The ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio: planning, packing and logistics

Attending Carnival in Rio de Janeiro tops many a bucket list, and for good reason. Not only is Rio Carnaval one of the world’s sexiest festivals, it’s also an important cultural event for the people of Brazil. Last year, more than 4.9 million people participated in the week-long festival of parades, parties, and carousing in the streets, and the number is expected to increase yet again this year.

In short, Carnival in Rio is an event of epic proportions, and trip preparation can be as much of an adventure as the festival itself. The hotels are overpriced, the tickets are sold out, and it’s tough to tell the real advice from the travel agents trying to sell you on a package. This guide, compiled from my research and paired with tips from Brazilian friends, will hopefully provide a starting point for planning your own Carnival adventure. If you think anything’s missing, please share your knowledge in the comments!

The Basics

Carnival is an annual festival that kicks off 46 days before Easter, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Christian Lent. In Rio, the main events take place across the city over five days, from Friday to Fat Tuesday, and include both organized and spontaneous parades, balls, concerts, performances, and general revelry. The 2012 festival will run from February 17 to 21; see this list for future dates.

Getting There

Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport is Brazil’s largest international airport, with non-stop flights from many cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. A round-trip ticket from a major U.S. city will usually cost you in the neighborhood of $1000.

Americans traveling to Brazil will need to obtain a tourist visa from the Brazilian embassy or one of its regional consulates. The process can take up to several weeks to complete, so start early! The fee is $140, payable only by U.S. Postal Service Money Order, and you’ll need a copy of your travel itinerary. Additional requirements vary by consulate, so double-check with yours to see what else you’ll need.


Locating affordable Carnival accommodations becomes more impossible the closer you get to the main event. Most hotels, hostels, and guesthouses inflate their rates by up to four or five times, and even then they book out quickly.

For hotels, expect to pay around $200 for a budget guesthouse, $500 for a mid-range hotel, and upwards of $1000 for a luxury property. A recent search for hostel dorm beds turned up average rates of $100 per night, and most places implement a minimum stay of up to a week.

Friends in Brazil recommended that I check out apartment sublet sites like Airbnb and for the best deals. While some savvy hosts offer “Carnival Packages” with minimum stays, for many, it’s business as usual. Plus, since most hosts are cariocas (Rio de Janeiro residents), you may be able to get the inside scoop on experiencing Carnival like a local.


February is the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so pack for high temperatures and lots of sunshine. On the streets, it’s perfectly acceptable for men to go shirtless and women to wear bikini tops. If you’re planning to attend a fancy ball, like the famed Magic Ball at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, you’ll need an elaborate costume or black tie attire. And if you’re feeling adventurous, throw some wacky stuff — feather boas, cowboy hats, oversized sunglasses — into your suitcase as well! You won’t need an excuse to don them.

Getting in the Spirit

One of my favorite parts of trip preparation is immersing myself in the destination’s culture. Music-wise, I’ve been enjoying the Brazilian samba mixes on 8tracks, especially songs like Ai Se Eu Te Pego by Michel Teló, Samba da Benção by Bebel Gilberto, and the original version of The Lambada (J-Lo‘s got nothing on Kaoma).

On the reading list is Carnival Under Fire, a portrait of Carnival-atmosphere Rio from Ruy Castro, one of Brazil’s best-known essayists. Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), a 1959 Marcel Camus film set during Carnival, also came highly recommended. And let’s not forget the apps! To practice your Portuguese, try downloading a free Portuguese language learning iPhone app from MindSnacks and the powerful Portuguese Brazilian Traveler Pro translator from Odyssey. There’s even a Carnival bloccos app to track the best street parties.

In part 2 of this guide, I’ll dive a little deeper into Carnival itself: the blocos, the balls, and the highlight of the whole festival: the samba school parades in the Sambódromo!

Check out the second installment of The ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio: parties and parades. And stay tuned for on-the-ground coverage of Rio Carnival 2012 starting on February 17th!

[Flickr images via [2], Laszlo Ilyes]

Fat Tuesday – top 5 places to party for Carnival

Fat Tuesday is the culmination of Mardi Gras, Carnival, Carnevale, and like minded celebrations that take place across the world today. From Guatemala to Greece, Fat Tuesday represents the last bastion of excess in Christian culture before the Lent fasting season begins. The streets pulse with energy and revelers don costumes, throw beads, shout sheenisms, and generally have a booze-fueled fantastic time.

So where are the top 5 places to throw down and party for Fat Tuesday?5. Venice
Venice provides the Italian atmosphere and throwback baroque charm to make you feel like you have stepped back in time a few centuries. Massive Parties are thrown at Piazza San Marco and thousands dress up in extravagant costumes to add an air of aristocracy to the Venetian streets. European revelers clog Venice’s narrow alleyways and bridges with a great time. The oldest Carnevale party in Venice took place in the 13th century, making Venice the original spot for the party.

4. Portugal
Portugal’s celebrations vary by region with some smaller cities incorporating pagan rituals into the “Carnaval” experience. The largest party in the country happens in Lisbon and is a very cosmopolitan experience. With famous dancers and a massive parade, it is easy to find a great time in colorful Lisbon. In northern Portugal, revelers dress up in colorful yellow, red, and green costumes with tin masks (pictured above) and consume a lot of meat.

3. Trinidad and Tobago
This tiny island hosts the largest Carnival experience in the Caribbean. The party lasts over a month and climaxes with a massive 3 day party in the Port of Spain that ends on Ash Wednesday. Steel pans and Calypso music echo out across the massive party as Trinidadians and Tobagonians dance to the beat while clutching cups filled with sugary rum. On the Monday before Fat Tuesday, revelers wear old clothes and cover themselves in mud, oil, and paint. Some dress as devils. On Fat Tuesday, the party hits overdrive and revelers enrobe themselves in their Carnival finery.

2. New Orleans
Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, and in the States, New Orleans is the place to take in the party. People come from all over the world for this French-American version of Carnival. The epicenter of the party is Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and Fat Tuesday is the apogee of the debauchery. With parades, beads, and hand grenades, it is hard not to have a great time in New Orleans.

1. Rio de Janeiro
The craziest and most intense carnival celebration takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Brazilians call it the greatest show on earth, and they make a valid point. Millions of people descend on the streets of Rio to dance the night away and gawk at Brazilian goddesses dressed in Samba costumes. The celebrations really take off the weekend before Ash Wednesday with the party exploding like a star on Fat Tuesday. Check out the video below to see what the world’s biggest party looked like in 1955.

flickr images via justindelaney and Rosina

Mardi Gras in New Orleans 2011, let the good times roll!

Today ends Carnival season in New Orleans, a two-week festival of parades and partying in leading up to the Christian Lenten period of sacrifice, and culminating in Shrove (or Fat) Tuesday and known to New Orleans residents as Mardi Gras. There are other Fat Tuesday celebrations throughout the world such as Rio’s Carnival, it’s most famous in America as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where around 1 million people travel each year to don colorful costumes, angle for beads, and drink out of “go-cups“. There is no single official Mardi Gras, but rather many public krewes who organize the parade floats and parties, often choosing a theme each year, and ride on the float tossing out beads. The revelry ends at midnight when Ash Wednesday – and some massive clean-up – begins.

Check out our gallery from Mardi Gras in New Orleans 2011. Want more Mardi Gras? Grab a slice of king cake, read our tips on how to make the most of Mardi Gras — and still remember it next year, and see more photos on AOL News.


[Photos courtesy Associated Press]

Pancakes for Shrove Tuesday, anyone?

Fat Tuesday and Shrove Tuesday are one in the same. And if you follow Shrove Tuesday’s pancake-eating rituals, your Tuesday this week is bound to feel fat. Otherwise known as Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent. Lent is a Christian tradition and the term is used to describe the liturgical year, the time of fasting and prayer between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

This practice was widely embraced before the Protestant Reformation. Although many Protestant churches still practice Lent, some do not. Growing up, my family switched between Pentecostal, Nazarene, and Baptist churches–I never practiced Lent. And since the practice involved giving up something I liked, I was happy not to participate. But pancakes? Fat Tuesday? I’ll eagerly dig in for these kinds of festivities each year.

With Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day happening tomorrow, the internet is abuzz with pancake recipes for this day of decadence. Thinking about whipping up some pancakes tomorrow? Here’s a little somethin’ to help you along the way.

Consider Pancakes, an informative article on Pancake Day and the pancakes involved by The Guardian.
And for perfectly thin pancakes for Pancake Day, The Guardian offers up this delicious-looking recipe:

“This is the approximate recipe we use at home for thin, crêpe-style pancakes. The batter will thicken as it rests, so if necessary gently stir in more milk until it’s the consistency of single cream. Makes about 20.

200g plain flour
3 eggs, lightly beaten
About 500ml milk
A knob of butter or a little vegetable oil, for frying
Lemons and caster sugar, for serving

Sift the flour into a bowl. Beat in the eggs and enough milk to make a batter that’s the consistency of single cream.

Heat a frying pan until very hot. Add the butter or oil and wipe off any excess with a wad of kitchen paper. Add a ladle of batter, tipping and tilting the pan so it’s evenly coated. The underside is done when you can lift it to see its golden underside. Flip or toss it over and cook the other side for barely a minute. Place on a warmed plate while you repeat with the rest of the batter. Serve with lemons and caster sugar”.

Read more pancake recipes from The Guardian here.