Ready to cross the biggest, sexiest, most energetic, most glamorous party in the world off of your bucket list? Read on to get a handle on the context and recommended steps for attending Carnaval in Brazil.
What is Carnaval?
Carnaval, or Carnival in English, is the Brazilian version of a seasonal festival that occurs in some Christian societies ahead of the 40-day period of fasting known as Lent. Generally occurring in February or March, Carnaval in Brazil is marked by massive street parties, samba song and dance competitions, concerts, and performances and is generally recognized as having the largest presence in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, the second and fourth largest cities in Brazil, respectively.
How did Carnaval come to be in Brazil?
The first carnivals arose from Western Christian traditions in Italy and Southern Europe, and their origins made their way over to Brazil and the rest of South America with the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish colonialists. Over time, Carnaval in Brazil has taken on many influences ranging from Southern European to African. Over the 300 or so years of the slave trade to Brazil, African slaves are thought to have introduced and incorporated into the Portuguese traditions many of the cultural manifestations we associate with Brazilian Carnival today, such as decorations, masks, jewelry, drumming and Brazil’s extensive gamut of lively music.
What are the various types of Carnavals in Brazil? How are they different?
Though you may be most familiar with the postcard image of the Rio Carnaval, the festival is actually held in dozens of cities spread across the 26 states of this continentally sized country. Some of the biggest celebrations outside of the Rio edition are Salvador, Recife (Olinda), Natal and Ouro Preto, to name just a few. Generally speaking, Brazilian Carnival held in the Northeastern capitals (such as Salvador and Recife) are known for carrying even stronger African influence (and a wider range of musical styles) than their counterparts in the South and Southeast.
What kind of music can you expect at Rio Carnaval?
Modern Brazilian music encompasses dozens if not hundreds of genres and sub-genres. The Southeastern Carnaval celebrations, especially that in Rio, are marked most importantly by samba, but you’ll also hear a lot of Funk and acoustic pagode carried by stringed instruments. Salvador is famous for the heavy bass and wind instrument patterns of Axé music as well as Bahian pagode, which is different from the Southeastern variety in that it carries less guitar-based rhythms and more intense drum patterns. Further to the Northeast, in Recife, you’re most likely to find Frevo. In the South, and especially in Florianópolis, during Carnaval you’re most likely to vibe out to the most central music of the state of Catarina—booming vocal-laden Electronic a la Sam Feldt and Calvin Harris. The point is, a hyper-diverse range of musical styles is fair game across Brazil during Carnaval, and that’s just one feature that makes the several years of dedication needed to explore all of the country’s offerings even more worthwhile.
What is the Sambadrome?
The Sambódromo Marques de Sapucaí is an enormous amphitheater-style venue seating an impressive 90,000 people, with a long roadway running through it built for viewing the samba parades and competition that takes place for over a week during Carnaval. To conceptualize the nationally televised samba competition that occurs each February or March at the Sambódromo, it’s probably easiest to think of this as Brazil’s equivalent of a Super Bowl of samba. This is the place where Rio’s samba schools put on their exhibitions, flaunting extravagant floats, world-class art and dance to the applause of tens of thousands of spectators—and my, is it a genuinely one-of-a-kind sight to behold. Besides the thousands of seats for individual spectators, the Sambódromo houses several camarotes—VIP box sections built up each year to host lavish private viewing parties, replete with internal bands, DJs, open bars and restaurants during the festival.
This 2017 Bloomberg article, while already slightly dated, highlights some important principles and tactics for scoring tickets to spectate the competition at the Sambadrome without having to commit the thousands that might be required for some of the high-end camarotes.
What is a bloco and how do they differ from city to city?
In its simplest form, a bloco is a street or block party. But these take different forms from relatively informal to super organized all across the many iterations of Carnaval. In Rio, the city has been known to host as many as 500 different blocos across the two major weeks of the month leading into the peak of Carnaval. Gatherings might include sound carts, sound trucks, DJs and dancing. In Salvador, blocos tend to be more specific gatherings surrounding a specific band or musical performance, and often require a special band-specific matching tank top, called an abadá, to attend. One major difference you can expect is that while in Rio, festivalgoers often wear Halloween-style costumes as they join in the revelry of their costumes, in Salvador the main piece of distinctive clothing associating one with any specific bloco is the abadá.
How do you know where the blocos are happening?
There are several sites publishing the expected schedule of blocos in both of the major Carnaval cities. Although since the Salvador blocos follow a specific lineup in the two major circuits (the more famous Barra-Ondina circuit, and more heavily Afro-Brazilian influenced Campo Grande circuit) do expect a greater degree of spontaneity in Rio in general.
For Rio, the best page to check out for official bloco scheduling tends to be Globo’s G1 news outlet; for Salvador, check out the official Carnaval Salvador Bahia page, and be prepared to use your browser’s translation tool!
What is a Camarote?
Camarote, a term common in Brazilian party lingo, simply refers to a VIP area, table, or otherwise private section for spectating. Camarotes can range from the more conventional (a set of private couches in a nightclub) to the more lavish and extravagant (a walled off section of the Sambadrome amphitheater with private entrance, security, food, drink, internal stages, and bottomless drinks from private bars).
What are some of the can't miss Camarotes?
In Rio, there are several higher-end VIP offerings within the Sambadrome, some with eye-popping price tags and some that are more moderately priced. You can expect to pay anywhere from about 100 USD for the lowest-end offerings to as much as 2000 USD for the ultra premium VIP experiences. A couple of options starting with more moderately priced options are Camarote Allegria (known for having a younger clientele), Camarote do King, Camarote Club Arpoador, Camarote Portela, and Rio Exxperience, just to name a few. If it’s the high-end you’re after, and prioritize being around the A-listers, you’ll want to consider Nosso Camarote, Camarote Rio, or the infamous Camarote N. 1, which is one of the go-to party destinations for many of Brazil’s hottest celebs, models, and athletes. Pro-tip: try using your Google Chrome browser to translate some of these event-specific webpages; for better or worse, you’ll come to find that most tend to be targeted at a high-end Brazilian as opposed to international audience.
In Salvador, you can expect a similar range of overall pricing—everything from mid-level to the cream of the crop—specifically, the exquisite and nationally known Camarote Salvador. This year, we found Camarote Harém, just a couple of doors down the Barra-Ondina circuit from Camarote Salvador, to offer just the right blend of high end but with approachable crowds, with a more accessible price point (about 600 BRL or right around 160 USD). For that price, we enjoyed a concert on the top floor by Harmonia do Samba, one of Bahia’s most famous Axé music bands, all night DJs, unlimited drinks and food, and privileged views of the dancing parade on the street below. Considering that we danced until 6 am, this is truly not bad in dollar terms when you really think about all that you’re getting!
Where do you buy Camarote Tickets?
Generally, each Camarote is run by a private events company. In the case of Rio, these events houses tend to have independent sites offering entrance that can be purchased online. You can find a summary of the experience and sign up for newsletter updates in the Camarote luxury suite section of the official Sambadrome website.
In the case of Salvador, there are some great consolidated websites offering links to the sale of abadás for multiple camarotes and blocos, all in the same place. Central do Carnaval is an exceptionally useful page aggregating many of your best options in one place—and notice you can toggle the language to English or Spanish at the top of the page, which really helps.
How do you dress for Brazilian Carnaval?
Dress is all going to depend on the venue and the event. For street Carnaval, especially in Rio will involve dressing for warm weather, but with more pizazz as ladies are likely to be adorned with face jewels and glitter. Men and women tend to take up the opportunity to wear costumes, especially ones that poke fun at social dynamics in the fashion of what Brazilians do best—satire. (See some examples on this page.) Oftentimes groups of friends dress up in costume together for solidarity and easy identification of one another among the thronging crowds.
Salvador has a phenomenon referred to as pipoca, which is really just roaming the avenues of the Carnaval circuit without a specific abadá or allegiance to any particular bloco, band, or camarote. The dress for a pipoca outing is casual, and the main focus is on dressing for warm, humid weather: expect tank tops and shorts for both men and women, with comfortable, closed-toed shoes being a must as more than likely you’ll walk 10+ kilometers in a typical night of celebrations, and dance until your feet are sore in the early morning.
Please read this article here for more Carnaval dress tips.
Where to stay in Rio during Carnaval?
In Rio, there are block parties all over every single geographic zone and neighborhood of the city for about an entire month leading up to the last day of Samba competitions, referred to as Carnaval Sunday. That said, more than likely, as a tourist you’ll want to stay in the Zona Sul (South Zone) of the city, specifically the more coveted beachside neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. Many blocos gather along the coastal strip of this string of neighborhoods, and are an affordable alternative to the ritzy private events in the Sambadrome or at other event venues across Rio during this time of year. If you have a group, an Airbnb booked up to as much as six months in advance is ideal, as the Zona Sul neighborhoods tend to have more limited real estate vacancy (new real estate in prime Rio districts is harder to come by, as the city is surrounded by water on three angles—the ocean and the lagoon—and bisected by mountains!)
If you have only a couple of people, a hotel room is acceptable but generally it’s recommended to book at least three months in advance to ensure less-than-astronomical prices. If you wait to book a hotel with one month or less advance notice, sorry to tell you, but be prepared to forfeit an arm and a leg ($400-$500 a night or more, for a room with only moderate amenities).
Where to stay in Salvador during Carnaval?
The best neighborhoods in Salvador, most accessible to the main Barra-Ondina parade circuit, in rough order of geographic priority, are 1) Barra, 2) Ondina and 3) Graça.
The same principles for booking housing as in Rio still apply in Salvador, but would stress even stronger advanced notice for booking a group Airbnb, as generally speaking, housing quality in this poorer region of the country can be further away from first-world standards than in Rio. Waiting until last minute to book housing in Salvador can easily mean walking away with substandard digs, possibly lacking air conditioning etc. Just about every apartment owner with a property walking distance to the Barra-Ondina circuit will be eager to get their hands on some Carnaval rental income, so expect a wide array of quality and sizes.
There are some hotels facing the coastline accessible to the Barra-Ondina circuit, with comfortable-enough if not three-star-ish offerings. We happened to stay at the Hit Hotel in Porto da Barra (a touristy seafront area), and even booking three months in advance, paid around $250 USD a night per room.
The main concept here is of course: book early to have a chance at great housing!
What is the best time to visit Brazil during Carnaval? In Rio? In Salvador?
Carnaval takes place in February or March every year according to the Christian Lent calendar. This site outlines some important principles for planning your trip in advance, again stressing the recommended six months advanced planning for your trip. Carnaval dates for the upcoming several years, measured by can be found on this site.
One important fact to note is that there is a sliding scale of dates during which you can enjoy the celebrations. In Rio, commemoration tends to run more or less an entire month, starting one month before Carnaval Sunday, and that’s especially the widely accessible and public street parties, whose buildup has led to the phenomenon today known as Pre-Carnaval (anywhere from two to three weeks before the culmination of the even, the final Sunday mentioned in the site above).
In Salvador on the other hand, the bulk of the festivities tend to concentrate within about a 10-day period, culminating in Carnaval Tuesday (the Tuesday before the final Sunday of events in the Rio schedule). Still, indeed, as in Rio, the city is lively from around December 20th, through New Year’s Eve, and all the way through that final Carnaval Tuesday night.
Is it safe to visit Brazil during Carnaval?
Please read this article here