Rio Carnival 2012: Backstage at the Sambadrome parades

“Follow the feathers” was my strategy for finding the Sambadrome stadium in Brazil this past Sunday, the first evening of Rio Carnival‘s famed samba parades. The metro exit was packed with crowds moving in all different directions, so I had little choice but to follow the handful of people wearing large, extravagant costumes in front of me. They were obviously going where I needed to go.

The strategy worked out, because my costumed friends didn’t just lead me to the parade venue — they headed straight for the backstage staging area where hundreds of dancers and participants were being outfitted for the main event. As the costumed gentry walked through the security gates, I concealed myself in their feathers and followed along. Backstage access, secured.


The highlight of Rio de Janeiro‘s Carnival festivities, the Sambadrome parades are all-night marathon spectacles of samba school processions that take place over the Sunday and Monday of Carnival. The parades start at 8 p.m. and last until well past dawn, with about seven schools putting on elaborate shows of about an hour each.

Rio’s samba schools spend all year preparing for the parades, constructing huge floats, designing extravagant costumes, and of course, choreographing and practicing complex samba numbers. Each samba school chooses a theme and a story, usually related to some aspect of Brazilian culture. This year, for the first time, booklets were distributed to all guests that laid out each act of the parade, highlighted special celebrities, and listed the lyrics to each samba school’s signature marchinhas, or Carnival songs.

The work pays off. Thousands of people, Brazilians and tourists alike, pay up to $1500 for a chance to view the parades, and the results are followed as closely as the American Super Bowl. Schools are judged by ten categories, including theme, samba song, percussion band, harmony, flow and spirit, floats and props, costumes, vanguard group, flag carrying couple, and overall impression. This year, Unidas de Tijuca took the top prize, with a theme centered around folk singer Luiz Gonzaga and the culture of Brazil’s northeast region.

And the parades themselves? Breathtaking. The floats were massive, with mechanized figures and fountains. The costumes were gorgeous, and with the binoculars I borrowed from my neighbor, I could see the intricacies of the sequins and beading. The dancing was tremendous, and the 3,000 to 5,000 paraders exuded an energy that infected the entire stadium. Everyone was on their feet.

What words and photos can’t describe, hopefully this video can. Or, you could just start planning for next year.

Check out Gadling’s full range of Rio Carnival 2012 coverage here.

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,]

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]

Attend the World’s Biggest Party on a Six-Day “Carnival in Rio” Tour

A new tour by the Adventure Center will allow travelers to fully experience both the city of Rio, Brazil, as well as the biggest party in the world, Carnival. The “Carnival in Rio” tour is six days long, taking place from February 17-22, 2012, and features a full tour of Rio, with some of the highlights being:

  • visit to Maracana Stadium
  • cable car ride up Sugar Loaf Mountain
  • grandstand seating in the Sambadrome, a competition of the Samba Schools in Brazil, during the parade (this is one of biggest events of Carnival, and dancers prepare for over a year)
  • an option to attend lavish parties such as the celebrity-studded Red and Black Ball and the over-the-top Scala Gay Costume Ball
  • visit the world’s biggest urban rainforest, Tijuca Forest

While guests experience the culture of Rio during the day they can spend their nights at the adrenaline-fueled parties of Carnival. See elaborate costumes, sequin encrusted floats, exceptional dance choreography, and more. A local guide will also be on hand to give travelers insight into the local culture of Rio and its most famous party.

For more information or to book your trip, click here.

Carnival in Rio: Behind the scenes of Brazil’s famous fest

It’s summertime in Rio de Janeiro, which brings hot, humid days–sometimes of breathtaking intensity. Afternoon thunderstorms provide occasional relief, though these often erupt without warning, sending everyone scattering for cover under the awning of the nearest juice bar as the skies open up.

Summer also coincides with the tremendous spectacle of Carnival, held in Rio on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. This year, Carnival officially begins on Friday, February 12th, when the mayor gives the keys of the city to King Momo, the portly pleasure-seeker who ushers in the bacchanalia. The next four days are marked by neighborhood parties, lavish masked balls, open-air concerts on stages all over town and the all-night Technicolor parades held in the specially designed Sambadrome.

When I arrived in mid-January, the city was on holiday for the patron saint of Rio, Sao Sebastiao (the city still has many holidays that revolve around Catholic traditions, Carnival being the best known). Rua Visconde de Piraja, a normally bustling thoroughfare through Ipanema, was empty. Meanwhile a few streets over, the long narrow shoreline was packed. From the rocky outcropping overlooking Ipanema beach, all I could see was a dense mass of yellow umbrellas, with vendors barking their wares (‘Agua! Mate! Cerveja!‘; water, sweet tea, beer) as they wound through a maze of beach chairs and supine sunbathers, racing children and arcing soccer balls. Cyclists and joggers sped along the beachside path, which appeared to run like a straight line into the magnificent green peaks of Dois Irmaos (‘two brothers’) rising majestically in the distance.For most Cariocas, especially residents of Ipanema and neighboring Leblon–another well-heeled district–Carnival was still weeks away. But for those involved in the samba schools, the grand fest was a rapidly approaching deadline for work that had begun many months back. In Rio, all eyes turn to the favelas during Carnival. Sometimes translated as ‘slums’, these informal shantytowns contain as many as one in six residents and cover huge swaths of the forested hillsides around town. Several dozen of the favelas are home to escolas de samba (samba schools), around which the entire celebration revolves. In favelas like Mangueira and Salgueiro (two of the top samba schools), drum corps have been practicing for months, choreographers busily working on routines for dancers numbering in the thousands, while seamstresses piece together the elaborate costumes that will, with luck, bring their school top honors.

On a clear day later in the week, I joined my friend Aurelio who lives up in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. Like many of the favelas in the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city), Rocinha enjoys stunning views from its hillside perch, behind which the surrounding tropical forest threatens to envelop the building. From the Terraco da Gavea, an open-sided performance space that Aurelio inaugurated late last year, we could see the solid rock monolith of Pedra da Gavea and hang gliders skimming through the air on a lazy descent from another rockface (Pedra Bonita) to the beach 500 meters below.

Five young drummers from the drum section, all dressed in white, were laying down a rapid-fire set of beats, the rhythms resounding off the concrete walls. As they played, a pair of dancers emerged and worked through some samba steps and spins.

Here a few visitors had gathered to watch a show by some of Rocinha’s escola de samba members. Five young drummers from the bateria (drum section), all dressed in white, were laying down a rapid-fire set of beats, the rhythms resounding off the concrete walls. As they played, a pair of dancers emerged (he in white suit, she in a twirling sequined costume) and worked through some samba steps and spins. Later, a man with a microphone joined in, singing a few traditional samba enredos (theme songs) over the beats. Also on hand was a film crew from TV Roc (a Rocinha-based TV station) to shoot footage for a weekly show covering goings-on inside the favela.

Afterward I chatted with some of the school members. Despite their relative youth, all of them had played in past Carnivals and were excited about the upcoming ensaio tecnico, when they would do a practice run inside the Sambadrome (fans and anyone else could come for free to watch these rehearsals). This year, Rocinha’s theme was Ykamiabas, a mythical tribe of female warriors from the Amazon. Courage, a love of nature and magic amulets were all part of the story, which would be related in the song that everyone marching for the school would have to learn.

Preparations for Carnival begin early in the year, when the carnavalesco, or creative director of the school, sets about choosing the theme, selecting the costumes and overseeing general design plans. In October, school supporters help choose the song. I recall a night some years back standing in the steamy halls of Imperatriz, one of the top-tier escolas de samba, as four different puxadores (the lead singers of a school), auditioned songs for the audience, who subsequently voted for their favorite by roaring in approval. It was also the night when they were introduced to the regally dressed couple who would present the school to the judges: the mestre-sala and his spinning queen, the porta-bandeira (flag bearer). As one of the school’s main focal points, the pair must give a flawless performance as they twirl through the Sambadrome. Then there are supporting roles like the couple’s core passistas (the best dancers of the school) and the rainha da bateria (the queen of the drum section, often a well-known singer or soap opera star), the baianas (women with oversized hoop skirts who spin like whirling dervishes through the parade) and the carros alegoricos, or giant mechanized floats, atop which the school’s notoriously underdressed dancers show off their samba skills.

In the 1920s, the new sound of samba emerged. It was a music full of African flavors, brought to the city by former slaves and their poor descendents. It was a sound that would forever be associated with Carnival.

Although the origins of Carnival are shrouded in mystery, some believe it all began as a pagan celebration to mark spring’s arrival during the Middle Ages. The Portuguese brought the celebration to Brazil in the 1500s but it took on a local flavor by the introduction of Indian costumes and African rhythms. (The word itself probably derives from the Latin carne vale, “goodbye meat”, whereby the Catholic population would give up meat and other fleshly temptations during the 40 days of Lent.)

The first festivals in Rio were called entrudos, with locals marching through the streets in colorful costumes and throwing mud, flour and suspicious-smelling liquids on one another. In the 19th century, Carnival meant attending a lavish masked ball or participating in the orderly but rather vapid European-style parade. Rio’s poor citizens, bored by the finery but eager to celebrate, began holding their own parades, dancing through the streets to African-based rhythms. Then in the 1920s, the new sound of samba emerged in Rio. It was a music full of African flavors, brought to the city by former slaves and their poor descendents. It was a sound that would forever be associated with Carnival–as even the upper class adopted the celebrations happening on the streets.

Since those days, Carnival has grown in leaps and bounds, and this year Rio is spending in excess of R$100 million (US$54 million) to throw the party. For some Cariocas, Carnival is all just a bit too much, and they prefer to escape to a quieter locale (though everywhere in Brazil celebrates Carnival). Others look forward to the merry-making, beginning with the 420 street parades (called blocos) happening around town over the next few weeks.

When I left Rocinha that afternoon, Aurelio invited me to join the school in the technical rehearsal through the Sambadrome. There was also much more to come with open-air concerts, costumed balls and spontaneous street parties popping up around town–all made livelier by the entrance of merry makers flying in from all across the globe.

I’m excited to see what happens next week as the unfolding celebration takes to the streets.

Read Part 2 of this series, “Rio’s Big Fest: Carnival Hits the Streets.”