Mardi Gras is a wild time in New Orleans and celebrated across America but its inspiration, and one of the biggest parties on the planet, is the Carnival in Rio when the graceful, historic city is overtaken with Samba and Caiparinha’s (more on that below). I was amazed to find myself in the middle of it this year.
Museums close. Cathedrals lock their door behind fences and the frenzy roars through neighborhoods all over the city during the days before Lent begins with street parties (costumed crowds gather until critical mass hits) and private events(some ticketed and dearly for the privilege,) but the biggest extravaganza reigns in the ‘Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí’, or Sambadrom stadium, on the weekend.
Any pictures or YouTube clips of the official parade can’t do it justice. There’s nothing to compare with the pounding drumbeat and contagious buzz of watching the best of the Samba schools compete for top awards.
The Sambadrom is quite an edifice and basically a glorified alley where thousands of dancers and dozens of floats enter at one end to dance and sing as they traverse nearly a mile of track and exit at the other end. Most seating is reserved months in advance and I was fortunate as my family’s new Brazilian daughter-in-law arranged for impressive mezzanine seats at a fraction of what it cost the cruise ship group who sat next to us.
Sambadrom Tip 1:
Have a Portuguese speaking friend to research Brazilian websites for the best deals or arrange with a Brazilian agency for best options.
The Sambadrom was built in 1984 by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who conceived the unique structure as the ultimate setting for showcasing the talent, music and spectacle of Samba for a live audience and the media. When we were there a new building covered in scaffolding loomed over the stadium. Looks like it’ll be ready in plenty of time for the World Cup Soccer Competitions this summer and the 2016 Olympic Games.
We arrived early – about 8:30 pm. The show began about 10 pm to go all night until the 8 selected samba schools are finished. Arriving before the bulk of the crowds gave us time to take in the immensity and layout of the place. We were almost directly across from the judges booth, which led to seeing the best of the performances as each group stopped and displayed their finest footwork, choreography and crowd-pleasing costume changes. A motorized camera rig and boom swiveled into position and camera operators filled the bridge above the fray.
Sambadrom Tip 2:
Bring water, beer or pre-mixed Caiparinha’s, iced and in plastic bottles with you into the stadium. Glass and canned drinks aren’t allowed. Snacks are another good idea so you won’t miss anything while waiting in line at the food stands. If you’re in stadium seats, pack a towel or cushion to be more comfortable sitting on the cement bleachers.
The night was mercifully cooler than daytime but still sticky and humid for my family accustomed to a cooler climate. Once the show began it wasn’t hard to stay awake, dancing along and mesmerized by the spectacle, as each school worked hard to outdo the last. I’m a morning person but had no trouble hanging on till 3am when our small group voted to head out.
Once the announcers started blasting their welcome it was clear that the adrenalin behind the scenes far outpaced what the waiting crowd was initially feeling. In moments drumming began and we could just spy a crowd of dancers followed by immense floats at the far end of the stadium. It took about 90 minutes for each of the groups to make their way from one end of the stadium to the other. Each school incorporated hundreds of dancers and the most celebrated groups created 2 to 5 shining and opulent floats, bouncing and crowded with performers. Competitions began last year to find the best song for each school and to choose a theme for the Carnival in Rio.
My favorite was the Uniao de Parque Curicica school and its exploration of the history of Cachaca, the sugar cane liquor that is ubiquitous and cheap throughout the country. The costumes mixed natural elements with bright tubes representing sugar cane. Some dancers portrayed the elements, trees, slaves, colonists, miners and millers but always the most shapely and skimpily clad dancers elicited the largest most cheers.
Sambadrom Tip 3:
Don’t miss a Caipirinha cocktail for a delicious cooling drink when in Rio. It’s something like a Margarita without the salt but served over ice with Cachaca and lots of fresh, muddled lime. Delicious and habit forming! We brought our own (you were allowed 500 liters of liquid per person in a plastic container.)
My second favorite performance was the Viadouro samba school ( It was really something to keep me excited at 1am) and their exploration of the history of Rio through the lens of the community of Niteroi, which lies across the bay from Rio proper. The detailed and over-the-top costumes featured historical Portuguese nobility, fishermen and mythical creatures among dozens of other characters. The Queen’s performance and feathers, her beauty and poise were the best of the night (Each school has a Queen highlighted in the midst of their performance.)
On our way out we ran into a colorful couple while waiting for our shuttle back to the hotel. They were from Croatia and had arranged to dance with a Samba school. It was a long distance arrangement. First they were responsible for purchasing costumes, then arriving in Rio in time for fittings and at least one rehearsal. On the evening their school was performing they marched through the mile long parade route in the midst of hundreds of dancers, in front of many thousands of audience members and millions of viewers on TVs worldwide.
Even if you can’t make it to Carnival in Rio, you can still enjoy the spirit of the celebration at Samba City, a park set up in Rio where you can learn the history of the event, try on some of the costumes and test your feet in lessons with some of the Samba schools.
Another site with info about all things Carnaval and the schools is: http://www.carnivalbookers.com/rio-de-janeiro/samba-schools/
Whatever moves you to celebrate Carnival or Mardi-Gras, find some feathers and glitter, friends and don some form of costume. It’s all in good fun.
This post is proud to link to these other fine travel blogs: Travel Photo Thursday,