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Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival: Samba Schools, Brazilian Hotspots, Hip Parades And Ballyhoo

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Rio de Janeiro Sunrise - credit: Paulo Hermanny MamedeRio de Janeiro’s Carnival (known to the Brazilians as “Carnaval”) is underway, but in this party town, there are ways to celebrate all year long. Marcy MacDonald reports on how to experience Rio de Janeiro like a local whether you’re in town for Carnival or beyond.

Dress down and drink up: Brazilian summer begins in December and Carnival season is already under way, the last blast before Lent in March.

“Lent is more like a brief pause during a year-long party,” says Brazillionaire architect Rodolfo Doubek-Filho, who designed the ultra-modern city of Curitiba. “The entrudos (pre-parties) begin in October, and just get bigger until five Fridays before Lent when the samba schools erupt and take to the streets.”

Incidently, the average cost to perform inside the sambadromo is between 5 to 7 million Brazilian reals (about $3 million to $5 million) for each of the big samba schools.

Cariocas—the residents of Rio—are among the most gorgeous specimens on the planet, a product of their Portuguese, French, African and pre-Columbian diversity. Cariocas work hard and play hard; the female of the species almost elevates thong-wearing to an art form on the nation’s beaches, from Ipanema to Uba Tuba. This national “undress” inspires the costumes worn by Carnival revelers.

Carnaval costumes - Rio de JaneiroImitations of the attire worn by Brazil’s first export to Hollywood, bombshell Carmen Miranda (who was actually Portuguese-born), are sometimes available in the shops and stalls downtown, called saara. But some of the best (and briefest) costumes are still designed at Casa Turun, Carnival central since 1920. Others can be purchased or rented through the samba schools.

“The late Peter Allen was Carmen Miranda in drag,” asserts carnavalista and author Angela Bowie whose ex-husband, David, credits Allen with shaping his music career. “Peter and his then-wife, Liza Minnelli, loved Carnival. Its influence on his performance could be seen in every flamboyant rustle of his frilly samba shirts. But the entire population of Rio is further out than either Peter Allen or David Bowie.” Amen, sister. “Keeping up with the cariocas isn’t for the faint of heart.”


People who want to see the early parades are up even earlier. For others, it goes something like this: Unless you’re headed for a job, rise at the crack of noon and proceed directly to Marius, barbecue joint extraordinaire. Bring a thirst for a late lunchtime caipirinha (traditional Brazilian drink/paint stripper),caipiroska (relatively harmless, made with vodka) or chopp (beer) as you pick your salad from Marius’ rooftop garden. Graze and talent spot: The place is always packed with famous faces (local tip: more than a few of those faces have been redesigned by the now-retired famous plastic surgeon, Dr. Ivo Pitanguy, who received an award for his invisible seams).

Treat a hangover to an acai-based drink in any beach bar, or score some guarana, the Amazonian energy bean available in everything from chewing gum to cigarettes and soda.

You’ll need a reliable taxi (like that manned by Tony, the driver who never met a red light he didn’t run). It takes nerves of steel to ride in one of the many altered VWs that dart through the city.

Learn about another local Brazilian drink, the Cachaça, with 5 Classic Regional Cocktails With Recipes.

Roll to Arcos da Lapa, and eat your way from one end of the menu to the other. The national dish, a Portuguese stew called feijoada, is a long-running hit at the Casa de FeijoadaCaesar Park, the hipper-than-ever Hippopotamus or the very cool (and very pricey) Colombo Coffee Shop. Be seen at the Palm and El Turf in the Jockey Club on Tuesday, the best night for the racetrack.

Carnaval BrazilThere are also gafiera dance halls where you can hear cavaquinho (guitar) and pandeiro(banjo) music. Most feature batucada—song and dance that requires foot-stomping, hand-clapping and huge quantities of alcohol.

Weekly gay and lesbian parties happen all over town as Rio is very LGBT-centric. On Saturdays, head to Lapa’s nightlife district and the Fundição Progresso (a whole different scene).

On Sundays, Bar Bracarense in Leblon is so jammed you can only get in with a whip and a chair. Consolation prize: The Hippie Fair in Ipanema, and impromptu food fairs from beach to beach.

“Think of the movie Orfeo Negro (Black Orphaeus) as a kind of training film for Carnival,” affirms the Supreme sambanista, Mary Wilson. “Antonio Carlos Jobim’s score for the film put samba’s bossa nova beat on the international music map,” which is why Rio’s most famous saloon may be the Bar Garota de Ipanema where Jobim and Vinicius de Morais composed “The Girl From Ipanema.”

Samba along the undulating, sea-wave roadway from Copacabana Beach uphill to the sidewalk outside famous late samba-music man, Noel Rosa’s home, where it turns into musical notes that form his compositions.

Learn more about gay-friendly events with: Gay Travel: Guide To International Gay Pride Events

From this perspective—or any of Rio’s lofty viewpoints—take a long look at the Tijuca rainforest (planted by a princess, a general and five slaves over a century ago at the behest of Emperor Pedro II), the “lungs” of the city.

Christ The Redeemer - Rio de Janeiro, BrazilYou can’t miss Sugarloaf Mountain which dominates the entrance to the harbor and the art deco Christ the Redeemer on the hunchback Corvocado mountain, reigning high above the skyline.

Every structure seems to be occupied, pulsating at every hour, the perfect backdrop for the phalanx of hang gliders who follow the air currents to the ocean. The Terreirão o do Samba’s concerts are surrounded by food stalls, singers, dancers, acrobats on every beach.

Appearances of various bands—including the Ipanema Band, Carmen Miranda’s Band (comprised fabulous drag queens), as well as the popular Simpatia é Quase Amor, Cordão da Bola Preta, and Survaco de Cristo—are announced in the local papers and online.


When the Cidade Marvilhosa’s 19th century elite held formal bailes (masquerade balls) and processions, they excluded the poor of the favelas (Rio’s slums). And yet it was there that the most famous samba schools would be born. It was there that the local jongo music would evolve into timpanic Ze Pereira bands that give Carnival its urgent, irrepressible beat.

Book a samba class to get your Carnival muscles in shape. The most expensive occur on weekends when tourists feel obliged to appear en masse in Rio’s poorest neighborhoods. Whether to observe or participate, take a week-night class at Beija-FlorImperio Serrano,Imperatriz LeopoldinenseMangueiraMocidade Independente, or Portela schools in the Zona Sul (southern Rio) which often create the richest and most colorful high-energy performances with flawless spontaneity.

Classes cost an average from R$20 in the beginning to R$5,000 (about $12-$30) in the last days before Carnival in the main samba schools like Mangueira, Salgueiro, Unidos da Tijuca, Beija Flor, etc. Each samba school has a different week day for its rehearsal.


Many of the important Masqued balls samba in Copacabana, at the Orient Express Copacabana Palace Hotel, and along Ipenema Beach. One of the most famous is at the Copacabana Palace.

Don’t miss the Off The Brochure Travel Guide: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

This year, there is a revival of a famous one at the Port, alongside several Carnival balls called Devassa Balls and all of them will be held at the renovated warehouses at the Port of Rio. The City of Rio official opening Gala Ball took place Thursday, March 3. The last will be the Great Gala Gay Ball, on Tuesday, March 8th.

Carnaval costumeSamba school ranchos and desfilars are parades that may require tickets available from September on, but the only parade that absolutely requires a ticket is the main one. It’s expensive to participate in a parade, but the schools’ ticket price often includes costumes and a seat in the stands. Check the fine print.

The smaller samba schools of the bairros organize blocos, or informal street processions. You don’t need a costume or a ticket, but there performance schedules are very, very flexible. Many of the schools samba all the way from the favelas to Ave. President Vargas to show their stuff at the massive, sculptural Sambadromo, the real location of the parade.

Just take the metro to Largo do Carioca or Cinelandia: many streets are closed to traffic as the participants are inside the sambadromo, at the “concentracao area”.

Inside the enormous structure, performances begin before an audience of about 90,000 every single night, foul weather or fair (a great deal of alcohol is available from the VIP section to the nosebleed seats).

On Carnival Sunday, Avenida Rio Branco and Boulevard 28 de Setembro is the site of amazing displays that begin at about 7:30 p.m. On Monday night, the top 12 samba schools compete for the grand prize: six perform on Sunday and six on Monday. The jury announces the top three winners on Ash Wednesday, and on the Saturday after Carnival, a Champions’ Parade is held, starring the best samba schools of the year.


If you’ve had too much fun and wish to repent, Catholicism is the official national faith. The downtown Benedictine monastery with its disco floor is presided over by St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica, imported to the Southern Hemisphere by the Jesuits whose monasteries flourished wherever there were indigenous souls to convert.

Some terreiros (traditional houses of worship) are as open to the public as cathedrals. You’ll have to book to visit Tenda Espirita or Palacio de Iansa, while you can arrive unannounced at Jeronimo.

As for entering a futbol stadium: Pele is a national treasure. Samba accordingly until the first entrudo begins in the stands.

By Marcy MacDonald for Marcy MacDonald is a New York-based freelance writer covering travel and lifestyle for national publications.

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