My plans for my four-month South America trip didn’t originally include Carnaval, but when I realized the world-famous festival was taking place when I planned to be in Brazil, I immediately rearranged my itinerary to be in Rio that week. Giddy with excitement, scenes of raging parties and beautiful women decked out in massive feather headpieces and bedazzled bikinis played in my mind’s eye… and that was about it. Honestly, I didn’t know much about Carnaval before I went, and I was a bit unprepared for the experience.
1. FIRST OF ALL, LET’S TALK ABOUT THE PARADES
Growing up in the United States, the only kind of parade I knew was, simply put, an elaborate advertising opportunity for politicians and companies hoping to curry attendees’ favor by bribing them with candy or a free beer coozie. I naively assumed the famous Carnaval parades would be similar to the ones I grew up with, just with those extra-fancy costumes and floats. Wrong.
In the country whose capital city made international news in 2007 by banning all outdoor billboards as part of the “clean city” law, Brazil’s Carnaval parades aren’t about business—they’re a true celebration of life, music, and dance.
In fact, the parades aren’t just parades, they’re a competition among Rio’s more than two hundred samba schools. And those fancy costumes and floats that Carnaval is famous for? Only the very best schools have them, and they perform during an all-night event in an arena called the Sambadromo. Starting around $50 USD, tickets are cost-prohibitive for most Brazilians, meaning the event is mostly reserved for tourists and the elite. Whenever I brought up the Sambadromo to a Brazilian, they shook their heads and told me that’s not the real Carnaval.
2. THE REAL CARNAVAL
The real carnival, they said, is in the streets. And it’s true—I went to the Sambadromo one evening, but the rest of my week in Rio revolved largely around the free street parties, called blocos.
Blocos are parades put on by the lower level samba schools. These parades last around two hours and are composed of a marching band performing the school’s song—that’s right, they play one song over and over again—a float or two, a handful of dancers in simple costumes, and anyone from the crowd is encouraged to dance and follow the parade along it’s route.
Elegance and extravagance are foregone at blocos. Guys often cross-dress in tight dresses and wigs. A bikini top and tutu is the most popular outfit of choice for ladies. Oh, and glitter. Every person, street, and metro train is covered in the stuff during the festival. Glitter is to Rio’s Carnaval what beads are to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, except no flashing is involved.
Hundreds of blocos take place throughout the city in the days before, during, and after the five official days of the festival. Every day, the first blocos start at 7 am, and others are staggered throughout the afternoon and evening. Crowds can range from a few hundred people to the hundreds of thousands, and often cater to a specific audience, such as family friendly, LBGTQ friendly, Beatles-themed, etc.
3. THE NITTY GRITTY
Now that we’ve covered the parades, there are a few more details that everyone should know before going to Carnaval:
First of all, after hundreds of thousands of people party in the streets for five days straight, it gets pretty smelly and dirty. Whenever I saw a puddle, I wasn’t sure whether I was about to step in water, beer, or pee… I’m sure it was often some combination of the three.
Also, Rio is hot AF. I’m talking 90+ degrees, sunny and humid, so prepare to sweat A LOT. The fact that the entire city is extremely crowded during the week of Carnaval doesn’t help either.
Carnaval was the second week of my trip, so my body was still adjusting from the dead of winter in the frozen tundra of Minnesota where I call home. I ate all the frozen açai (pronounced ah-sah-EE) smoothies I could find, but the heat still drained me, and I ended up doing more sleeping than partying that week. It was disappointing, but self-care is extremely important when traveling, especially if alone like I was.
4. BEER IS CHEAP, ACCOMMODATIONS ARE NOT
Thousands of Brazilians come to Rio during Carnaval with foam coolers full of beer hoping to cash in on the event, meaning you’ll never have to look more than a few feet for a drink or bottle of water. Beers cost about 5 Real ($1.33 USD) and prices are generally not negotiable unless you’re buying more than one, so buddy up.
Prices for hostels, on the other hand, can be 4 times higher than their regular rates, and most have a minimum stay of 5 days or longer.
I stayed at Discovery Hostel in the Gloria neighborhood, which I recommend to anyone including other solo female travelers. It has a social vibe, convenient location, and many amenities that helped make my stay more pleasant like comfortable beds, each with its own light and outlet, AC at night, and a tasty free breakfast. I made my reservation three months in advance, and I advise others to do the same.
I also met several people who rented AirBnB’s and private hotel rooms for close to what I paid for a hostel dorm bed, so both options are worth checking out. However, if you’re traveling solo or looking to meet new people, you’re better off sticking to a hostel.
5. PUCKER UP, BUTTERCUP (ONLY IF YOU WANT TO)
Brazilians tend to be less sexually conservative than Westerners, and making out with multiple people a day during Carnaval is common.
Imagine tens of thousands of drunk, scantily clad, sexually liberated people partying all day and night—there is a lot of kissing. An Italian man I met the week before Carnaval warned me that men come up to women and start kissing them without even saying a word, aka rape kissing them. Fortunately, I didn’t find that to be true, but it did seem like thirty seconds or so of conversation is considered sufficient before locking lips.
So ladies, if a man starts talking to you, you know what’s likely coming next. If you don’t want to kiss anyone, that’s completely fine, just make it clear you’re not interested and ask them to leave you alone.
And, if you are interested, go for it!
6. EMBRACE THE FANNY PACK
Theft is common in Rio, especially during Carnaval. In the week I was there, four people from my hostel had their phones or wallets stolen. Two people were pick-pocketed during blocos, one guy’s phone was stolen from his bag when someone distracted him by trying to sell him something at the beach, and the fourth had his phone stolen at knifepoint near the Lapa Steps around seven in the morning.
Don’t let the fear of getting robbed stop you from attending Carnaval, or visiting Brazil in general—but be smart. Theft is like a game of Jenga. Thieves look for the loosest block first. If it’s too difficult, they’ll likely abandon the effort because they don’t want to cause the tower to fall, or in other words, risk causing a scene by getting caught. Just don’t be a loose block, okay? Don’t keep your phone or wallet where they’re visible and easy to grab. Remember, these people are pros, so don’t think a zipper or bit of Velcro will be enough to deter them.
The smartest way to prevent theft is doing what the locals do. Most locals I saw kept their valuables in money belts like this one. If you’re wearing a backpack and see locals wearing their backpacks in front, follow suit, and always, always, always turn your backpack into an oh-so-stylish backfrontpack when taking public transportation. Also, avoid attracting attention to yourself by flaunting your belongings, or better yet, don’t bring them at all. Only carry a small amount of cash and leave everything else in your hotel or hostel. A good rule of thumb: if you can’t afford to lose it, don’t take it with you.