Although Carnival is celebrated all over, Rio de Janeiro has long been regarded as the Carnival capital of the world. Rio Carnival 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 the tips and advice from our on-the-ground team of cariocas (Rio locals), will hopefully provide a starting point for planning your own Carnival excursion.
Carnival is the last major event of the Brazilian summer. It officially begins on the Saturday before Lent and continues until Shrove Tuesday, however, the city begins gearing up for the festival several weeks beforehand. Do what the locals do and show up early for the festivities; The party itself runs from Feb 28th to about March 1st, so it’s best to fly in around Feb 22nd and leave around March 2nd. The general consensus among locals is that the best of Rio’s Carnival is the pre-carnival, when the city isn’t crowded with tourists and the carnival blocks are emptier.
Brazil operates a reciprocal visa system, which means that if your home country requires Brazilian nationals to obtain a visa, then in turn, you’ll need one to go to Brazil. Holders of British passports don’t need a visa for visits of up to 90 days, but U.S. and Australian citizens do. For more information contact the Brazilian Consulate in your home country before you go.
Most out-of-town Carnival-goers fly into Rio’s international Aerporto Galeãto airport or the Aeroporto Santos Dumont, the domestic airport which is located in the Centro District. From Galeãto you can take an air-conditioned bus into the city or Zona Sul for about $2. If you have lots of luggage, an air-conditioned taxi to Copacabana will cost you around $30. Brazil has a reasonable bus network so if you’re traveling around the country on a budget you might consider a long bus journey as an alternative to an expensive airfare.
What to Pack:
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 definitely won’t need an excuse to don them.
If you want to be closest to action, look for accommodations in Zona Sul, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Ipanema, Leblon, and Copacabana. Our best Rio rental homes are located here, so it’s a good idea to take a look our current availability to make a reservation beforehand. Tickets to the Parade at the Sambodrome go on sale two weeks before Carnival, so if you decide to go, arrange yours in advance since the day-of prices are at a premium.
Getting around town is cheap. Buses charge a standard one-way fare of 50 cents, and a single ticket on the metro costs under a dollar. These days, all taxis are fitted with a meter but make sure the driver turns it on when you get in. Plus, Uber has become huge in Brazil so snagging a quick ride shouldn’t be a problem.
The Samba Parade is the most publicized event of the Rio Carnival, with footage and pictures beamed across Brazil and all around the world. If you can afford to fork out for a ticket, it’ll be a night you’ll never forget. If not, hang around outside the Sambodrome and check out the fabulous floats and people in costume who are preparing for their 20 minutes in the limelight. Carnival Balls take place every night of the festival, some of which are glamorous affairs that attract plenty of celebs and society darlings of all genders, but only open to people with a few hundred bucks to burn.
Most of the smaller venues in Rio organize alternative balls, which are like regular clubs and tickets cost a fraction of the price. Plus, you can also party on the streets from 7 am – literally. Locals call them bloquinhos, which are really nothing more than a truck with a good sound system riding around town inciting block parties. This year they’ll be around 500 of them and they’re totally free.
Look the Part:
With this crowd in the streets, you wouldn’t want to go unnoticed, right? The traditional “bride” costumes and “man dressed like woman” are sooo last season. People generally wear a different costume for each day of the festival, so try to switch things up if possible. With most costumes being more elaborate than many visitors are used to, you’ll need to average yourself about 3 hours of costume prep, so don’t make things too complex. And last but not least, remember that February is summer in the South Hemisphere and the phrase “Rio 40 Degrees” is absolutely 100% true.
Taking part in the Samba Parade costs around US$200. What you’re actually paying for is the costume, which cannot be hired as the school’s themes change each year. It’s yours to keep afterward if you can fit it into the overhead lockers on the plane home, that is. A ticket to one of Rio’s more glamorous Carnival balls, such as the Copacabana Palace Ball, costs upwards of US$200. If this is way out of your budget don’t despair: many of the clubs in Rio organize a Carnival ball and as they only charge around US$20 per ticket, these events are more popular with the backpacking crowd.
During the summer the locals spend every spare minute at the beach soaking up the sun, hanging out in the sand, and swimming or playing football (soccer). While the ordinary folk flock to the horseshoe-shaped beach of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon attract a more fashionable crowd. Check out our Rio neighborhood guides for recommendations on the best local bars and eateries in these areas.
Parque Nacional da Tijuca covers some 120 square kilometers and just 20 minutes from the center of Rio, it’s the largest city park in the world. The whole area around Rio was once covered by dense Atlantic rainforest, and the park’s trails, waterfalls, rocky peaks and dense vegetation give the hiker an awe-inspiring sense of what it was like before the city sprung up.
Rio de Janeiro is not the only carnival in Brazil. You’ll find local events going on in towns and villages throughout the country. Salvador in the state of Bahia is less than a 2-hour flight and popular with travelers looking for an alternative to Rio. Carnival in Trinidad is yet another take on the Carnival tradition. The French brought masked balls and staid street parades to Trinidad in the eighteenth century, but it was emancipated slaves who imbued the festival with Afro-Caribbean culture. Notting Hill Carnival in London, which takes place over the last weekend in August, took its cue from Rio and Trinidad and with input from the local community has become Europe’s biggest street party.
If you’re looking for comfort and convenience during Carnival without ostentation, take a look at our Rio collection of handpicked homes for rent. And for more information on our other destinations, visit our website or download the Oasis app for iOS.