What to Expect from Carnival in Rio de Janeiro
Carnival is soon approaching so we thought we would give our 2 cents on the experience and give you some hints and tips to surviving a crazy week of Samba, caipirinhas and copious amounts of glitter. Carnival is an iconic week in the Brazilian calendar and Rio de Janeiro sees thousands of people from around the world flock to its streets to be part of parades and blocos. The floats and costumes are incredible; so much colour and intricate detail in their design.
Planning Your Trip to Carnival
Our best advice for planning a Carnival trip is to book early. Though this likely won’t save you money, it will secure your place at one of the biggest parties in the world. Airlines and hotels know it is Carnival and the prices will be hiked. When we were looking for accommodation there were some 4-star, big name hotels cheaper than some hostels for that week. We decided that in order to fully embrace the party spirit of Carnival we wanted to stay in a hostel with like-minded travellers and in the end found one for just under £300, including breakfast, for the week in the suburb of Laranjeras. We used booking.com to search all available options for that week. You can search them below
When looking for flights, the prices were beyond expensive. We ended up booking a multi-city flight with LATAM airlines; Santiago – Sao Paulo – Rio – Santiago. That flight actually worked out about £100 cheaper than a direct return from Santiago, so mess around with your itinerary a little when booking flights to save time. Doing this earned us a few extra flyer miles too as the fares were flex and there was a whole extra segment, which made my inner travel hacker smile. There are also other South American airlines to consider including GOL, Avianca and Azul; depending where you are flying from. We recommend heading over to Momondo and using that as a starting point for prices.
Arriving in Rio for Carnival
If you plan your arrival date just before the Carnival celebrations begin, transportation from the airport is easily done on the public transportation network. It is also worth checking with your hostel to see if they offer a transfer service. We usually take public transport; however, two hours of changing buses with our big packs speaking 0 Portuguese wasn’t appealing to us so we took a cab organised by our hostel. Public transport in Rio costs a flat rate of $3.80 Reais. If you arrive in Rio during the Carnival celebrations we advise you to steer clear of public transport. It’s the transportation of choice for locals and everyone else heading to the next bloco and there is no room for luggage. There’s usually not enough room for all the people on the busses. For our first bloco, we decided to check the Metro system out. Every single carriage was rammed; we had to wait about 5 times to finally get on a train and even then we were like sardines. Think 10x busier than London Underground during rush hour. Nevertheless, everyone was in very high spirits.
So you’ve arrived and you’re ready to party! There are hundreds of blocos to choose from, you can find comprehensive lists online here and the paper also lists them too. Your hostel can tell you which are the best blocos to go to. Blocos or block parties are simply street parties organised by the neighbourhood in which it is held. Often with their own running theme and dress code. Some have legendary status, others have a strong safety record and some are just down right crazy! We recommend Bloco do Sargent Pimienta. This is a Beatles theme mixed in with samba too and was probably our favourite bloco. As I mentioned earlier, the best way to get to a bloco is using public transport. They’re really good value and reliable. If you are not heading too far to go to a bloco and there is a group of you, the taxis are also pretty cheap. It can be quicker and sometimes cheaper than everyone paying for a bus fare. Our biggest piece of advice for going to blocos is to make friends with the people in your hostel and head out to them together in a group. Our first day we went to the Cordão da Bola Preta bloco just by ourselves. It is one of the biggest blocos attracting over two million people and while 99.9% of the people there were out to have a good time, others were there to take advantage of the situation.
Safety of Blocos at Rio Carnival
Before going to carnival we had read a lot about petty pickpocket crime, hence the concealed fanny pack. With thousands of people pushing into each other in the crowds and dancing, it’s hard to notice if someone has taken something when they slightly knock into you or brush past. In our experience, though, there were no skilled pickpocketing manoeuvres; a group of thugs just decided to surround Jay and grab whatever they could. As Cordão da Bola Preta was our first bloco, we decided not to take anything of value with us. A few reais for drinks and a map. While we were dancing we saw a group of young lads running through the crowd barging people out of the way. Just as I was about to say to Jay “They look a bit dodgy” I was shoved out of the way and about six of them surrounded him and grabbed his pockets and whatever they could before running away, all they got was the map. However, if we would’ve had anything else on us; phone, GoPro, small ‘unnoticeable’ cameras it would’ve been gone in a flash. Luckily we weren’t hurt, they were just literally running through the crowds in a straight line grabbing what they could and we happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As this was our first day, we decided that we wouldn’t take cameras or anything else of value out with us for the rest of the week. Sadly, some Brazilians in our hostel were also robbed. I don’t believe thieves were specifically targeting tourists, there were just a few bad eggs in an otherwise amazing community of people targeting anyone they could get. Despite these bad eggs, we didn’t let this experience kill the mood at all. We actually laughed at the fact that they robbed a map off us; even if it did make the journey back to the hostel a tad more difficult.
Drinks; caipirinhas, cachaça, beers and anything else you can think of are very easy to buy at all the blocos. Locals are given special vending licences to sell alcohol and snacks; they wear bright t-shirts and lanyards, they’re not hard to spot and they’re everywhere. The beers are well priced; $10 Reais for 3 small cans or 2 large ones. If it is a more popular bloco, beers can be more expensive and it may be 3 large cans for $20 Reais. All the vendors have plenty of water too. You need to stay hydrated; 40-degree heat with lots of people and the hot sun beaming down on you can become overwhelming at times. Our face paint was literally melting off our faces.
The toilet situation, as you may expect, is pretty grim. There are portaloos, but hardly any. At most, a block of ten at a time and they’re always heaving and rank, to say the least. These are usually separated between male and females so make sure you don’t queue for the wrong ones. Many of us would disappear for 30 mins to 1-hour while we found and queued up for a toilet. Try your hardest not to break the seal.
The Sambadrome is a stadium which was built for all the Samba schools to showcase their talents in the annual Rio Carnival parade. The Sambadrome is open on Friday, Saturday Sunday and Monday of Carnival; Sunday and Monday showcase the ‘special group’ parades, the most prestigious Samba schools and is sure to be an electrifying atmosphere. We didn’t attend the Sambadrome, mainly because of the cost, but if you are just in Rio for a short trip and want to see the schools in action this would be a great way to experience Carnival. The prices for tickets vary on the area in which you are seated. At present, prices start from $128 US on the Friday and Saturday for the cheapest section all the way to $968 US per person for the Special group. You can buy your Sambadrome tickets here. I found that website through the official Brazil tourism site so it should be legit.
Sightseeing in Rio during Carnival
Our final piece of advice for visiting Rio de Janeiro during Carnival would be to allow some time before or after the celebrations to go sightseeing; here are 13 suggestions to give you some inspiration. During the festivities, it is way too crowded and can become difficult to get around. As well as this, the likelihood is that you will want to go to as many blocos as possible; so many themes will appeal to you and it’s unlikely you will even have the time to see all the other attractions Rio has to offer. We managed to see Christ the Redeemer before the celebrations began and visited Pão de Açúcar and Copacabana beach after the main blocos had ended.
We hope you have an awesome Rio Carnival experience. It was literally one of the most fun events we have been to; Brazilians really know how to party. Stay safe, don’t take anything expensive with you and have a great time. The Brazilian hospitality is something else and spirits are always at 110%. Once the chaotic week is over; I would plan some serious detox/chillout time and Ilha Grande is the perfect spot; just a few hours from Rio.
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