Inside Rio Carnival

While I was travelling in Australia I made so many Brazilian friends who told me I must see Rio Carnival and it’s definitely still high on my wish list.

To find out more I spoke to my friend Simon who has visited Brazil many times and fell in love with the magic of Rio –  so much so that he started his own travel company, Bespoke Brazil.

I’m delighted to have this guest post from Simon from Inside Rio Carnival.

You Me and Map

Carnival fever takes over the streets of Rio

I am hot, sweaty and with aching feet but with a huge smile on my face from ear to ear that won’t go away. I’ve just taken part in the Sambadrome parade at Rio Carnival which can only be described as the best experience of my life.

I have been lucky enough to attend Rio Carnival for the last 3 years and absolutely adore the city which in my opinion is the most beautiful in the world. Aside from carnival the city has so much to offer the visitor and its natural landscapes have recently been declared a World Heritage area by UNESCO.  The views from the top of Corcovado Mountain or Sugar Loaf Mountain are simply sublime with the rolling hills mixing with forests, the city and beaches for as far as the eye can see. The beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are world renowned, on both of which you could spend a day just strolling along and people watching. Beach volleyball in Rio isn’t just an Olympic sport; it’s a way of life.

During Carnival the city changes dramatically with the arrival of an estimated extra 2 million visitors and the whole of Rio stops work to party with family and friends.

You Me and Map

An extra 2 million visitors arrive for the carnival

There are approximately 600 blocos (street parties) which take place over a 5 day period in various parts of the city. These are often localised community events but everyone is welcome. Neighbourhoods come alive and residents dress up in all manner of weird, wonderful and irreverent costumes with many men dressing up as women. Alcohol is abundant, the music is loud and the dancing is infectious.

Two of the largest blocos take place on the carnival Saturday. The Cordão da Bola Preta kicks off in the city centre at 9am with roughly a million people all dressed in black and white and dancing in the streets whereas in the afternoon a colourful array of cross dressers brighten up the avenues of Ipanema as the Banda de Ipanema creates a stir.

Whilst Carnival is a celebration, it is also a competition. Rio’s top 12 samba schools battle it out on the Sunday and Monday night in the Sambadrome, a purpose built parade area which holds up to 80,000 spectators. The Sambadrome is a 700 metre long runway with stands either side along which the Samba schools parade in vast numbers. Each samba school has between 65 and 82 minutes to get roughly 5,000 dancers, drummers and enormous floats from the start to the finish line in a style, rhythm and harmony which will score the most points with the judges.

You Me and Map

The Sambadrome dance-off

Watching the Sambadrome parades is an incredible sight as the noise and colour is overwhelming. The parades begin at 9pm and finish anytime between 5am and 6am with most people doing their best to stay until the end. As each parade goes past the crowds get to their feet, singing, dancing and cheering on their favourite samba school.

Although watching the parades is a fabulous experience, dressing up and taking part in the parade is something else. That’s exactly what I had the chance to do in February as an honorary member for the night of the União da Ilha Samba School and it is a night I’ll never forget.

You Me and Map

Simon dressed to impress!

Each year every samba school chooses a different theme for the parade and for União da Ilha it was Darwinism. This led to me being in a section of the parade with about 80 others, all dressed as peacocks, parading behind a 20 foot high tortoise! The costumes were delivered to my hotel and a small group of us, who were also in the parade, headed for the Sambadrome.  We travelled to central station via the metro which is an experience in itself but squeezing in to crammed carriages in a large costume is a lot of fun when everyone is in a party mood. On arrival at the Sambadrome we were kept in a holding area and shown what to do which involved some simple samba moves and the importance of keeping in line with the dancers to your side and in front.

You Me and Map

Rio Carnival 2012

As we entered the arena my overriding memory was of a wall of light and a cacophony of sound from 80,000 people which increased the further along we went. All the crowds were singing, chanting and taking photos of us whilst the sweat was pouring off me as I focussed on my footwork.

As I crossed the finished line I had been dancing non-stop for 40 minutes and didn’t want to stop. Everyone was cheering and hugging each other in jubilation and the constant buzz continued as we headed to find a bar still wearing the costume which I got to keep.

I have travelled all over the world but this, without doubt, was the best experience of my life.

You Me and Map

The highlight – caught on Brazilian TV in costume!

About the author
Simon Williams is the founder of Bespoke Brazil, a UK tour operator which creates tailor-made holidays to Brazil and is a Rio carnival specialist.
Find out more at


10 thoughts on “Inside Rio Carnival

  1. A great post and some amazing pictures. Well done Simon for taking part and getting on TV.

    I find it amazing that these can go on for so late. 5-6am is crazy, how does anybody sleep. I assume work is out of the question the next day.

    Reading this just makes me want to watch Karl Pilkington again as he danced away in Brazil on An Idiot Abroad.

    1. It looks incredible, I’ve always wanted to go and Simon has been telling me for ages what an amazing place it is to visit. Now I really have to see it for myself.

      I’m a big fan of An Idiot Abroad, just re-watched him learning to samba! 🙂

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