Rio Carnival & Parade, Brazil

The Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the world’s biggest and longest party. The parades have unbelievable pageantry, costumes, dancers and floats for more than 30 hours. You will soon be cheering with thousands of revelers on Rio’s streets, beaches and in the Sambadrome.

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Street Parties during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

There are about 600 block parties in Rio during Carnival season. They usually kickoff with a marching band playing loud samba music. The blocos start in mid-January and become more frequent through Fat Tuesday. Some are highly organized and scheduled while others are spontaneous. Most are reserved for neighbors. A few attract thousands of revelers from across the city. There are also parties for special interest groups such as the handicapped. The biggest event is Cordão da Bola Preta on Saturdays. More than a million people attend the Black Ball from 9:00 a.m. until the wee hours the next morning. Collectively, all of these rambunctious celebrations are called the world’s largest party. During the last week or two of Carnival – when up to seven million people are having a great time – the street parties could also be called the world’s largest traffic jam.

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Cocktails Served at Ipanema Beach during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In Rio, drinking alcohol is an intricate – some would say essential – part of Carnival. The beverage of choice is beer. Over 25 million gallons of brew are consumed during the festivities. Another favorite is a Brazilian rum called cachaça. Along the two famous beaches – Copacabana and Ipanema – bar servers will approach you with the cocktail of the day. Libation convenience rarely gets better and easier.

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Guys Wearing Tutus at Ipanema during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The streets and beaches of Rio are filled with costumed people during Carnival. Any ensemble is fair game. Flamboyant is best. A popular outfit worn by young men are pink tutu skirts to accent their tanned and muscular physiques. These guys are hoping to attract their own girl from Ipanema.

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King Momo at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio’s Carnival officially begins with the crowing of King Momo. During the ceremony, he is presented with the key to the city. Rey Momo (in Portuguese) is always a large man with a jovial smile and a flamboyant style. You may hear the nickname the Fat King. He kicks off the samba parade. His troupe consists of a royal court and female dancers. The name comes from the Greek god Momus known for his sharp-tongued satire.

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Description of Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

According to Guinness World Records, the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the world’s biggest … by far. This is not a one-day festival. It is a non-stop party for weeks before culminating in the main parades at the Sambadrome. These photos are from three hours in 2019. Imagine the spectacle during more than thirty hours of parades. This guide presents lots of facts about Rio’s Carnival and parades. Enjoy reading them. Or ignore the descriptions, turn up some samba music to ear-shattering levels and become mesmerized by the show.

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Império Serrano Samba School at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The next several photos are highlights of the Império Serrano Samba School’s performance. Their theme in 2019 was “What about life.” Since they were formed in 1948, the Empire has been crowned champions nine times. As you might guess, their colors are green and white.

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Four Nights of Carnival Parades in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

There are four parades during the Rio Carnival. On Friday and Saturday night, the Access Groups (also called A Series) perform. These are talented samba schools but not considered elite. On Sunday evening, seven of the Special Group schools are featured. Another set of Grupo Especial marchers are on Monday night. These two events are the most popular. Attendance is heavy and the performances are nationally televised. Winners in each of the two categories are announced on Ash Wednesday. The first-place team in the Access Group will join the Special Group the following year. As an added bonus, the Champions Parade is held on Saturday after Ash Wednesday. The top six schools repeat their shows during this non-judged exhibition.

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Carnival Parade at Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí is the parade venue for the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. It is located downtown in the Cidade Nova neighborhood. This permanent parade grounds opened in 1984. Since its renovation in 2012, it has a seating capacity for 90,000 spectators. Off-season, the Sambadrome hosts concerts. Star musicians who have performed include Eric Clapton, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Britney Speers, Bon Jovi, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.

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Parade Performance Sequence during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

3,000 to 4,000 people or more are involved during each samba school performance. They appear in segments (alas) in a traditional sequence. At the start are people saluting the crowd (comissao de frente) along with the flag bearer and escort. They are followed by at least 80 spinning elderly women in large round dresses (Bahians). Next comes the attractive female dancer called the queen of the drums and often the band godmother (madrinha da bateria). Then there is an ensemble of singers (puxadores) and the percussion (bateria) and other instruments comprising about 250 musicians. There are also about 20 samba dancers known as passistas. And of course, several unbelievable floats. Everyone wears incredible costumes (fantasias) supporting the school’s theme (enredo).

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Parade Wings at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

During each samba school performance, you will notice waves of people wearing the same costume and engaged in highly choregraphed activities meant to tell a story. These sections are called wings (alas in Portuguese). They consist of about 100 identically dressed members in each group. The wings are typically separated by a passing float.

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Annual Schedule of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The schedule for Rio’s Carnival changes every year. It culminates on Fat Tuesday, 40 days before Easter. The following day is Ash Wednesday. Among Christians, this is the first day of Lent. This is a six-week period of penitence, religious services, periodic fasting and no public festivals. No wonder everyone parties-hardy during Carnival. How do millions of people get the time for non-stop carousing? It is summertime in Rio. Many businesses close so their employees can have lots of fun.

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Fairy Tale Theme at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Viradouro Samba School displayed colorful pageantry while portraying favorite childhood stories during the 2019 Special Group parade. Their first float featured classic fairy tale books in grandma’s library. The team came in second place. Acadêmicos dos Viradouro was established in 1946.

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Origin of Word Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The word carnival is derived from the Latin words carne vale. The rough translation is farewell to meat. This correlates to the traditional Lenten sacrifice and fasting during the 40 days prior to Easter. Brazilian’s spell the event Carnaval. To everyone else, it is written as Carnival. In many places around the world, similar celebrations are called Mardi Gras.

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History of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Carnival in Rio originated from a Portuguese celebration named Entrudo. A rambunctious activity at these food festivals were people flinging lemon water at each other. The social elite were above this boorish behavior. So, around 1840, they introduced fancy costume balls prior to lent. As African slaves were imported into Rio, they played their traditional music. This evolved into the samba during the early 20th century. Eventually, the best of all cultures blended together.

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Duration of Parades during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Each evening’s parade starts at 10:00 p.m. The lineup consists of seven samba schools. They each have 60 minutes to perform. So, when you do the math, you realize the parade festivities end after 4:00 a.m. Plan on sleeping in the next day so you can party again by late afternoon.

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Samba Schools at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Each of the parade performances are created by a samba school (escola de samba in Portuguese). The word school is a misnomer. These are actually highly-organized communities or guilds from a specific neighborhood. They spend countless hours all year preparing their theme, music, costumes and dance routines.

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Samba School History at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Deixa Falar was the earliest samba school. The group was initiated in Rio in 1926. The first competition began a few years later. The judging criteria was created in 1932 and has been revised over time. The original schools were sponsored by football teams. Now they are predominately neighborhood organizations, often times from impoverished areas called a favela. Since 1984, the parades have been conducted at the Sambadrome. There is a fierce loyalty to certain schools, especially those with a long track record of championships.

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Samba School Spending on Carnival Parades in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Estimates suggest the collective samba schools spend over $5 million each year preparing for their performances. Cash for these expenses is generated through sponsors and fundraisers. This does not begin to count the volunteer hours devoted by thousands of people from each school.

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Floats at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The floats in the Rio parade make the ones at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade look like your neighborhood 4th of July celebration. To say they are amazing is an understatement. Costumed participants dance and sing at every angle in a dazzling and choreographed fashion. The most extravagant outfits are worn by important school members called destaques. There must be at least six floats per school performance. Each float is designed to tell a story as part of the theme. By regulation, the floats cannot exceed 28 feet wide and 32 feet tall. They also must be pushed by hand.

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Costumes at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The dazzling array of costumes is a hallmark of Rio’s parade. They represent the utmost of creativity. All of these lavish outfits are designed and handmade by volunteers throughout the year. Most performers are also adorned with elaborate makeup, body paint and glitter in every imaginable color.

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Judging at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

40 judges are selected for the Carnival parades. Four are assigned one of ten categories such as dancing, costumes, drums, floats, music and the allegorical theme. They carefully monitor the thousands of people from each samba school during their performance. The final scores are usually close … sometimes within a tenth of a point. As you can imagine, non-winners always grumble about the results.

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Samba Music at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

You may be unfamiliar with samba music. That will change as your ears ring during the Carnival parade. The origin of the Brazilian genre came from West African slaves during the mid-19th century. The word sambar means to do the joiner’s work. Each school writes their own music for the event. In this context, the subgenre is called samba de enredo. The lyrics are sung by the school’s puxador and all of the revelers during the parade. The words reinforce the theme presented by the dancers, costumes and floats.

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Sambadrome Seating during Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Sambadrome is a 2,300 feet long street with viewing platforms on both sides. Eight of the sectors are the grandstands. These bleachers are the general admission category so get their early to claim your spot. Those on a low budget favor Sectors 10, 12 and 13. If you want to see the performers at their best, try sitting near Sector 8 where many of the judges are located. Whatever you decide, purchase your tickets well in advance so you don’t miss the show. A map of the Sambadrome with prices is available online.

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Tickets for Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Ticket prices for the parades vary significantly based on the evening and seats selected. The Grandstand section costs less than $10 USD but can be overly rowdy for tourists. Special box seats can cost up to $2,500. Tourists who arrange for Section 9 through tour companies can pay $500 to $1,000 plus round-trip transportation. This pricing scheme keeps rising each year, prohibiting many Brazilians from attending. Yet many Cariocas (Rio residents) would rather party in the streets or on the beaches.

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Tourist Safety at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

About one million foreign tourists annually attend Rio’s Carnival and Samba Parades. For many, this famous event has been on their bucket list for a long time. But is it safe? Yes, very safe. The Sambadrome is well patrolled by police and ushers. Section 9 is reserved for tourists and the views are great. You will have assigned seating so you don’t have to worry about jockeying for a place to sit. Plus, multilingual guides are there to answer your questions. So, the only things frightful will be marching in the parade.

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Crowd Participation at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The crowds at Sambadrome are electric! They are constantly cheering, singing and applauding during the samba schools’ performances. Cell phones take countless photos. Beverages are readily consumed. Smiles and laughter are in abundance. It is almost as much fun watching the audience as it is the parade. Even goblins enjoy jumping in and out of their graves.

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You Can March in Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rather than just watch all the fun during the Rio Carnival, consider joining the festivities. Most block parties welcome tourists. If you want to dress up for the occasion, you can purchase a costume from the Rio de Janeiro Independent Samba School League. Their website provides all of the details. But plan ahead. Orders must be placed by November 1. You can also learn how to become one of the marchers during the parade. Now that is a thrilling experience you will always remember!

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Economics of Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The city of Rio de Janeiro contributes about $8 million USD to sponsor the Carnival parade. In return, they generate over $40 million in tickets, TV broadcasting rights and other sources. This does not include the extra revenue from the flood of tourists. Estimates suggest foreigners spend about $800 million during Carnival season.

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Carnival and Parades across Brazil

Rio de Janeiro has the biggest reputation for hosting the Carnival. Yet it has grown into a nationwide celebration. Other cities with huge festivals and parades are São Paulo, Recife, Salvador, Olinda and Manaus.

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Drummer Queen at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

An iconic visual of the parade in Rio is the queen of the drums. You won’t miss her. She is usually scantily clad, covered with glitter and sometimes shrouded with feathers. Be prepared to elbow your husband in the ribs when she swirls by. This role began in the 1970s and quickly became an essential part of parade’s festivities.

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Rio Grande Samba School at Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Rio Grande Samba School had a social awareness theme in 2019. Their floats, music and dancers questioned the little, thoughtless things we all do that compromise today and the future. Examples were cell phone use while driving, littering, the use of plastic garbage bags and intolerance to different types of people. The school has won four championships since it started in 1988. This is Juliana Paes, the drummer queen for Acadêmicos do Grande Rio.

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Samba City Warehouse for Carnival Parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

14 of the top schools use a huge warehouse called Samba City to build and store floats plus make their costumes and rehearse routines. Cidade do Samba has an incredible one million square feet of space stretching across 14 city blocks. This is a fascinating place to tour. You will hear samba music, marvel at dance performances, watch seamstresses creating intricate costumes and see crews laboring on floats as you walk along a 26 foot high catwalk. So, if you miss experiencing Carnival in Rio, a visit to Samba City is the next best thing. The attraction is open all year.

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