always parade on the Sunday and Monday. Tickets are expensive, starting at around USD250 for the standard ‘seats’ which buys you the right to cram yourself onto a concrete stadium with a thousand other sweaty Brazilians. USD2000 plus and you can be in one of the VIP hospitality boxes drinking Moet Chandon and rubbing shoulders with telenovela stars. The atmosphere is indescribable, somewhere between the World Cup final, the circus and the loudest concert you’ve ever been to, and for the first time visitor a trip to the ‘Sambadrome’ is a must. The Dehouche insiders tip for those who really want to get involved is to arrange for you to can to have your own costume and actually take part in the parade with one of the top schools.
Most people’s main experience of Carnival in Rio will be the street Carnival, or ‘Carnaval da Rua’ which is the part of the Rio carnival that has most grown in popularity over recent years and is based around hundreds of different ‘blocos’. The basic premise is a band (samba drums plus brass in the more traditional, lorry with loud speakers in the more modern version), a time and a place to meet in the city, a route to follow, and lots of beer / cachaça / caipirinha ice lollies along the way. Generally the more popular the bloco, the earlier the council makes the start time (some are as early as 6am this year) – to discourage mass drunkenness as much as humanly possible and to be able to clear the roads for traffic at some point before midnight.
Some of the more popular blocos can have crowds of up to 40,000 people, the popularity of this part of the celebrations hasn’t escaped the shrewder Carnival commercialisers, and this year for the second time the whole of the ‘Carnaval da Rua’, once a casual impromptu affair, has been sponsored by a national beer brand. The start time is when people will begin to gather but the band itself will not actually set off until they are satisfied that there is a big enough crowd, sometimes two hours or so after the official start. There are some very traditional ‘blocos’ and always some new ones which change in popularity from year to year. Dehouche provides their clients with a list of all their favourites, along with suggested fancy dress – very much the order of the day in the street too, all be-it more of a DIY version. Look out for our top 3 favourite bloco recommendations to follow!