It seems pretty crazy to call an event that attracts two million visitors each year a secret. In many places, Rio Carnaval certainly isn’t. However, to the majority of people outside of Latin America, the word “Carnaval” is nothing more than a misspelling of an event filled with fried foods and questionably-safe rides. While western travelers dream of trips to Oktoberfest and La Tomatina, millions of people are having the time of their lives in the streets of Rio.
Carnaval is more or less synonymous to Mardi Gras—a yearly festival celebrated annually in the final day before Lent and the subsequent Easter holiday. The primary difference is that Carnaval lasts five days (Friday-Fat Tuesday) while Mardi Gras lasts only one day (Fat Tuesday). Brazil has become famous for its unique Latin/African flair on this celebration, especially in certain cities such as Salvador and of course, Rio de Janeiro.
So what makes this festival any better than the next?
The place, the people, the culture, and the energy.
I remember as a kid I used to draw pictures of my dream country…what the landscape and weather would be like if I could try my hand at creation. If I had known what Rio de Janeiro was like, I wouldn’t have bothered. A city nestled between 2,000 foot mountains, some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Atlantic Rain Forest, and massive granite rock faces is the pinnacle of what Earth has to offer. To top it off, the weather is beautiful. The heat matches the intensity of the festival while the cool Atlantic waters provide a balance that perfectly represents the people of Rio—passionate and intense with a laid-back appreciation for life.
The beauty of this nation of models is more than just skin-deep. The happiness of the locals is written on their faces, and it quickly rubs off on visitors. Age doesn’t matter. Kids run around soaking friends and tourists alike with their water guns and a beaming smile. The elderly enjoy the grandeur of the Sambodrome from their seats. More notably, race seems to be forgotten. There is no black or white, just people. At any given bloco (street party) you’ll see people from a hundred different backgrounds: black, white, rich, poor, locals, and foreigners all enjoying the moment together. After coming to this realization on one of the last days of Carnaval, I asked one of my new Brazilian friends if it was an errant observation or if this was really a quintessential example of colorblindness. She affirmed that while Brazil is plagued with inequality and race issues, it all seems to be placed on the back burner during Carnaval. People are too busy reveling to care or notice something as insignificant as your skin color.
In my visit to Buenos Aires, I was disappointed to see that the Tango had gone the way of the horse and buggy. It seemed that the national dance of Argentina was just a faint memory. With Samba in Brazil, this is not the case. The second that the opening notes of “Lepo Lepo” rang out, everyone would start moving. The culture and tradition behind Carnaval is captivating. The Cariocas (Rio residents) live and breathe Carnaval. Samba schools practice year-round to prepare for the week-long competition in the purpose-built Sambódromo. Blocos begin a month before Carnaval and continue for several days after the official end of the festivities. These blocos range in size from a few hundred people to over 500,000…and there are 450 of them. Music ranges from traditional Samba to Reggae to the Beatles. People of all ages don fantasias (costumes) from the elaborate feathery variety to cross dressing teenage boys. If you don’t have a ridiculous costume, you’ll feel out of place.
The energy of Carnaval is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Blocos start shortly after sunrise and go well past midnight. I remember my first night, I was at a bloco in Leme with about 6,000 people when a middle aged woman danced over to me and suggested that I should go to the bloco in Santa Teresa the next morning. Apparently, it was supposed to be one of the biggest and best of the entire week. The starting time? 7:00 AM. This non-stop vivacity is unlike many other round-the-clock festivals. The energy of the city and the genuine “high on life” attitude of the participants is enough to keep partiers going for days. Need a break? Do what the Cariocas do and head to the beach. A few hours with a Caipirinha in your hand under an umbrella or a quick swim in the blue waters of Ipanema Beach will fix you right up. In addition, you have some of the best food in the world to help you refuel. Delicious amazon fruits, prime cuts of every meat imaginable, and a myriad of Brazilian specials can be found at every corner: Feijoada, Pão de Queijo, Joelhos, Misto Quentes, etc.
To add to all of that, the metros run 24 hours a day, dress code anywhere outside of nightclubs is completely lax (I found clothing beyond a swimsuit to be pretty optional almost anywhere), large beers in the street are just over two dollars each, there are no open container laws, and the best parts (blocos and beaches) are free!
Before I came to Brazil, I found it strange that I couldn’t find any videos of Rio Carnaval on the internet that really “wowed” me. After attending, it’s pretty obvious as to why this is the case. People are too busy living Carnaval to try to pull out their camera and capture it. Many people don’t carry their cameras out anyway for fear of losing it or having it stolen. Even if you were to try, there is no single moment of Carnival that lends itself to a climactic video. There is no ball drop, opening kickoff, or lighting of the torch. It’s a sustained, week-long vibrance that can’t be accurately put into words or captured by a camera lens. You just have to live it.