With Carnival fast approaching (beginning February 24), you may want to start making preparations. If you have not yet made any arrangements, be ready to shell out some serious cash, or maybe start thinking about next year. If you already have your plan in place, here are a few things I would have liked to known prior to my attendance last year!
1. You Should Plan Ahead
You must book far in advance, before prices skyrocket even further and places fill up. My sister and I went to Carnival last year (2016) and began our planning in May 2015, before I set my quit my job plan in motion. We found hostels are roughly four times more expensive than their normal price which can be expected for the event of the year!
2. You Can Still Eat on a Budget
While there are fancy schmancy restaurants and infamous Brazilian steakhouses to splurge on, you can also find enormous, quality meals for under $4. These places are usually found away from the beaches, on a corner, with tables set up behind a fence. You will know you are at the right place when the menu is in Portuguese and there are locals drinking beer.
3. “Blocos” Are Where It’s At
Blocos are the street parties that occur throughout the day over the course of Carnival (and even before and after). Essentially masses of people are following a float that is blasting Brazilian music through the streets of Rio. You will find folks in costume or minimal costume (read: basically naked). There are men dressed as women, there are women dressed as men, there are the drunkest, sweatiest people right inside your personal bubble. There are street vendors selling beer and small cans of sugary, hangover inducing malt beverages for a very reasonable price, mind you! A bloco is the ultimate celebration with up to 200,000 of your closest friends. My favorite bloco had a band that performed samba versions of Beatles songs! Even though the Brazilian songs are super catchy, it is more fun when you can sing along. Na-na-na-na-na-na-na hey Jude.
4. Caipirinhas are Lethal
The caipirinha is the national drink of Brazil. It is made from a cane sugar liquor, sugar, and lime. Believe it or not, the more sugar in the drink, the easier it is to suck them down. Of course you will try one, it is the national drink after all. In fact, you will probably have two. But let me be the voice of reason for one moment. Three at lunchtime results in a 7:30pm bedtime and a hazy afternoon at a bloco consisting of tears and getting lost. But hey, maybe that’s your thing.
5. It’s Hot
I can mark this week as the time I took the greatest number of showers in the shortest period of time. I think I was averaging 3 per day. Temperatures reached a scorching 100+ degrees Fahrenheit (about 40+ celsius). Do yourself a favor and ensure your accommodation has air conditioning. Lesson learned on this one.
6. You Can Still Be a Tourist
Is this your first time in Rio de Janeiro? Of course you must take in those famous sights. A day dedicated to sightseeing may be a welcomed hiatus to break up the madness of Carnival. Christ the Redeemer will still be crowded as all hell, but maybe less so than the streets of a party down below.
7. You May or May Not Be Robbed
You may have heard about pickpockets, you may have heard about muggings, and you may have heard about Ryan Lochte which is totally irrelevant here. Be alert and keep your wits about you. Don’t bring valuables with you and definitely don’t leave them loose in your pocket. Avoid the beaches at nighttime. Don’t make yourself a target. My sister and I were not pickpocketed or mugged, but we did speak to those who were. It is an unfortunate reality during such a high profile event, so just be careful.
However, I was stolen from in a sneaky ATM scam. Have you seen those videos where people pull card readers off the front of an ATM? Well I hadn’t. I had $750 taken from my account over three transactions (despite having my card in hand) and had to deal with the frustrations of trying to file a claim abroad while traveling in a city that relied heavily on cash. In the end, my bank sent me a new card and reimbursed my money, but be careful with the ATMs in Rio. I was not the only casualty of this scam.
I would have more pictures for this post, but I heeded my own advice and rarely brought my phone or camera out!
8. Sunscreen and Water– Don’t Leave Home without Them
Carnival 2016 will forever be etched in my mind as the place with the reddest, most sunburnt people (tourists I presume) I have ever seen. Protect your skin and stay hydrated!
9. It’s For People of All Ages
Carnival doesn’t discriminate. People young and old are out on the streets and having the time of their lives.
10. The Parade at the Sambadrome is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
The Sambadrome is the venue of the official parades where the various samba schools show off their costumes, dance moves, and impeccable floats. It is ultimately a contest with qualifying rounds, so the later in the week that you attend, the higher quality samba school performances you will see. You can buy tickets in one of the 12 sectors and a majority do not assign seats within the sector. In order to secure the best possible seat, you must arrive early and stake your claim.
We arrived three hours early and nabbed the best possible seats in our section (probably too early). Now keep in mind six samba schools will perform. Each performance lasts about an hour and a half with time in between to swap to the next school. So if samba school number 1 begins at 9pm and we stayed for 4 samba schools and X is the time we left the sambadrome, solve for X. Answer: really effing late, like 4:30am with 2 schools still left to perform! The experience is incredible and the costumes and floats are exquisite. Just know, you are in for a long one!
11. Portuguese is Helpful, Spanish is NOT
I don’t speak a lick of Portuguese and I was surprised to find many locals do not speak any English. I had just spent the previous six weeks in Spanish speaking countries of South America and decided Spanish must be closer to Portuguese than English. It’s not. Lesson learned: miming for the win. To get you started, take a card from your hotel or hostel’s address to show your taxi driver. Eat carne asada; drink caipirinhas (kye-pi-REEN-ya well that’s how I say it ?). That will buy you some time to learn more useful words and phrases.
12. It Takes Dedication
To be honest, I don’t know how Brazilians can celebrate five days of Carnival on an annual basis. I personally couldn’t hang for five days…well one time! While I do see the appeal, five days of hot, sweaty, drunk bodies in my personal space started to wear on me. I typically don’t like the saying, “once in a lifetime,” because, dammit, if I enjoy something I will be sure to do it more than once. For me, Carnival is a once in a lifetime experience. Happy to have done it, but fine never doing it again.
I would like to wrap this up with a summary of a few small pieces of advice:
- Book ahead!
- Stay in a hostel to get insight on the best blocos, where they are, and when to be there
- Don’t show up late to a bloco: these are literally shows on wheels and they can be gone if you are fashionably late
- Don’t carry valuables to blocos or the beach
- Wear sunscreen
- Check the ATM before withdrawing. Pull on things. Keep an eye on your checking account for funny business
- Book a room with air conditioning
- Even and odd sectors enter from completely different locations at the Sambadrome. Like different subway stops, different taxi drop off points…that far apart!
- You will realize your sector at the Sambadrome is not that significant after you have been there for 8 hours. There is plenty of time to see the parade, whether it is in front of your face or not.
- You will wait in a very long line to catch a taxi home from the Sambadrome, even if you leave early.
- Cans called Skol=hangovers
I can’t let the last word of this post be hangovers. Ugh, again. Crap.