New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Venice has carnivale. But for the heart of the pre-Lent carnival experience, you’ve got to head to Rio de Janeiro, the epicenter of all things Fat Tuesday and celebratory. Decadence, debauchery, and drunkenness reign supreme here – as do the most outlandish costumes, the most outrageous dances, the most everything you can imagine. Limitless and over-the-top, the Carnival experience is a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza: equal parts dream and nightmare.
The history of a pre-Lent carnival in Brazil, designed to exorcise one’s sensual and sexual impulses before the beginning of a 40-day period of spiritual and physical fasting, dates back to the colonial era: the 17th century. Traditionally, the poor colonial-era population – lower classes and slaves – used the carnival time as an excurse for social subversion: on this day, kings were fools and fools were kings, poor were rich and rich were poor. The slaves could imitate the costumes oand the mores of their elite oppressors. This lively attitude of subversion didn’t come without its scandal – the governor of Rio de Janeiro tried in vain to ban the practice as early as 1604, but the people’s party went on.
Even today, carnival season is the most anarchic event in Rio de Janeiro. It is, in Rio culture – in theory if not always in practice – a time when races and classes mix. That said, however, there is a degree of divide in the carnival. The “official” carnival takes place on the weekend preceding Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (what’s known as “Fat Tuesday”, or “Mardi Gras”, in other cultures). This carnival – an official parade of samba performers competing from the most prestigious samba schools – is organized and choreographed. But the blocos that comprise the carnaval de rua – the local, informal, semi-ad hoc street parties (457 registered with the city council in 2014) embody the real carnival experience.
If you’d like to head to the “official” carnival events at the Sambódrome (samba Drome), tickets will set you back anything from 35 quid per person for cheap nosebleed seats to 700 per person for a box mere inches from the action. Tickets to the final Grupo Especial show – the most competitive showing – can cost up to three times as much as tickets for the previous two days. There is no formal seating outside the expensive boxes, so come prepared to jostle and stand. If you’d like to get involved, get in touch with an agency like Brazil Bookers, which – for a hefty fee – will supply you with a samba costume and put you in touch with a local parade; you’ll be expected to sing (or at least hum) along with the msusic. If your budget doesn’t stretch to such an even, however, you can always watch the Parade of Champions – which celebrates the winners – a week after the actual event.
Be sure to dress to the nines. If you don’t rent a costume through an agency, you can still head to a market to get plenty of glitter and peacock-bright fabrics (readymade costumes, Halloween-style, are another option). Remember, the more over-the-top, the more you’ll fit in, so don’t be afraid to pour on the sparkles and dial the makeup up to 11.
That said, if you come just for the blocos, you’re still likely to have the full Rio Carnival experience. The most well-known bloco is the Cordao da Bola Preta, which takes place on the Avenida Rio Branco in the city’s center from 9 am onwards on Carnival Saturday, and which attracts over a hundred thousand tourists and visitors. Come prepared to drink copiously all day long – whether you’d sipping beer or partaking in more unique local delights, such as the cachaca, a popular brazilian spirit, with some sacole – a popsicle sold in a small plastic bag with a mix of cachaca and fruit juice: equal parts cocktail and cooler. If you’re worried about your alcohol tolerance, try popping “Engov,” the hangover pill many Brazilians swear by before drinking (and after your imbibing). Or fill your stomach with food at the famous Cafe Lamas, open until 3 in the morning, where you can soak up the alcohol with the famous avocado ice cream doused with cocoa liqeuer.
As for accommodation, it’s often – predictably – in short supply throughout the year. Book in advance, and be prepared to pay a pretty serious premium for the dates, especially if you’d like to be by the Copacabana or Ipanema beaches. More low-key guesthouses like Batofogo’s Oztel, located on the Santa Terese hillside, are also fine options for those looking for a little less pizzazz.