When I booked my Rio Carnival 2020 holiday in late 2018, it was somewhat a spur of the moment thing. I was working on a Rio Carnival creative piece at work and my friend and then colleague, Kim, was getting excited for her own upcoming trip to Brazil. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with my local independent travel agent, securing a space on a tour that I hadn’t done any research on!
Now, if you’re a friend of mine you’ll know that I’m typically an avid planner. Having worked in the travel industry for a number of years, I know how to research and plan a trip, and I know how to do it well. Saying this, I just didn’t have the motivation or urge to want to research much ahead of this particular trip. In retrospect, I think it was because I was part of a small group tour and knew that I’d have the help on the ground if I needed it.
Being a solo female traveller, I always knew I wanted the security of a group while experiencing Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and Carnival. I had travelled with G Adventures previously and had had a wonderful time, and so it just made sense that I book my Carnival experience with them.
Fast forward 12 months. A new job, a new home and a new relationship meant that I was no longer a solo female traveller. During our first date, my boyfriend and I discovered that we were both travelling to Brazil in 2020 for Carnival. We were both departing from London on the same day, at the same time, on the SAME FLIGHT! (I mean what are the chances?) We joked that it would be an awkward flight if things didn’t work out, but luckily for me (and I like to think for him too), they did. We decided that as I was already confirmed on a tour, he would simply add himself on and we’d experience Carnival together with G Adventures.
Fast forward to March 2020, and we’re home from what was an incredible trip. Carnival really is everything that everyone says it is – and so much more. I don’t think there are enough words to describe just how phenomenal the experience was. It’s something that I think everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
As we were part of a small group tour, the stress of purchasing Carnival tickets and organising other elements was taken away. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot and wanted to share my experiences with you so that whether you’re travelling independently or as part of a small group tour, you get the best out of Carnival!
The Main Event
Did you know that the main Carnival parades actually form part of a ticketed event? Prior to finding this out, I believed that floats passed through the streets of Rio de Janeiro while bystanders cheered them on from the sidewalk – somewhat like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. But that’s not actually the case. It’s held in the Sambadrome, located on the outskirts of the city centre. Each year, on the Sunday and Monday before Ash Wednesday, the top 12 Rio de Janeiro samba schools compete in front of 90,000 spectators in a taught competition for the Carnival title. Each school picks a theme, which is expressed through their performance and elaborate costumes, and between 200 and 400 drummers help by beating a quick, hypnotic rhythm that draws the crowd into the school’s compelling scene. The whole thing is honestly just magical!
The Sambadrome is divided into various sections, numbered from one to 13, and are located on both sides of the Samba runway. We were seated in section 11 and honestly, it was perfect! We were directly across from the judges, where each school pauses to give the judges time to, well judge. With this in mind, consider looking at tickets in sections 10 (behind the judges) or 11 (across from the judges). If you’re purchasing tickets in the grandstands, seating is in the form of concrete bleachers and so isn’t comfortable. You will find vendors selling foam pads however, you can bring in your own cushion/pillow. Seating is on a first come first serve basis and as you can imagine, everyone tries to sit at the front of their section. So, if you want the best seat, it’s advised that you arrive early to claim your spot (the Sambadrome opens at 18:00 while the first parade states at 21:00).
The first samba school begins their procession at 21:00 – or thereabouts. Each school has approximately 85 minutes to complete their entire procession (points are actually deducted from a samba school’s overall score if the procession runs shorter or goes longer than the allotted time). With six schools performing per night, at 85 minutes each, it’s a long night. The last samba school begins their procession at approximately 04:30, finishing around 06:00!
Carnival is known for its over the top costumes however, dressing up is not obligatory. Whether you decide to wear a swimsuit, accessorised with glitter and sequins, or shorts and a t-shirt, you won’t look out of place in the Sambadrome. You will be hot and sweaty though, so keep that in mind when choosing what to wear and be sure to wear comfortable shoes! Depending on the weather forecast, you may want to incorporate a raincoat into your costume. The Sambadrome is an open-air venue and so if it rains – you’re getting wet!
Note: If you arrive in Rio and want to spice up your original outfit, or find a whole new one, there are plenty of shops selling costume accessories. If you plan on wearing a headpiece – be mindful of those behind you as they’ll want to be able to see the parade.
Photography and Video
I took my iPhone, Canon and GoPro with me into the sambadrome and had no concerns over safety. I positioned myself right at the front of our section and got some fabulous footage of the floats/dancers as they passed by. I’ve read from multiple sources that the Sambadrome is considered one of the safest places during Carnival and I couldn’t agree more. I never felt unsafe or that my belongings were at risk of being stolen.
Food and Drink
You’re allowed to bring two 500ml plastic bottles of water and two items of food per person into the Sambadrome, but like any event, you’ll find plenty of fast food trucks. There were also men circling the stands selling water, alcohol and ice cream so you never need to miss out on any of the action! Note: be sure to take plenty of cash as the cash machines are known to run out.
There are toilets located in the Sambadrome however, be aware that there are 90,000 other spectators. It’s known that toilet paper runs out by the end of the performances; therefore, it is advisable to bring an extra roll from your hotel with you just in case…
As a part of our small group tour, we had round trip transport included. We were picked up from our accommodation and dropped off right outside the entrance to the Sambadrome – it was seamless and made the experience stress free! If you’re travelling independently, I would recommend pre-booking a return shuttle from your hotel. Bear in mind that there will be street parties happening with tens of thousands of people in attendance, so factor in major traffic delays. If you’re happy using public transport, take the metro to Praça Onze and walk for around 15 minutes from here. It’s well signposted – and you can enjoy some of the street celebrations along the way.
And finally, Blocos
Blocos are the street parties of Rio Carnival. They’re much more casual than the parades in the Sambadrome however they’re considered the heart and soul of Rio Carnival. Each bloco writes a theme song and has a live band to play the music – typically from the top of a moving bus! There are numerous blocos located around the city of Rio de Janeiro in the days leading up to Carnival, but also during the days after. Blocos can be as small as a couple of hundred people or as large as 400,000 people, so it’s best to plan which bloco you wish to attend ahead of time. The best way to get to a bloco is by using the subway. A one-way ticket costs R$4.30 (£0.64GBP/$0.83USD) and you’ll find that there is typically a subway station within a block or two from a bloco. Blocos are a pickpockets dream, so ensure you’re carrying the bare minimum – I always wore a bum bag (fanny pack) and had no issues! Once you’ve decided on your blocos, planned your costume and your transport route – be prepared to party into the small hours of the morning. Blocos last all day and night!
Regardless of whether you’re attending Carnival independently or as part of a small group tour, you’re guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime. To try and put into words the quality of the costumes, the elaborateness of the floats and the atmosphere of the Sambadrome is close to impossible! If you’re heading to Rio Carnival in 2021, let me know in the comments below and keep your eyes peeled for my next blog: The City of God.
Notes: I experienced Rio Carnival as part of a small group adventure tour with G Adventures. Rio Carnival: Sequins & the Sambadrome is a limited edition, six-day guided tour with a maximum group size of 16 however, there are ‘multiple departures’ and so you’ll be exploring Rio with a bigger group. Prices start from £899 excluding flights. This is not a sponsored post. All thoughts and images are my own.