It’s safe to say that Carnival in Brazil is one of the biggest and most famous parties in the world. Every year, millions of locals and tourists dress up in costumes and dance samba to the beat of the drums while parading down the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, and other major cities in Brazil.
Carnival is one of the most beautiful cultural experiences you can witness in Brazil, and one you should not miss. But visiting Brazil during carnival requires some extra planning to make the best of your time, money, and the parties.
Buy your flights in advance
Typically, it is recommended to buy international flights three months before your trip as generally, this is when they are the cheapest. Carnival though is different. Given how famous Carnival is, airfares tend to rise many months before, so it is recommended to start searching for flights a year to six months before Carnival.
This is usually not a trip you can plan last minute, but you never know, sometimes you can find “golden nuggets” a few weeks before Carnival. If you do, just book it! This tip also applies to booking accommodations, as everything tends to fill up months in advance.
Also, have in mind that most nationalities need a visa to enter Brazil, so make sure you consider that before booking.
Know when and where to go
It is recommended to fly to Brazil at least a few days before Carnival starts, so you get familiar with the place before it descends into chaos. Know that each major city has its own carnival and they are all very different. Rio de Janeiro is the most popular one and where most tourists go. This is the one you see on TV and the one with all those fancy costumes and long parades. If this is your first Carnival, you might want to go there.
Salvador also has one of the biggest carnivals in Brazil, but different from Rio’s, this one is more infused with Afro beats and Bahian culture. In the past few years, carnival in Belo Horizonte has grown significantly to also become one of the biggest and most entertaining in all of Brazil, and different from the other two, this carnival is more about the people partying on the streets, rather than the show and competition put on by the parading sambas schools.
Carnival officially lasts from Friday to Ash Wednesday, and this is when all major parades and celebrations happen. But, cities like Rio and Belo Horizonte tend to extend the party by hosting events a day or two earlier and stretching them until the Sunday after Ash Wednesday. Know that the exact dates will vary and you check the calendar each year to see when in the month they will happen.
How to participate
You can participate as much or as little as you want. It all depends on a few things like your dancing skills, your interest in parties and, of course, how much time and money you’re willing to invest.
You’ve seen all those performers dancing in unison on the street, playing the drums, and shaking those feathers. While most are locals, tourists are also welcome to participate. But, to form part of an “escola” (a parade school), you need to pay for your spot, costume, and dedicate a few weeks (if not months, depending on how famous and rigorous the escolar is) to practice and get everything perfect. The more you pay, or the better you dance, or the more energy you have, the higher you’ll be positioned on the float. Should you wish to participate like this, know that this is like the Super Bowl of Brazil, so take it seriously!
Should you just want to have fun, you can participate and dance in the “Carnaval da Rua” (Street Carnival). Local “blocos” meet at a specific street junction at a given time, and from there they parade down the street, singing, dancing, drinking, and doing anything fun under the sun. Like with the escolas, you can form part of a bloco’s official band, but for a tourist, I recommend buying a small tambourine or Pandeiro and simply join the crowd – which can vary from a couple hundred to over 500,000 people, depending on the bloco. An excellent way to find the blocos is by using Google maps during carnival, which maps the route and schedule of all major blocos in Rio.
Alternatively, if you just want to admire the show from the sidelines, you can buy tickets to see the escolas parading and competing at the Sambadrome in Rio. Tickets vary from $30 to $500+ per show, depending on your seat.
Get in costume
You can dress as fancy or as trashy as you want and spend anything from five to hundreds of dollars on a costume. You’re free to dress as you desire and no one will care about your fashion, after all, everyone is wearing a “fantasia” (costume/fantasy).
Budget more than the usual
Prices in Rio and other cities tend to skyrocket during carnival. Everything from a sandwich to an Uber ride will cost you twice or even up to four times the usual price. Just budget more than what you would on a regular trip.
Surviving it all
Before you start partying, I recommend getting the local guide with the schedule of all the parties, blocos, and escolas. Carnival is a 24-hours a day celebration for several days, so you need to pick the events you’re interested in and plan some resting time in between. People often experience exhaustion trying to jump from one event to the other without resting properly.
Also, drink a lot of water and stay hydrated. And, after carnival, take a day or two to rest, recuperate your energy, and get rid of all that glitter on your body!
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