On 18 February 2012, day-to-day life in Rio de Janeiro will come to a standstill. For five whole days, the whole population, from judges to janitors, will throw off their everyday work clothes and worries and come together for what really is the greatest show on earth.
Music, dance and an overwhelming desire to enjoy life together conspire to create the unique event that is Carnaval (as it is spelt in Brazil) – not just for locals but for at least half a million international visitors, who descend on the enchanting city of Rio each year at this time.
Carnival is a moveable feast. Although it normally falls in mid-February, the celebrations are sometimes as late as March, so make sure to check your dates before you go. The origin of the name is thought to mean ‘goodbye meat’ (‘carne vale’), although Carnival has come a long way from its pagan and religious roots.
Rio is a city of extreme wealth and grinding poverty where carnival acts as a vital pressure valve for some of the most underprivileged people on the planet. While world-famous models and the great and the good strut their stuff at glittering carnival balls and flaunt their wealth in thousand-pound boxes, the poor, hard-working Brazilian remains the inventors and lifeblood of carnival.
Rio may be the first place you think of when the carnival is mentioned, but celebrations take place all over Brazil. And in a country as big as this, the variation is huge. The three other centres for the carnival are Salvador, Recife and Olinda, each boasting their own distinct traditions, but all tending to focus on street traditions, with which anyone can join in.
Carnival in Rio tends to be more of an organised affair, with activities taking place in the large stadium, known as the Sambódromo. Designed by the esteemed Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer in 1984, the Sambódromo hosts the competitive parades that form the focus for carnival in Rio. Here, tickets cost up to a thousand pounds and exclusive masked balls tend to steal the show.
In Rio carnival is generally an organized affair and many Brazilians even describe it as ‘fantasia’ (fantasy) because of its increasing commerciality, but plenty of street events still take place to devoted audiences of both locals and overseas visitors. In Pernambuco in the North East, Recife’s Carnaval is characterized by frevo – a European and African musical fusion and traditional folkloric dances known as maracatu. In colonial Olinda, bonecos (enormous papier-mâché puppets) dominate the tiny, narrow streets of this World Heritage Site. In Salvador, Bahia, African rhythms reign and trio elétricos (trucks with enormous speakers) throb with Afro-Brazilian beats.
- If you do decide to go for carnival – after all, it is a once in a lifetime experience – there are some guidelines worth bearing in mind.
- Do book as far in advance as possible. Flights and accommodation will be expensive anyway, but the closer you get to the date, the more you will pay.
- Consider your options. During the carnival, you won’t be able to book anything other than a package with a minimum of four or five nights, and the price will be four or five times the normal rate, so you might be looking at budget rather than luxury options.
- Try to take part. As much as carnival is a spectator sport, it is much, much more fun if you join in. Ask the local tourist office, tour agencies or hotels for more information and booking.
It would be a mistake though to only see Rio as a party city. In fact, you may be surprised to find out that Carnival is not necessarily the best time to visit Rio or even Brazil. During this time – and for several weeks either side, airfares double, prices of rooms quadruple and many attractions close. You may find it impossible to get into any decent restaurant and just as difficult to get internal travel arranged.
A good way to have the best of both worlds is to visit in the run-up to Carnival. For around six months before the great event, carnival rehearsals take place that can be visited by the general public. From around August or September right up until February or March, every weekend is filled with carnival rehearsals and by Christmas all participants have become familiar with their choreographed dance moves, their elaborate costumes, and the words to all the songs.
Full of energy and with participants wearing those famous costumes, these rehearsals are a great way to experience the excitement of carnival without the crowds and the overly inflated prices. Rio – and Brazil as a whole is an undeniably electrifying place to visit – but not just for a carnival.