The ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio: parties and parades

What’s Carnival in Rio de Janeiro without its lively parties and parades? Now that planning, packing, and logistics are taken care of, it’s time to think about the important stuff: your social calendar. In this second installment of the ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio, we’ll walk you through some of the main events.

Blocos and bandas

The essence of street Carnival in Brazil can be found in the festive parties that wind their way through the roads of Rio in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. These blocos (street parties) and bandas (Carnival bands) consist of drummers, dancers, and hordes of drunken participants, with a background of samba music. Meanwhile, an entourage of drink sellers purvey cerveja (beer) and caipirinhas (cocktail made of cachaça, lime, and sugar) to keep the crowd appropriately inebriated.

Perhaps the most legendary bloco is the Banda de Ipanema, which this year takes place on February 4th and 18th at 5:30pm. The gathering point is at the Praça General Osorio, and the parade generally goes on for several hours. Expect old-time marchinhas (traditional Carnival songs), flamboyant drag queens, and a particularly touching tribute to the late composer Pixinguinha in front of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Paz.

Cordão da Bola Preta is another popular bloco, drawing up to two million revelers dressed in signature black polka dots on white. This year, the event will take place on February 10th at 8pm and 18th at 9:30am, with a meeting point at Cinelândia.

A searchable list of blocos can be found on the website of Riotur, the city’s official tourism bureau. For the full experience, throw on a crazy costume, hide your valuables, stay hydrated (with both caipirinhas and lots of water), and hit the streets. You never know where you’ll end up!


Another way to experience Rio Carnival is at the city’s costume and black tie balls. The fanciest is the annual Magic Ball, held at the opulent Copacabana Palace Hotel. The ball attracts its fair share of Brazilian celebrities, but it’s also open to the public for the just-above-budget ticket price of $1300. This year, the event will be held on February 18th.

A more reasonable option are the balls held at Rio Scala, one of the city’s most popular nightclubs. With themes like Black Balls (featuring music from Cordão da Bola Preta) and Long Live the Beer! (self-explanatory), these balls are a bit more casual, a bit more rambunctious, and also a bit more accessible, with ticket prices ranging from $70-150.

Samba Parades

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the highlight of Carnival: the samba parades. Thousands upon thousands of spectators gather at the world-famous Sambódromo stadium to cheer on Rio’s samba schools as they put on performances with choreographed dances, elaborate costumes, decked-out floats, and of course, the rich sounds of samba music.

The best schools perform at the main parades on the Sunday and Monday of Carnival (February 19th and 20th this year). Unsurprisingly, these are the costliest parades to attend. If you live in Rio, you can purchase tickets relatively cheaply on the ground starting in January. Otherwise, you have a few options. If it’s not imperative that you get a good seat at one of the main parades, you can take your chances and wait until you arrive in Rio to purchase a ticket from a travel agent. Be mindful that this path becomes more difficult if you don’t speak Portuguese, and there are a significant number of counterfeit tickets floating around. Your other option is to purchase a ticket online through a registered travel agent like While the tickets are sold at a significant mark-up (think $200-300 for a good seat) this option was recommended to me as the safest bet.

If you’re not content to sit and watch, you also have the option of joining the parade by purchasing a special costume package through a registered travel agent. Your costume then becomes your “ticket” into the parade, and you get the chance to march with one of the participating samba schools. Bragging rights don’t come cheap, though; costumes can cost upwards of $500.

For more information on planning a trip to Rio Carnival, check out the first installment in this series: The ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio: planning, packing, and logistics. And stay tuned for on-the-ground coverage of Rio Carnival 2012 starting on February 17th!

[Flickr images via Sarah Ahearn, Rodrigo Soldon, Patricia Figuera,]