What made Rio Carnival so special and memorable?
To make sure you get the most out of your time during Carnival, I have to tell you about the best place to stay in Rio for Carnival and why this incredible festival is one I’ll never forget.
Rio Carnival is one of Brazil’s most famous attractions and rightly so. Even 2 years after I went to Rio Carnival in 2017, it still holds top place for the highlight of my trip.
To see if Rio Carnival is the festival for you, I want to share with you why I loved it so much and why I would highly recommend visiting Rio Carnival.
The Brazilian people and music.
I would not have had the same experience if I had not met so many locals and danced the night away with them to the upbeat rhythms of Baile Funk, Samba or Bossa Nova at the jam packed blocos.
Blocos are organised or sometimes completely unorganised street parades throughout Rio in the weeks and months ahead and also during Carnival. Crowds of people come together wherever there is music and celebrate their love for live music, dance and ice cold drinks in the sun. In some cases into the twilight hours. The usual set up for these blocos is hordes of people following an open top bus or a live band. It slowly pushes through the crowds blasting out a 3 minute song on repeat for hours. On top of the bus there are people singing and shouting along over microphones while the people below shuffle forward to the beat and drinking refreshing sacolé – a frozen flavoured
cachaça ice pop.
The whole city collectively takes part in fancy dress and my biggest tip is: join them! If you haven’t got even a sprinkle of glitter on, you are going to look weird.
Here are two of my favourite blocos:
Ipanema Beach Bloco
The closest metro station to Ipanema is General Osario. Once we arrived here on the Saturday afternoon we followed the crowd along to the beach, finding ourselves right at the front of a parade. Space is completely non-existent and we were left to shuffle along to the beat with everyone else.
You start noticing particular characters in the block of people squashing you. From cheering rowdy groups wanting to take a picture with you – who particularly liked my Brazilian flag bikini bottoms. To weird solo men who look a little too happy to see you, and who you try your best to avoid standing in front of. Beer spills are common in these packed crowds. At one point a guy laughed out his beer all over our friend’s back, causing much amusement.
We followed a live band until we reached the Ipanema promenade and we ducked out to find the beach. Arriving at sunset was perfect as the view over the beach with 900,000 other bodies dancing and drinking was an unforgettable moment. We picked a spot on the beach based on an underwear advert (my choice) and livelier music.
Our pineapple jugs were yet another hit. They were perfect for this party as we could fill them up with cold beer or cocktails sold on the beach after we had guzzled the rest of our cachaça.
Our friend Andreas took an interest in some local kids who were creating their own percussion with water bottles. He waltzed over to ask if he could take a photo of them. Picture this: he had glitter under his eyes, a feather bower around his head, a pink girly cocktail in one hand and attempting the shot with a disposable camera with the other. Of course his request was denied by their parents. He nervously came back to join us, feeling the burn of the disapproving look of the locals.
However, his spirits soon changed as we began to notice the people we were partying with on the beach. On the promenade handsome men flocked around us, demanding we gave them a beijo (kiss). But on the beach, there was a contrasting atmosphere and crowd.
We were for once not being gawked at and groped and I could shake my pineapple jug that I’d attached to my bum bag freely without being approached. What was going on? The boys were now being stared at, something they were definitely not used to.
Couples of men passionately holding each other surrounded us, dancing to Brazilian pop and making out like teenagers. All of this and the huge rainbow flag blowing above us, and the underwear advert, alerted us that we were in fact in the gay party area. It was such a fantastic atmosphere and they dominated the beach, blasting the loudest music and selling the strongest drinks. I bet the party never stopped.
Santa Teresa Bloco
Climbing up the steep cobbled streets of Lapa in the blaze of the Friday afternoon sun, we found a gathering of tens of thousands of people in the Santa Teresa favela. A mainly local crowd filled the streets, overlooking a stunning view of the tightly built up city below. Can you guess where the best place to stay in Rio for Carnival is yet?
Everyone spilled out onto the road and from time to time, we would all need to squeeze to one side to make room for the live band to flow through. Immediately after, we surged together to move forward with the music.
The men singing high above on the open top buses threw out Carnival themed fans. Allowing us to try and cool off, whilst also providing us with the lyrics to sing along to the constantly repeated song. In no time at all you are fluent in Brazilian samba.
Going in a big group is pretty pointless. You loose everyone almost immediately as there are thousands of other party goers. As a duo, Hannah and I were much more approachable to locals. Everyone loved our pineapple jugs – sparking lots of conversations. Albeit in a language we were not yet familiar with.
We were able to tell them about our homemade caipirinhas, which everyone wanted to taste. As it was a very hot day, the ice we had used in our hostel did not last long. A local lady took me by the hand suddenly and marched me to a drinks vendor and demanded gelo – ICE!
As a rule in Brazil, no drink is to be warm. All beer is served in an ice cooler to prevent this. Hence the urgency to find ice for our cocktails.
Immerse yourself in the local traditions at the Blocos
The Brazilian men are extremely forward here and it’s apparently tradition for them to kiss as many pretty girls as they can during Carnival. We definitely became part of this tradition as they chant ‘beijo, beijo beijo!‘ in your face, making it almost impossible to say no.
The well known phrase ‘you’re in Brazil’ is used for any situation you may be doubting. Somehow making everything acceptable because you are actually in Brazil. Of course you can say no if you don’t want to – but as a traveler in Brazil, I wanted to immerse myself in as many local traditions as I could.
A lot of locals were keen to speak to us in their broken English to find out where we were from and if we liked Brazil so far. Everyone was super friendly and welcoming making our first few days in Rio so amazing.
It felt like we were the only English at the Santa Teresa bloco, giving it such an authentic feel. Vendors are all around selling beers, cigarettes and a variety of food. Our pineapple jugs were running low so we left Santa Teresa around 19:30 to top up.
Stay out on the streets for the best party
Back at our hostel in Lapa, Books, everyone seemed as if they had been back for ages. We were asked where we had been the whole time and they were shocked we had missed happy hour. It seemed they were more excited for an after party…in the hostel.
We literally spent 5 minutes to retouch our make up and were out again instantly. The after party is all around you, outside of the hostel – in the streets.
The drinks sold on the streets aren’t watered down weak cocktails these hostels sell at an overpriced ‘happy hour deal’. There are so many local ladies who have set up stalls along the roadside. They make the most incredible cocktails – full to the brim of cachaça or vodka with a splash of soda for a fraction of the price.
Get involved by immersing yourself in the continuous parties that surround you. Out on the streets of Lapa, and most other parts of the city, you will find music everywhere creating an amazing and more authentic Carnival atmosphere.
Find the most eccentric fancy dress…
Mercado do Uruguaiana in Lapa definitely has the best collection of fancy dress for Rio Carnival. This huge market consisting of rows and rows of colourful and vibrant streets, offering an enormous variety and inspiration for funky attire during the festivities.
It is as if Carnival has thrown up on these hundreds of stalls and tourists and locals pick up all the pieces. It’s not a cheap outing – you have to spend the cash to be the best dressed.
There are jewelled bralletes and matching high-waisted shorts that jingle with each step you take. These are around R$100 each, if not more.
You can get involved without spending too much.
If you’re on more of a backpacker budget, like myself, you can pick up a much cheaper option. I found a white wrap around scarf with gold coins and a sequinned band that I used as a boob-tube for only R$20. This was paired with a bright orange feather head piece for about R$5 and a fantastically huge pineapple jug for R$5. These were immensely popular with the locals.
It was our first Portuguese word we learned as people shouted ‘abacaxi‘ at us. We first thought people were shouting abuse, like another word for ‘gringa‘. But as we soon found out, they were just chanting about our hilarious pineapple apparatus for our homemade caipirinhas.
It is definitely worth getting involved in the fancy dress as the whole city is engulfed in sequins, glitter, gold body paint, confetti, feather head pieces and tutus. When else does an entire city all partake in mass cross-dressing?
So where is the best place to stay in Rio for Carnival?
If you haven’t guessed it already, I would highly recommend staying in Lapa during Carnival. It really is one of the best places to stay in Rio. Each night after the blocos in other districts we would always end here. Before Carnival had even started, we got to see Lapa a little tamer during the week, but the streets were still full with locals.
You can stay in hostels, an airbnb or try couchsurfing in advance. In my top 10 things you need to know about Rio de Janeiro Carnival I mention a few of my hostels to check out.
Weekdays in Lapa
Weekends pretty much start on Wednesdays in Lapa and one of the best spots to start it off with is Levianos Bar. We first went on a Wednesday night and sat at a table in the second row to get a good view of the Samba band and the small dance floor. The floor was always full of dancers practicing. An older lady stole the show with her unbeatable rapid samba moves, but others who tried to compete still managed to impress. We had our work cut out for us. Our slow and non-rhythmic English moves would not fit in here.
We observed a group of girls who must have been a similar age to us and their table spilled out onto the dance floor. Onlooking men constantly asked them to dance, to which they obliged. There was one romance which seemed to blossom the most. One guy got to dance with the same girl for the rest of the night, which after careful observation, rarely happened.
In our eyes their dancing looked very sensual as they gracefully moved in time together to the beat. But to them it’s just the norm. They exchanged numbers at the end of the night and parted ways with an embrace. In the UK, if you danced with a guy like this all night, it wouldn’t usually end this way. However, when do you ever find yourself dancing together with a boy in the UK anyway? It takes about 3 hours for a guy to ask to buy you a drink.
The band was fantastic, a mix of reggae and samba and it looked like they were having the time of their lives performing. This gave us the perfect taster for Carnival. When we returned the following night, it was a complete contrast. There were no tables on the dance floor and a lot more locals came to show off their moves. My 2 left feet did not fit in and I stuck to my simple salsa moves.
Lapa in Carnival
During the Carnival evenings, you can barely move in the streets in Lapa and going into a bar is merely impossible. The main parties were out in the street around anyone who had the loudest music. We were introduced to a lady who sold the best caipirinhas for R$5. We returned to her each night. On our final night in Lapa, we changed locations and decided to move down the main road. With our caipirinhas we found a street party playing an array of reggaeton and baile funk.
Just before arriving, there seemed to have been a little commotion between a vendor and another guy. He had been spraying beer and hit this angry street seller. The vendor had tried to chase after this guy but he soon vanished in the crowds. To our surprise once he returned to his drinks cart, he pulled out a ginormous knife and signaled to his friends a cut throat. This must have been to warn off any potential future beer throwers and it certainly shocked us.
We didn’t know whether to feel threatened or completely safe having this guy at our side. Deciding to stay nearby, we slowly sipped our increasingly strong cocktails. He seemed to take a liking to us all and repeatedly topped up our never ending drinks with a very sugary vodka energy drink.
At one point during our dancing around, Hannah and I both turned around to find a kid standing on top of a rival drinks cart with an AK-47 gun. Taking a very quick second glance, we saw it was thankfully just a harmless water pistol. We carried on dancing and a variety of people joined us. Such as flamboyant boys dressed as playboy bunnies who came and twerked with us – all the characters come out to play in Lapa.
Proximity to everything is so important in Carnival.
All in all, we spent the majority of the time partying in Lapa, especially after all the blocos and day events by the beach. It was definitely the best place to stay in Rio for Carnival. To have had to search for a taxi or battle it out on the metro late at night did not seem appealing. A small walk home around the corner was perfect, especially after the Sambadrome parades.
If you do make it to Carnival this year, I hope you have an incredible time at one of the world’s greatest parties!
In my next post, read about my top 10 things you need to know about Rio de Janeiro Carnival.
If you have any tips or new areas you would recommend staying in Rio during Carnival, feel free to share them below in the comments!