How to Experience Carnival in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Heading to Rio for Carnival? Find out when and how to experience the celebrations like a local, what to expect, and how to stay safe.

Dancing during Carnavale in Rio Photo © Brian Rapsey


Carnival is a pre-Lenten Christian celebration held throughout the world, but Rio's Carnaval is considered the biggest. Carnival season ends on Mardi Gras (French for ‘Fat Tuesday’), and while the day is known for its unbridled anarchy, it takes sobriety to calculate the date of this party. Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) is 40 days before Easter (excluding Sundays) and Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, meaning Carnival crescendos 47 days before Easter. 


The Carnival of Brazil (Carnaval do Brasil) starts on Saturday and finishes on Fat Tuesday. In Rio de Janeiro, Indian costumes and African beats were incorporated into the celebrations in a rebellious show of indigenous identity. Today, the anticipation of Carnaval fills the air months before the actual event. A key feature here is the Brazilian bandas – street parties guided by drummers and singers through the streets of Rio and tailed by whoever wants to dance behind them. Some bandas require you to wear the right colors, others demand fancy (or cross) dress. Some simply sell you a t-shirt and welcome you along for the ride. No matter what shape, size and style of banda you boogie behind, they all lead to the heart of Carnaval. There are also lavish Carnaval Balls; glitzy, glamorous, outlandish, erotic – and a sure way to rub the bare or bedazzling shoulders of the in-crowd.

The climax of Carnaval is the samba parade – the parade to end all parades. The Sambódromo becomes the world’s longest and most outrageous runway, flanked by stands from which thousands of people are conducted into reverie by the dancers and drummers who hold Rio hostage over two nights. The 14 best samba schools in Rio are each given the opportunity to show what they’re made of. Some schools are cutting-edge samba-suave, some are connected with crime syndicates and some are open to travelers who may be passing through town and are prepared to rehearse for weeks, master a theme song, buy an outlandish costume and wear it in front of tens of thousands of people.

Come zero hour and the nervous energy backstage is channelled into mass focus, with the single goal of putting on the best samba spectacular that Rio has ever seen. Each school is escorted by 200 to 400 drummers, who beat is a pulse that connects the dancers with the cheering crowds. Every person in every school gives their all – the children's wing shows what it's learned, the sub-wings show how far they’ve come, the best of the best become even better. Each individual battle is choreographed to form part of a bigger picture...and all under the gaze of the all-powerful judges, who must decide who brought the most to Carnaval: who had the moves, who had the look, who had the lyrics, who had the heart? And the winner is... the pride of Brazil.

Travel safety advice

Carnaval is a ginormous event - and with any event that attracts a whopping amount of people, there are always going to be risks involved. This party can also get pretty wild, so if you want to stay safe you'll have to have your wits about you. First, try to go to the Carnaval with at least one other person, as a basic safety-in-numbers precaution. If you do go alone, just be wary that while the atmosphere might be festive and fun, there are still those who prey on the vulnerable.

Pickpocketing is a genuine problem during Carnaval, so keep your valuables back in the hotel – preferably in your room safe, or even better, in your hotel's safe. Photocopy your passport and keep it in a pouch under your shirt, with enough money for the night. Hands wander at Carnaval, so make sure they don't wander over you!

Speaking of wandering hands, Carnaval is a highly spirited and for lack of a better word...sexual event. It's a total dance, pash and grope fest, and its easy to get swept away in the mania  but there are of course risks. The Brazillian Ministry Of Health warns party goers to be wary of diseases that can be transmitted by kissing, including HSV1 and syphilis. If things go further, it gets more dangerous. We shouldn't need to tell you about the risks of unprotected sex with strangers, but it can, and especially at Carnaval, does happen. Put it this way, the Brazillian government doesn't go out of its way to distribute condoms to the crowd in order to prevent the spread of AIDS for nothing. And while the next phrase may be a bit hackneyed and cliched, we think we can get away with it in the context of discussing this event: "No Balloon, No Party".

Another thing to consider, aside from all the erotic heat emanating from the parade, is the ACTUAL heat of the thing. Temperatures get high during Carnaval, you will need to stock up on water  try to keep it bottled, you could get ill from tap water if you are not used to it.

When it comes to crowd control, do your best to keep away from really tightly packed areas - if you want to be a bit safer, stick to the fringes, it will be much easier to exit if things get a little out of hand. Also, be aware of where police cabins reside where your party is located, in case you get into any trouble.

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