Mardi Gras is a wild time in New Orleans and celebrated across America but its inspiration, and one of the biggest parties on the planet, is the Carnival in Rio when the graceful, historic city is overtaken with Samba and Caiparinha’s (more on that below). I was amazed to find myself in the middle of it this year.
Museums close. Cathedrals lock their door behind fences and the frenzy roars through neighborhoods all over the city during the days before Lent begins with street parties (costumed crowds gather until critical mass hits) and private events(some ticketed and dearly for the privilege,) but the biggest extravaganza reigns in the ‘Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí’, or Sambadrom stadium, on the weekend.
Visit my Pinterest page for more Brazil pictures
Any pictures or YouTube clips of the official parade can’t do it justice. There’s nothing to compare with the pounding drumbeat and contagious buzz of watching the best of the Samba schools compete for top awards.
The Sambadrom is quite an edifice and basically a glorified alley where thousands of dancers and dozens of floats enter at one end to dance and sing as they traverse nearly a mile of track and exit at the other end. Most seating is reserved months in advance and I was fortunate as my family’s new Brazilian daughter-in-law arranged for impressive mezzanine seats at a fraction of what it cost the cruise ship group who sat next to us.
Sambadrom Tip 1:
Have a Portuguese speaking friend to research Brazilian websites for the best deals or arrange with a Brazilian agency for best options.
The Sambadrom was built in 1984 by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who conceived the unique structure as the ultimate setting for showcasing the talent, music and spectacle of Samba for a live audience and the media. When we were there a new building covered in scaffolding loomed over the stadium. Looks like it’ll be ready in plenty of time for the World Cup Soccer Competitions this summer and the 2016 Olympic Games.
We arrived early – about 8:30 pm. The show began about 10 pm to go all night until the 8 selected samba schools are finished. Arriving before the bulk of the crowds gave us time to take in the immensity and layout of the place. We were almost directly across from the judges booth, which led to seeing the best of the performances as each group stopped and displayed their finest footwork, choreography and crowd-pleasing costume changes. A motorized camera rig and boom swiveled into position and camera operators filled the bridge above the fray.
Sambadrom Tip 2:
Bring water, beer or pre-mixed Caiparinha’s, iced and in plastic bottles with you into the stadium. Glass and canned drinks aren’t allowed. Snacks are another good idea so you won’t miss anything while waiting in line at the food stands. If you’re in stadium seats, pack a towel or cushion to be more comfortable sitting on the cement bleachers.
The night was mercifully cooler than daytime but still sticky and humid for my family accustomed to a cooler climate. Once the show began it wasn’t hard to stay awake, dancing along and mesmerized by the spectacle, as each school worked hard to outdo the last. I’m a morning person but had no trouble hanging on till 3am when our small group voted to head out.
Once the announcers started blasting their welcome it was clear that the adrenalin behind the scenes far outpaced what the waiting crowd was initially feeling. In moments drumming began and we could just spy a crowd of dancers followed by immense floats at the far end of the stadium. It took about 90 minutes for each of the groups to make their way from one end of the stadium to the other. Each school incorporated hundreds of dancers and the most celebrated groups created 2 to 5 shining and opulent floats, bouncing and crowded with performers. Competitions began last year to find the best song for each school and to choose a theme for the Carnival in Rio.
My favorite was the Uniao de Parque Curicica school and its exploration of the history of Cachaca, the sugar cane liquor that is ubiquitous and cheap throughout the country. The costumes mixed natural elements with bright tubes representing sugar cane. Some dancers portrayed the elements, trees, slaves, colonists, miners and millers but always the most shapely and skimpily clad dancers elicited the largest most cheers.
Sambadrom Tip 3:
Don’t miss a Caipirinha cocktail for a delicious cooling drink when in Rio. It’s something like a Margarita without the salt but served over ice with Cachaca and lots of fresh, muddled lime. Delicious and habit forming! We brought our own (you were allowed 500 liters of liquid per person in a plastic container.)
My second favorite performance was the Viadouro samba school ( It was really something to keep me excited at 1am) and their exploration of the history of Rio through the lens of the community of Niteroi, which lies across the bay from Rio proper. The detailed and over-the-top costumes featured historical Portuguese nobility, fishermen and mythical creatures among dozens of other characters. The Queen’s performance and feathers, her beauty and poise were the best of the night (Each school has a Queen highlighted in the midst of their performance.)
On our way out we ran into a colorful couple while waiting for our shuttle back to the hotel. They were from Croatia and had arranged to dance with a Samba school. It was a long distance arrangement. First they were responsible for purchasing costumes, then arriving in Rio in time for fittings and at least one rehearsal. On the evening their school was performing they marched through the mile long parade route in the midst of hundreds of dancers, in front of many thousands of audience members and millions of viewers on TVs worldwide.
Even if you can’t make it to Carnival in Rio, you can still enjoy the spirit of the celebration at Samba City, a park set up in Rio where you can learn the history of the event, try on some of the costumes and test your feet in lessons with some of the Samba schools.
Another site with info about all things Carnaval and the schools is: http://www.carnivalbookers.com/rio-de-janeiro/samba-schools/
Whatever moves you to celebrate Carnival or Mardi-Gras, find some feathers and glitter, friends and don some form of costume. It’s all in good fun.
Visit my Pinterest page for more pictures from Around Brazil and Carnival in Rio.
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Elaine, What fun! I think I’ve always been a little intimidated when it comes to Carnival parades. People seem to get crazy! But your photos are gorgeous and make it look so much fun!
Thanks, Corinne. I know what you mean about big crowds being intimidating. I find the exhausting sometimes but the night time Carnival made it much easier. It’s cooler and was beautifully organized.
I’ve been wanting to go to Rio for Carnival for years. I really enjoyed your photos and especially the tips. Very good to remember for whenever I eventually do go.
Thanks, Vicki, I hope you get the chance. Carnival is full of delights and Brazil, well, words don’t do it justice.
Wow 500 litres is a lot of liquid per person! My friend went to Carnival in Rio about 30 years ago and is still talking about it. She said you had to leave valuables at home because pick pockets were rife afterwards. You had fantastic seats!!
Hi Jan, We wandered Rio for days during Carnival and not without encountering any criminal problems. Perhaps it was street smarts and being experienced travelers but we never felt threatened. Yes on the seats. We sat just below a group from a cruise ship who paid ten times what our seats and transportation cost!!
Wow! What a party! Carnival in Rio de Janeiro looks like a blast and a half. I love the costumes and can just feel myself dancing as I read your story! Thanks for sharing.
Yes, Vicki, let’s dance. You can’t help it in the Sambadrome.
I doubt I’ll ever get to Carnival in Rio, but I did enjoy your images. I will, however, be going to the second-largest Mardi Gras in the U.S. next week in Lake Charles, LA!
You are so fortunate. I’ve heard wonderful things about visiting Lake Charles anytime of year.
Carnaval has never been on my bucket list; honestly, I didn’t know much about it, but I usually steer away from celebrations like this. However, your post was interesting, and I’m sure your experience was made much better by having a new Brazilian family member!
Thanks, Tami. I wasn’t sure how I’d like it either but the Sambadrome experience was so well organized that we had no problems with feeling pinched by the crowd. There was always something to watch and do. We truly would’ve been at a loss if it weren’t for Vanessa’s help.
That sounds like it was so much fun! I love going to festivals in other countries and seeing what amazing displays they put on. Even though you say your photos don’t do it justice, they still make me want to see it for myself. Great job.
Thanks, Erin. I love what you share and post as well. Happy travels.
Fantastic what an experience! I remember having a friend who went and was completely mesmerized and vowed to return to Brazil for good one day. he kept dreaming of that day and kept returning for carnival. Eventually, he moved and moved back out shortly after. the experience of going there for fun is not the same as living there
So true about visiting vs. living in a place. Also though I speak a smattering of Spanish it’s little good in a country where Portuguese is prevalent. Big difference and it made it difficult to connect with people as much as I’d like.
What a fun experience to see the dances at The Sambadrom. We have been to New Orleans to visit but never around Mardi Gras season… can only imagine the energy dance and music in Rio at carnival time. Thanks for sharing and taking us on a virtual trip!
It was truly incredible, a true sensory overload in the best way. I’m forever grateful to our Brazilian daughter-in-law for making the arrangements.
I am not big into juves but I am sure carnival is fun. Sounds like you had a great time.
I’m not a big crowd person either but knowing what we were getting into and pacing ourselves, making sure we had enough food and water all made it easy. So glad it worked out.
Wow! It looks so much fun! I have to go there for the carnival one day! 🙂
Truly fun. I hope you make it one day. I love Brazil.
Wow, what an amazing experience to have been in Brazil for Carnival. You’ve supplied great tips on how to best view the amazing Samba School experiences, especially packing those tasty caipirinhas!
I know that was a bit sneaky!! But a necessary ‘evil.’
Great tips! I’ve never been to Brazil but can only imagine the energy that takes over Rio during carnival.
So much fun and we never felt overwhelmed or in danger, as I have in some big American cities. Perhaps it’s street smarts but I think the grace of Brazil goes deep.
Your comment about how this needs to be experienced in person seems correct. For some things, photos and even videos don’t quite capture the atmospheric elements of a place/event!
Media can give us hints and wafts of a place, an event, but there’s little way to experience the full sensory overload of something like the Sambadrome or Rio at Carnival.
Wow it’s quite an affair isn’t it. Would love to get to this party at one point in my life. I enjoyed looking at your Pinterest pictures – you took some great shots!
Thanks, Alice, I’ve learned a lot about photography since too. Appreciate your kudos.
We got to experience carnival in Spain last year and carnival in Brazil is on my bucket list! I hadn’t heard of the Sambadrom, but your tips are great! Hopefully they will come in handy for us one day! 😉
I hope you can get there. So worth the planning and expense.
This has been on my bucket list for forever! What a great experience to have.
One day! Brazil is party central as far as I can tell with Carnival rolling out across the country over a few months.
Carnival in Rio has never been on my bucket list because the crowds would be too much for me but when I look at photos like this it makes me change my mind. I bet you’re right that any pictures or YouTube clips of the official parade can’t do it justice. I need to see it with my own eyes.
One day I imagine that you just might get there. Fingers crossed.
I would LOVE the chance to join in the party one year!! Thanks for sharing your experience and tips – noted on finding a Portuguese friend to scour Brazilian websites for deals – that’s an awesome tip. Thanks!
Glad you found this helpful. It’s an experience of a lifetime.
Wow, the costumes are beautiful. Never something I would consider going to (too many people for me) but it actually looks like a lot of fun!
There are lots of people for certain and I’m not a big fan of crowds either but with planning and knowing what you’re getting into, you couldn’t help but have an incredible time.