Get set for one of the greatest parties on Earth. All day street parties, dancing until the sun rises, flowing alcohol and pounding samba music, Rio Carnival is the highlight of most backpacker’s trips to South America. We decided to fly over to Rio from La Paz at the 11th hour (making the choice just 2 days before the carnival began) after meticulously thinking about the pros and cons. Will it be worth the extra cost? Can we afford it? will we ever get the chance to be in Rio for the Carnival again? Looking back it may be the best decision we have ever made, I had one of the best fortnights of my life in Rio.
So you’ve booked those flights to Rio, put your dancing shoes on have your costume picked out… but the cost is one prohibitive factor. Don’t worry, It’s possible to backpack Rio Carnival and here’s how to do it.
Where to Stay
If you’ve browsed Hostel World you may have noticed that most hostels will raise their prices 5 fold during the main week of carnival and that the best ones will fill up weeks or even months in advance. To get round the extortionate dorm rates, the cheapest accommodation option is couchsurfing. Not only will you have cheap digs but you get the added benefit of a local to give you tips and show you the best parties, although again the hosts may fill up weeks in advance so make sure you’re organised!
Can’t find a couch to crash on? Chances are that it’ll be easier to find an apartment to rent on Air BnB. The pads in Copacobana and Ipanema fill up fast but it’s cheaper to easier to find somewhere to stay in a quiet neighbourhood such as Botofogo or Flamengo. Plus, an apartment away from the cacophony of revellers will mean you can catch some sleep when it all gets too much.
Cheapest Hostel: El Misti Hostel Leme (Usually £4.19 per night for a dorm bed/ £28.41 per night during Carnival)
Best Hostel: Cobanacopa Hostel (Usually £9 per night for a dorm bed/ £30-£40 per night during Carnival)
We booked in to Cobanacopa on a whim at the last minute before the carnival began and it turned out to be one of my favourite stays in Latin America. The dorms are basic but the location, facilities and atmosphere more than make up for this. Located in a secure neighbourhood in Copacabana with 24 hour security and just a short walk to both the metro and the beach, this hostel is perfect for carnival revellers. The hostel staff go above and beyond to make sure you know where all the best parties are, organise events and even provide customers with a rack of party costumes so that they can make the most of the festivities.
• Large, spacious lockers in each room
• 24-hour reception/security/key card access – located in a secure gated community
• Well stocked bar area/TV room
• Basic but adequate kitchen
• Laundry facilities
• Public computer terminals
• Fast Wi-Fi throughout
• Showers/bathrooms are plentiful
• Free breakfast
• Located a short walk from Copacobana beach and next to Cardeal Arcoverde Metro station
• Ability to book tours
• The hostel is located next to one of Rio’s national parks meaning that within 2 minutes you can be in a lush green area filled with monkeys.
The Metro is by far the best way to get around Rio. The train lines are far from extensive but there are stations close to the majority of the main sights. The trains are clean, air conditioned and reliable so at 5BRL per trip, it is a steal.
If the metro line doesn’t pass the area you are heading to, it’s pretty likely that a bus will be. With over 100 bus lines around the city, it can get pretty confusing. As long as you do some research on which bus to catch, you should be fine. Rides cost around 3.5BRL each way.
After a hard night partying in Lapa, you may not want to hang around waiting for public transportation. Luckily taxis are in abundance in Rio and are pretty cheap. It can be a slight struggle to flag one down during Carnival time but when you do, just make sure it is one of the licensed yellow cabs and that the meter is activated.
When you think of Rio Carnival you may think of the famous samba parade at the Sambodrome but the heart and soul of Carnival are the numerous street parties, or blocos taking place throughout the city. These free street parties take place all over the city, often simultaneously – your best bet is to download the free Bloco app to help you plan which ones to go to. As you will see – the blocos start early morning, with many running at the same time and some ending in the small hours of the morning.
Each bloco is situated in a specific ‘Barrio’ or neighbourhood, usually beginning in a main square or plaza and is set for a specific time and date. Usually samba bands will play, people will gather to drink and dance asnd the bloco will usually culminate in people drunkenly parading behind the band through the streets. This is what Rio Carnival is all about so get dressed up, put your dancing shoes on and hit the streets.
• Plan which blocos you are heading to beforehand as if you turn up too late, the parade may have moved on and will be hard to locate.
• Try not to cross town between blocos as public transport can be busy and wild. Plan to hit up blocos close to each other in one day (e.g. And early morning bloco in Santa Theresa, followed by blocos in Lapa or Cinelandia)
• If two blocos you want to see are located far apart, make sure you have enough time to get between them.
• Vendors will be selling booze and food for fairly cheap at the blocos, but we recommend stocking up on beer and spirits at a supermarket beforehand.
• Don’t take to many of your possessions with you as the close-packed crowds can be easy pickings for pickpockets. I took all my drink in a bag and any extra cash, room keys and camera (the cheaper, the better) were in a money belt around my waist.
• Although the police turn a blind eye to some of the rules during blocos, urinating in the street is still a big no-no and can result in a hefty fine. Portaloos are located near each party but take a few Reals as many bars and restaurants will open their bathrooms to the public at 2-3BRL a time. Just make sure you bring some toilet paper.
• To get the most out of Carnival, head to as many different blocos as possible. Downtown parties have a very different feel to the beach front ones and small blocos of just a few hundred people can be as much if not more fun than gatherings of a million.
• Try to get to at least one early morning event. We woke up hungover at 5.30am to catch the metro, two buses and take a 30-minute walk to a 7 am Bloco in Santa Theresa. It was the busiest and best experience of the carnival. It’s fine to drink at 6 am if you’re in Rio, right?
Carmelitas, Santa Theresa – This bloco was inspired by the legend of a nun that jumped out the window of her convent, Carmelitas in Santa Teresa, to join the carnival festivities! Two parties take place: one to celebrate her escape and another at the end of the carnival to commemorate her return to the convent without punishment. Expect the crowd to be dressed in habits in order to ‘hide’ the escaped nun.
Super Mario Bloco, Santa Theresa – A fairly recent addition to the carnival, this party sees revellers dressed as their favourite Nintendo characters while parading through the cobbled streets of Santa Theresa to the sambafied tunes of Super Mario. This is a fairly small bloco but was by far one of our favourites.
Bola Preta, Rua Primeiro de Março – Up to 2 million people attend Rio’s most famous bloco, making it the biggest street party on Earth! This street party has been going for over 100 years.
Sargento Pimenta, Flamengo – One of Rio’s Fastest growing blocos, this party was inspired by the Fab Four’s ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Expect Beatles costumes and samba style covers of all their hits.
Banda de Ipanema, Ipanema – Make sure you have plenty of glitter and a fabulous costume for this parade representing Brasil’s LBGT community. Who can resist a party along Rio’s iconic Ipanema beach?
The most iconic image of Carnival is the infamous parade of brightly costumed dancers parading through the Sambadrome (or Sambadromo). Each year huge dance teams (or samba schools) representing different neighbourhoods of the city parade through the 700m long, purpose-built stadium with a winner being picked each night to compete in the winner’s parade at the weekend. This is a good option as you get to see all of the best schools in one place. Expect elaborate floats topped with dancers and musicians in intricate costumes. The stadium packs in an impressive 90,000 spectators that dance and party along with the schools for hours until 5am.
• Arrive fairly early (around 8 pm) to get a good spot in the bleachers, we were on the 2nd tier but we managed to stand at the front to ensure we had a good view. The bleachers are unreserved, terrace style stands.
• Bring plenty of food and drink with you (You can even bring your own alcohol – just no glass bottles!) as the refreshment stalls are pretty expensive and don’t provide many choices.
• Wear comfortable shoes! I can’t stress this enough. The parades start at 9pm and go on until 5am so be prepared to be stood for a long time. The Brazilians around us didn’t stop dancing for the whole 8 hours!
• Vendors will be selling booze and food for fairly cheap outside the Sambadrome, but we recommend stocking up on beer and spirits at a supermarket beforehand.
• Dress to impress! I don’t mean decking yourself out in your finest tux or ball gown – just go wild with the glitter, face paint and colourful wigs!
The website for buying tickets online is here. You can buy online and collect at the box office but make sure you do so with plenty of time to spare as the cheapest seats tend to sell out. We managed to get some tickets from our hostel a couple of days before we went at a reasonable price so this is also an option if they have sold out on the ticketing website.
Grand tier boxes and VIP seating are available but as you’re on this page, I assume you’re looking for cheap seats. We recommend you go for grandstand tickets as they are reasonably priced and offer good views.
• The Grandstands in Sector 12 and 13 have restricted view, due to the fact that they are at the very end of the Parade.
• Opt for Sectors 6 – 11 if you can afford it, as you will have a significantly better view of the performance of all parts of the schools at that height/section of the Avenue.
• Buy tickets for the Private Chairs only if you cannot afford better seats.
• Sector 9 is known as the tourist sector but you are free to buy any tickets you like so avoid this and mingle with the locals!
Rio has a slight reputation for being dangerous but over the last few years it has cleaned up its act. The large police presence in tourist areas and during Carnival means that as long as you are careful, you should have no problems.
Petty theft is the biggest issue during carnival as large crowds give pickpockets the perfect opportunity to get their hands on your belongings. If you can, leave your phone at the hostel and only carry cash with you in a safe place, preferably a money belt. The police will be far too busy to care about your stolen iPhone.
Try to stay in your group as it can be hard to locate friends in the crowds. If possible arrange a meeting spot in case you lose each other – We did this at each bloco and it worked most of the time. Always stay with at least one other person in case you can’t find your friends.
The area around the Sambadrome can be pretty sketchy. It’s fine during parade events due to the big crowd and police presence but I don’t recommend heading there during the day to pick up your tickets.
The biggest issue you will have to contend with is the heat of Rio. It was 40 degrees Celsius or more every day when we were there so make sure you carry plenty of water with you. Street vendors sell drinks but water is hard to come buy once you are at a bloco. You’ll spot the vendors dressed in logo’d T-shirts carrying huge coolers of drinks. The prices are fixed throughout the carnival but you can also find chancers undercutting them and selling beers, caipirinhas and iced vodka lollies too.
Plan ahead when moving between blocos. At the end of each party, there is a rush for public transport so set off slightly before the end to ensure you’re away from the crush. Don’t expect to get a taxi during blocos, the roads around each one tend to be closed to traffic.
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