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IT’S a swirling mass of humanity on streets throughout Rio. And it lasts for days. Welcome to the biggest party in the world.
Carnival hits your senses like no other event you’ve ever experienced.
Drums beating, tambourines shaking, trumpets, saxophones and trombones blaring, couples kissing, scorching sun above, stilt-walkers and women in tight jaguar outfits dancing with their pretend claws out like wild Amazonian beasts.
Guys might be wearing wedding dresses. Strangers will ask to kiss each other.
“Carnival is the best party in the world!” I screamed when I attended last year. And I meant it too.
Nothing like it happens anywhere else. There are no fences, no tickets and the party is the reality of life as samba music takes over the streets leading millions of people to euphoria. Rio’s six-day Carnival (February 9-14 this year) dwarfs anything else in the world. Streets, beaches and parks from the city to the suburbs become the dancefloor. There’s no time to go home and pretty much the whole city of six million fun-loving people is on holiday.
But for those who’ve never been it can seem daunting, maybe even a little intimidating. Where do I go? Will I be robbed? What if I don’t speak the language? Having done Carnival last year with Brazilians who practically have a PHD in the subject and now getting ready for my second, I’m imparting this knowledge to other adventurous travellers so they can smoothly navigate the biggest party on the planet.
WHAT IS CARNIVAL?
Carnival is two beasts rolled into one.
There’s the parade of samba schools with their giant floats and out-of-this-world costumes that sweep through the Sambadrome trying to take the crown for best performance. But what you, the experience-seeking tourist, really want are the blocos. These parties with bands moving on foot or on the backs of buses hold up traffic and turn the streets over to the people. This year there will be 464 individually organised blocos, and since some happen more than once, there will be 600 in total. Throw in a bunch of unofficial ones too and the exact number is anyone’s guess.
The only slightly comparable event in Australia is the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but it’s overshadowed by Brazilian Carnival even more than our football team is by Brazil’s five-time World Cup winning side — that’s the true gulf of the difference. One street being taken over verses hundreds — well, there’s really no comparison. In Australia it would be complained and regulated out of existence, while in Rio the huge, slightly chaotic nature of Carnival is its beauty.
WHERE TO GO
For a first-timer it’s hard to know where to begin.
With hundreds of blocos, there are ones for Beatles fans, weed lovers, communists, families, dance and rock music covers and even followers of Gandhi. They can be from just a couple of hundred people to mega-blocos with over 200,000. Around the clock there will always be blocos going on somewhere in the city. Morning, noon or night you’ll always have somewhere to go.
The best advice I got was to avoid the blocos by the beach and to head for the city and its nearby neighbourhoods like Santa Teresa, Lapa, Flamengo and Gloria. Beachside blocos in Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon are more mainstream, picture more playboy jocks, immature school kids and dodgy crims. Those who care about the music will go to the city. Some blocos to look out for include Amigos da Onça, Boi Tolo, Prata Preta, Monobloco and Technobloco.
LOOKING THE PART
Dressing for Carnival is serious business.
With men in wedding gowns and women as superheroes, everyone is able to indulge their fantasies. On top of that, they make the vibe really positive. I mean, how can you get angry at someone dressed as a smurf? Some will have spent months planning their costumes, while others like me will just buy off the rack. The key is to just have something, anything, even just a hat, and if you’ve got nothing then just cover yourself in glitter or body paint. Get into the spirit of Carnival — embrace the outrageous.
If you’re in Rio looking for a costume, head to the bustling Saara shopping district in Rio’s Centro where hundreds of shops sell endless costumes and props. Going in a full-body leather Batman or Cat Woman outfit probably isn’t a good idea though, it’s peak summer so remember to keep it light. You don’t want to get heatstroke or look like a sweaty mess when you’re trying to kiss someone.
“Can I ask you something,” a Brazilian woman said to me in the middle of the crowd.
“Sure,” I answered.
“Can I kiss you?” she continued, no shyness at all.
There aren’t many places in the world where women ask men they’ve never spoken to before to kiss them in public, but Carnival throws the rule book of human intimacy out the window. You’ll be amazed at the hardcore PDA going on at the blocos. Guys and girls, girls and girls and guys and guys who’ve never met will lock eyes and start eating each other’s faces.
When I’m at a Carnival bloco overtaking the streets, I like to pretend that I’m part of Night Of The Living Dead, except the zombies are all really attractive dancing Brazilians and instead of ripping limbs off and eating people they’re grabbing butts and kissing. I know girls and guys that notched up 30 kisses in a day of Carnival. If you love getting your kiss on then you’ll love Carnival. If you don’t, bring a water pistol to squirt them in the face if they try.
Good vibes abound during Carnival.
I saw no violence, no drunks, just endless happy faces escaping normalcy for one special week of the year. What you should be most wary of is thieving. Some people suggest not bringing out your phone but don’t listen to that — you need it to keep in contact with friends who you can very easily lose, to order Ubers and to take photos and videos to send a shockwave of jealousy through your Instagram followers. In these tight crowds leaving valuables in your pockets is asking for trouble so try tucking phones into the front waistband of your underwear.
Getting the metro around is also safe and in the carriages it’s like a pre-party before everyone spills out onto the streets. If you speak no Portuguese, you don’t have to worry — there are enough Brazilians who speak some English that if you have any troubles it shouldn’t be too hard to find some help.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
Carnival lasts six days — right? Well yes, and no.
In true Brazilian style, Carnival for barely a week simply isn’t enough. They also have “Pre-Carnival” where every weekend from the start of January will have blocos around the city until the official celebration kicks off sometime in February.
But that’s not all. The weekend after it ends on Ash Wednesday will be “Post-Carnival” where the city breathes one last final gasp of samba magic before it all finally comes to a depressing end and life goes back to normal for another year. The great thing about these times before and after is that it’s less hectic. And better yet, if you can’t come to Carnival then one of these weekends can easily give you a good enough taste of what the best party on Earth is like.
Hopefully they have had plenty of first aid courses in the lead up so people are prepared for anything.