Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is the biggest carnival (in Portuguese: carnaval) in the world. Millions of people gather on the streets each day during the festival. Samba, the official music and dance of Rio Carnival is at the center of the revelry.
I was lucky for this entire Rio Carnival experience. I arrived in Rio de Janeiro from Peru two weeks before the Carnival to meet up with my friends from Portugal, who both speak the language. It was a big relief with them around as I don’t speak Portuguese and most locals don’t speak and understand English. Because of my friends, we were able to find some of the hidden parties and events in Rio.
It was nice to see how Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro) prepare for the festival weekend. Rio Carnival is the most anticipated event of the year for locals and visitors alike.
When is Rio Carnival?
The Rio Carnival celebration begins on the Friday before the Ash Wednesday but the Carnival vibe begins as early as December. This year, it will be held on February 9, 2018 (Friday) up to February 14, 2018 (Wednesday).
And for next year, the dates are set on March 1, 2019 (Friday) up to March 6, 2019 (Wednesday).
How to Experience Rio Carnival?
Watch the Carnival Samba Parades at the Sambadrome
Sambadrome or “Sambódromo” is a venue purposely built for the Samba Schools parade during the Rio Carnival. It is a parade area of 700 meter stretch of the Marquês de Sapucaí Street with a stadium-style seating capacity of 90,000.
This magnificent spectacle, with its fiercely contested Samba competitions among the Samba Schools, is the highlight and a must-see during the Rio Carnival.
Carnival Samba Parade Elements
Each Samba School is allotted time to parade along the Sambadrome and prove they are the ultimate champions of Samba. They are being judged from the theme, Samba song, costumes, flag bearer, etc. It’s the collaboration of these different Samba parade elements that make Carnaval a world-famous festival:
The Wings or “Alas”
Wings or “Alas” are the sections of every Samba Schools. Each Samba School is comprised of approximately 30 Wings with each Wing consisting of at least 100 members wearing the same flamboyant costume.
The Flag Bearer or “Porta-Bandeira”
The Flag Bearer and her Escort or “Mestre-sala” are given the privilege of heading the Samba School with the school’s flag in her hand. They dance together to a choreographed routine.
Each Samba School is allowed to parade more than 6 floats. These lavishly decorated floats have Samba dancers with their themed and glamorous costumes. Some floats even have moving parts to make it more appealing.
These percussionists are responsible to sustain a constant rhythm to the Samba dancers.
The Samba Dancers or “Passistas”
Passistas are professional Samba dancers who wear the most elaborate bikini costumes. The best of the Passistas from the school is chosen as the queen of the Bateria or “Rainha de Bateria” and will have to dance right in front of the Bateria.
Join the Carnival Street Parties – Blocos
Rio Carnival is not just about watching the grandeur of the Sambadrome parade. It’s also by joining the fun from over 450 street parties or “blocos” or “bandas” throughout Rio de Janeiro before and after the Carnival weekend. These parties are more casual than the Sambadrome parades and you don’t have to buy tickets in order to join.
People revel around the sound truck that either follows a pre-determined route or remains at a fixed location. Some blocos have various themes like African, Olympics, cross-dressing, etc.
You can find blocos in just about every neighborhood. But the most popular of these street parties are the neighborhoods of Lapa and Jardim Botanico & Lagoa as well as the beach neighborhoods of Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema.
Meeting New Friends at the Carnival
A week prior to the Carnival weekend, my Portuguese friends went back to Portugal and I was on my own again. But only for a while as I met this awesome Swiss guy, Michael. It was a coincidence that Michael booked the same party hostel in Leblon for 5 days like me and booked another 5 days in a hostel in Lapa, the party capital of Rio, during the Carnival weekend just like me again.
It was nice finding someone to party with for 10 days especially during the crazy Carnival weekend. And did I mention that we were both traveling solo for 6.5 months too?
We met new great friends and we reveled together in every blocos that we could find even as early as 6 AM! Blocos are the best! We just needed to take a nap after going to a bloco then look for another famous bloco again. We had so much Caipirinhas and beers that time!
How to Choose your Sambadrome Ticket
In order to enjoy the parades that usually start at 9:15 PM or 10:00 PM and last up to 3:15 AM or even 4:50 AM, you have to buy the tickets based on your preference and budget. You have to decide on which Parade Group or night to watch, which seat to take and which Sector or area of the parade runway to get.
Choose Your Sambadrome Parade Group or Night
The Access Group
The Access Group performs every Carnival Friday and Saturday. Rio’s big Samba Schools compete for each other and the winner and first-runner up make it to the Special Group parade the following year.
Tickets in Access Group are considerably lower than the Special Group as they don’t spend the same budget and also rank below the Special Group. But costumes and floats are still impressive and the performances are still of the highest caliber.
The Special Group
The Special Group performs every Carnival Sunday and Monday. It is the premier league of Samba Schools. These are the most famous Samba Schools that have climbed their way to the top of the rankings year after year. They exhibit extravagant performances that are telecasted worldwide.
The Champion’s Parade
The Champion’s Parade, also known as the Winner’s parade, happens the following Saturday after Carnival. After the scores have been tallied and the Top 6 Samba Schools from the Special Group have been announced on Ash Wednesday, they will be asked to come back to parade one last time. Performers are dressed in the same costumes but everyone is in a happy mood this time. They are no longer being judged and it’s just like a celebration of victory.
Ticket prices of the Champion’s Parade are considerably cheaper than the Special Parade’s tickets.
Choose Your Sambadrome Seat
Open Air Front Boxes or “Frisas” (close to the action)
Open Air Front Boxes or “Frisas” are the seats located at parade runway level. This is the closest you could get to the parade action and take close-up pictures. Each box seats 6 people. You could get individual tickets or you could book the entire box.
Grandstands or “Arquibancadas” (best views)
Grandstands or “Arquibancadas” are located at the top of each sector. These concrete bleachers offer the best panoramic view of the whole runway yet not expensive. But you have to be early to get the best position because there are no numbered seats except for the Tourist Grandstand located in Sector 9.
Allocated Chairs or “Cadeiras” (best value)
Allocated Chairs or “Cadeiras” are numbered plastic seats located at the floor level of Sectors 12 and 13 only. Everybody can have a good look of the parade as the seats are placed in rows divided by steps. These are the second cheapest seats but comfortable.
Luxury Suites or “Camarotes” (VIP experience)
Luxury Suites or Covered Boxes or “Camarotes” are the most exclusive seats in the Sambadrome. Luxury Suites are the ticket of choice of the rich and famous both in the national and international scene. There’s an enhanced security also for the Luxury Suites even though Sambadrome is considered to be the safest spot in South America during the Carnival.
A Luxury Suite ticket to the Sambadrome grants you access to the specially decorated indoor suite, along with VIP services that include a buffet, an open bar, a waiting service and more.
I was lucky once again this time as I was upgraded from the Open Air Front Boxes seat in Sector 11 to a Luxury Suite seat in Sector 7. I can’t believe that I was upgraded to the most sought-after of all the Rio Carnival tickets! My Luxury Suite, Lounge Carioca, has a maximum capacity of 360 people per day and offers these VIP services:
Choose Your Sambadrome Sector
The tickets for this sector are not for sale. This place is reserved for the members of the Samba Schools’ communities. This sector is usually one of the loudest and liveliest. It is where the schools gather before the parades start.
Sector 2, 3, 4, 5
There are advantages of sitting in sectors toward the beginning of the parade route. Samba Schools are full of excitement and the crowd here goes wild. Not to mention the waiting time is less in between the Samba Schools.
Sector 6, 7
Tickets from Sectors 6 and 7 are the most sought-after because judges are located in front of Sector 7. It has the best location as schools show their best performance in front of them. Tickets in Sector 7 are the most expensive ones among all the sectors.
Known as the tourist sector having a numbered seating and the most expensive grandstand seats. However, not so much Cariocas buy these tickets. If you want to learn Samba from them, this could not be the best place for you.
Sector 8, 9, 10, 11
It is a privileged location close to the percussion gathering area or “Recuo da Bateria” as drummers retreat between Sectors 9 and 11. There’s a good Carnival vibe from these sectors as the band stops at the side and performs as they let the wings go in front.
Sector 12, 13
Tickets from Sectors 12 and 13 are the cheapest. These sectors have bleachers that are set further back because of the Allocated Chairs in front of it.
After the parade, participants usually take off and leave their costumes in the Apotheosis Square, which is nearest to Sectors 12 and 13. It means you can just easily grab those as a souvenir or use as a costume for the blocos.
I had the most incredible time in Rio de Janeiro, which is my favorite city so far. This city amazes me in so many different ways, not to mention the remarkable experience that I had during the Carnival. Going to this world’s largest and most famous Carnival should be on everyone’s travel bucket list!