Travel

The cultural spectacle of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro

Experiencing the world’s largest carnival during a week of celebration, social unity, parades, colourful fashion and of course, partying 

  • Jan 18, 2024
  • 1,063 words
  • 5 minutes
The impressive scale and budget of the floats on display inside the Sambadrome. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Even though it’s four in the morning, hundreds of perfectly synchronized, extravagantly costumed performers keep coming. A melodic refrain and pounding beat accompany the dozens of elaborate mechanical floats, vibrating with feathered dancers tethered to small platforms metres off the ground. Meanwhile, thousands of dancers and drummers swirl between floats up to 10 stories high and have already exited the 700-metre-long Sambadrome, a narrow stadium purpose-built for the occasion. Some 85,000 people are cheering on either side of the parade track, creating a boisterous party atmosphere that kicked off seven hours ago. There are still a couple of hours to go and another full evening. In the world of cultural spectacles, very little competes with the scale, investment, exuberance, competitiveness, and community participation of Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival.

The grandstand cheers a float. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Football is a religion in Brazil, but Carnival comes a close second. Cities and towns throughout the country host a week-long celebration each February, a final opportunity to bust loose before the onset of Lent, a 40-day period of abstinence and reflection. Carnival literally means “farewell to meat,” another worldly pleasure traditionally forsaken in the run-up to Easter. You’ll find carnivals across the Caribbean and Americas, including Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the icy annual celebration in Quebec City. In Brazil, Carnival is elevated beyond street parades, feasts, and celebrations: it is the highlight of the social calendar and a highly competitive performance sport, too. The most prominent, brightest and most boisterous example of this is found in Rio de Janeiro. 

Like a football league, communities across the city form large clubs (known as samba schools) that engage local performers, musicians, dressmakers, builders, volunteers, and organizational staff year-round. Each school selects a theme and will spend upwards of  $3.5 million (USD) each year to manifest its vision into a living parade with up to 4,000 people. Participants pay a membership fee based on a hierarchy, from $50 for a costumed spot on the floor to thousands of dollars for a prominent perch on the floats. Despite the appearance of a wild yet perfectly coordinated party, the schools compete in front of judges who grade each parade according to various criteria. Only 12 schools earn their spot in the Sambadrome each year, winning cash and national acclaim for their efforts. With the schools parading across two nights, the full event is televised live, becoming a hot-topic national conversation. 

Moment on a float in the Sambadrome. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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February is also peak summer, when a muggy heat smothers the Rio, and extra effort is required to wear a massive costume for many hours while singing and dancing in step.  That said, many dancers receive attention for wearing as little as possible. Thongs are standard, as is the occasional topless dancer. Still, despite its global reputation for revelry, Carnival is not quite anything-goes, more like everything-comes: total volume, one after the other, hour after hour. 

To learn more, I booked a backstage tour in Carnival City, a massive holding facility where floats and costumes are manufactured and stored. Operating year-round, Grande Rio Samba School offers the only behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, guided by a friendly performer who shares the logistics, history and joy associated with Carnival. The scale is overwhelming, as expected from an annual investment of tens of millions of dollars. My kids scramble over floats from previous years, we visit the factory floor where thousands of elaborate costumes are created, and we all get a samba dancing lesson from one of Grande Rio’s wildly talented and stunning Carnival Queens. Each school has its royalty, consisting of performers or local celebrities who lead the parade and receive their judging category. We’re invited to don costumes from the sequined tickle trunk of your childhood dreams and attempt the elaborate, frenetic footwork of a Samba dance. How performers do this for hours in stiletto heels is one of life’s mysteries.

Floats in production in Samba City. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Costume production at Samba City. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Accompanying the main event are local block parties, spontaneous street parades, and glitzy black-tie balls. The most famous is at the Copacabana Palace, the storied luxury hotel overlooking the Rio’s iconic beach. Wearing a too-big rental tuxedo, I hobnobbed with local and Hollywood celebrities in an atmosphere that suggested debauchery to hundreds of fans outside the hotel but felt more like a wedding party inside. Up to a million tourists visit Rio de Janeiro during Carnival, and everyone wants to get in on the action.

The Black Tie Ball at the Copacaban Palace. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Inside the Black Tie Ball. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Inside the Sambadrome, general grandstand tickets start at $20 (USD), running up to $80 for a box seat closer to the action and $425 for a spot inside the camarote – an exclusive corporate box complete with buffets and open bars. Most schools also have a visitors’ section, where tourists can pay for a costume and join the parade. There’s no bad seat in the house, with the parade lit up by stadium lights, fireworks, and the booming rat-a-tat-tat of each school’s batteria drum corps. Nobody is going home disappointed by the spectacle, although your stamina will surely be tested. By the time I recover from the first night, it was time to prepare for the second.

Once I became accustomed to the onslaught of stimulation – the riot of colour, costumes, music and dance – I could slowly join the national debate. Who should win, who will win, who had the best theme, and who will be relegated to make way for another samba school next year? Not every global cultural spectacle is judged for its execution, but Brazil has already turned football into a religion. For travellers experiencing Carnival’s wild, bucket-list nights, simply being there is a prize in itself.

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