The Rio Carnival: Survival tips to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience

Going to the Rio carnival has long been one of my dream travel experiences. I know it’s going to be awesome, but the reality even far exceeded my expectations.

What made it so special? The floats are beautiful – it’s beyond colors – things move, there are fireworks on top of them, there are beautiful dancers with coordinated samba moves in outstanding costumes on top of the floats, and the whole samba vibe. Samba music is just happy and festive, and the crowd sings along. It’s a full blown party – from 9pm all the way to 5am! It’s really party until you drop!

So who performs? The performers are part of samba schools. Before the carnival, there is a process of elimination, and the top 12 samba schools perform across 2 days of the main carnival. Each school performs for an hour.

The parade is interspersed with floats, groups of dancers on the floor, and “star dancers”. Usually when the star dancers perform, the other dancers give room for them to showcase their moves.

Here are the highlights of the carnival!

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Did you notice how they parade into a cake? Creative, aren’t they? 🙂

How to prepare for your trip:

I guess it’s no question that this is a major spectacle. If you love music, dancing, lots of color, this is the event for you. The question is, so where should you begin?

1. Flights

Book early – I booked one year in advance – flights going into Rio will be very expensive near to the date. If you are coming from Asia, one way to go about it is via SQ – to Sao Paulo with a stopover in Barcelona (this is what I did). Alternatives are the Middle Eastern Airlines (Qatar, Emirates) who even fly to Rio. If you are taking a domestic flight – take GOL or TAM – both are reliable.

2. Hotels

Timing: This is a feat in itself. If you need to book your flights early, book your hotels even earlier! A lot of hotels have a minimum number of days – so it’s wise to book early so you can choose those who dont have a minimum requirement. Book more than a year ahead.

Location: It’s location, location, location. Not because of the proximity to the Sambadrome, but because you need to be in the center of things so that the pick up will include your hotel. I will expound on the pick up in the next section. It doesn’t have to be beachfront, but it has to be either in Copacabana, Ipanema, or Leblon.

Pricing: Prepare to be ripped off big time. We paid USD 300 for a hotel that normally is USD 100. How to save – do not save on the location. What you can do – fly in just in time for the carnival, and leave right after, if you dont plan to sightsee in Rio. The carnival ends at 5am. After all the logistics, it’s almost 7am. So if you want, you can even let go of the last night of your hotel. Also, if you are coming from a far location, let’s say, Asia, and you would want a couple of days to recuperate from the jetlag and do just nothing, land in Sao Paulo (where hotels are cheaper!) and fly in just in time for the carnival. But honestly, you would want at least one full day to sightsee – Sugarloaf and the Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer). If you have a lot of energy, like we did, we squeezed that in between two carnival days. Needless to say, we didnt sleep. (Perhaps we shouldnt even need to book a room, just a shower :P)

3. Tickets

Vendor: Choose a reputable vendor. Yes you can buy on the spot, a lot of the people we met there did, but if you are like me, coming all the way from Asia, you wouldnt want to risk it! Choose between rio.com or carnivalservice.com. Both are reliable and legit.

Timing: Book early (a year ahead) and take advantage of a promotion to include free transfers to and from your hotel – that alone costs USD 75 per round trip transfer per day. So if you’re going for two days, it’s USD 150!

Where to sit: The million dollar question: It depends how much money you can burn! A grandstand (bleacher seat) costs USD 300, a seat in a box costs around USD 1,000+ . The grandstand is close enough to the action – dont worry that you wont see anything! And if you want to choose a box, do not choose the one on the ground. You will not see the floats properly. Choose one in the same level as the judges.

While being in the grandstand is sufficent, however the sector is important. You dont want to be near the start, as you wouldnt see much. You don’t want to be near the end too – you would need to wait so long to see anything, and since schools are penalized if they overrun, usually in the last part they’re rushing already. The price difference across sectors are marginal. Choose Sector 7 – it’s right in the middle. It is better than the opposite side (sector 6) because for some reason, in Sector 6 the first row of the granstand begins way higher than the one in Sector 7!)  There is a sector 9 for tourists, where you have an assigned bleacher seat. This is around USD 500-600. Forget that. You will be standing up/walking around. And it’s no guarantee you’re in the first row so we even had a better view than paying double for a sector 9 ticket. We were able to stay in the prime first row of the grandstand all the way. I’ll tell you later how to do that!

Which days to buy: There are 4 days in total. One day is a preliminary one, which includes selected schools which didn’t make it to the top 12, then the two major days, then a few days after, the winner’s parade. Most people do just one day, either of the two major days. If I were you, do the two major days! Think about it, when will you be back? Given the flights, logistics, etc. it’s worth it to do two full days of carnival.

4. Transfers

One thing we learned is that you shouldn’t scrimp on this. Yes, it’s expensive (if you didnt get it for free with your ticket – but you need to buy one year in advance for your ticket), but worth every cent. During carnival season, do NOT take their metro. We did during the day, and it was a nightmare. It’s super hot, and it’s filled with so many people, who were coming from street parties. I heard from the people that you need to queue for hours just to get inside the metro near to the start of the carnival hours. And there will be no cabs at all. Forget it – save your energy for the 8 hours of partying! It costs USD 75 per round trip per person.

5. How to get the best spot

The prime spot? The first row of the grandstand. You will have an unobstructed view. There is no need to go at 5pm (the show starts at 9!). Some people do, and they will tell you that earns them the right to stand in the first row by the railing. Let them be before the game starts. When the parade starts, it’s free for all. Just stand sideways (so more people can squeeze in) and you have your view. And no one can stand for 8 hours straight anyway so you’ll have your chance.

Insider tip: Especially if you’re a female foreigner (I’m Asian and my friend is African British), they will harrass you if you want to sit or stand in prime areas. They save seats even if no one is sitting there, they will not give you room to stand even if there is space, and worse, some will even push you. If you try to sit in a free space, some will tell you rudely that you are not allowed to sit there. Don’t let that intimidate you. From our two days there, this is what we learned:

– There will always be the good and bad ones – befriend those who are good, and they will take care of you.

– “Join forces” with guys, especially the ones who look like “The Situation”. It was so interesting, the buffed guy who squeezed into the front row was left in peace even if he arrived very very late! Good thing we befriended him and we were able to stand beside him 😛

6. Make friends

Aside from having the benefit of not being bullied, making friends during the event makes it so much more exciting. Also, you can get the history of the schools from the locals – and they will tell you which school they’re rooting for, and which ones are the best. It just adds to the flavor of the experience. Here’s a picture of us with our new friends!

7. Stay until the very end

Many people leave at around 2-3am. That’s such a waste – the schools are all very good, and it is a pity they didn’t see all schools. Stay until the end, and make the most of the experience, your holiday, and your money 🙂

Being in Rio during the carnival is one of my best travel experiences, and hopefully it will be yours, too!

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