Many of us Americans are guilty of seeing Rio as a year-round Carnaval. Images on TV of Samba dancers in elaborate, and teeny tiny, costumes, parading down the Sambadrome — a translation that still makes every Portuguese-speaker that I know giggle — with huge smiles on their faces. And, of course, Christ the Redeemer lurking somewhere in the background.
While that is indeed a big part of Carnaval, that’s not all there is to Carnaval. While I was in Brazil last year at this time, we had decided to escape the city, like so many Cariocas, to the Northeast of Brazil during Carnaval. In other words, I’ve never truly experienced Carnaval in Rio.
So what is Carnaval anyway?
Based on the Christian period of Lent — the forty-six days prior to Easter in which practitioners often give up something, i.e. meat, chocolate, sugar, etc., to symbolize the sacrifice of Jesus Christ — Carnaval is celebrated between Ash Wednesday and the Friday prior to it. This year, that was February 9th through February 14th.
The Portuguese originally brought their celebration of Carnaval to Brazil, along with the tradition to get rid of all the food that could not typically be eaten while fasting during lent. This led to cordões, or parades, through the streets with music and dancing — the predecessor to today’s blocos. Over time, the celebration in Brazil and, in particular, Rio de Janeiro, became influenced by local culture and was infused with Brazilian music and tradition.
The parades that we see on TV are the competitions between samba schools that first began in 1929. The schools practice and fundraise all year to perform in the Sambadromo, which you can buy a ticket for to see and participate in. It’s an extremely colorful, over-the-top, beautiful celebration of one of the most well-known parts of Brazilian culture.
The part that most of us non-Brazilians don’t see but which is equally — if not more so — important to people in Brazil are the blocos, which are kind of like roaming block parties. Some are large and some are very small. They’re primarily based around the neighborhood in which they take place. Most blocos have some sort of the theme and people get dressed up in costume to participate, with some costumes being extremely detailed and others being more of a random collection of items since it’s the one time per year when it’s acceptable to wear whatever you want.
Depending on when Carnaval falls each year, websites typically start publishing the list of blocos in late January and friends start coordinating then. Though, don’t be alarmed: it’s still Brazil, so no plans are typically made until the week- or even day-of. The celebrations start very early, including some that begin anywhere from 7:00 to 8:00 in the morning. And, yes, there is drinking — even that early.
Participating in blocos in one of the most important ways to celebrate Carnaval here. For most people, the spirit of Carnaval is that it’s a time when you’re free to express yourself however you want. Men will often dress up as women, and women wear costumes ranging from Woman Woman to mermaids. Glitter goes with everyone’s costume. Seriously. So even if you’re not participating, expect to have glitter on you everywhere at least until next Carnaval.
Because the blocos are roaming street parties, drinking and dancing is expected. The drinking culture in Brazil can be intense, even for most Americans. Brazilians seem to be born with this supernatural ability to drink and party to the death — so depending on your friend group, that can be anywhere from twelve hours to three days. I genuinely don’t know how they do it. All I know is that everyone is confused when I call it quits at about 2:00am because, by Brazilian standards, it doesn’t count unless you’re up until the sun comes up.
Even though Carnaval is technically on Fat Tuesday, a.k.a. Mardi Gras, celebrations begin about two weekends before and end the weekend after. In other words, it lasts about three weeks. Because it’s such a big celebration, most people will have off from work and many stores, gyms, shops, and so on will be closed for at least a few days around Carnaval. However, if you’re frustrated by showing up at your gym’s door only to find out they’re closed, remember one thing: Carnaval is a huge revenue resource here, especially in Rio. All of the money that comes in during this time funds many people for the rest of the year.
For people who’ve never been to Rio but are planning to visit during Carnaval: this is one of the safest times of years to visit because security extremely ramped up due to the number of tourists in town. However, be cautious. When taking out your photo or camera, make sure you have a solid grip on it. Because of all the commotion, it is much easier for people to simply pluck your phone right out of your hand and disappear into the crowd. Don’t assume security just because you’re in a crowd — play it safe.
If, like me, you’re not super into partying and don’t want to run into crowds, you’re mostly out of luck. Things will be closed. The metro — albeit running 24 hours — will be insanely crowded. The streets will be dirtier than you’ve ever seen. However, staying in a less tourist-y area and focusing on indoor activities is probably your best bet. Otherwise, take a cue from other Brazilians and use Carnaval as an opportunity to travel to other cities, as long as those other cities aren’t São Paulo, Recife, or Bahia. Everywhere else, the Carnaval celebrations are much more tame.
If all else fails, stay inside with some friends, pop open a beer, and watch the desfile on TV like any AC-loving Brazilian would.