Carnival at Rio de Janeiro Brazil

How to survive the Rio Carnival

Paul RYKENFirst Published: Last Updated: Brazil

This article may contain links to products and services we use and recommend. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For more information, see our Disclosure Policy.

One of the highlights of our trip was always going to be attendance at the Rio Carnival – in fact, our start date and the initial itinerary was based around it – we even missed out on attending or performing at the Sydney Latin Festival to be in Rio during Carnival week.

Tickets and supplier feedback

I had imagined the Carnival to be primarily Samba teams dancing down the Sambadrome – and in part it was. Our Carnival tickets were purchased in August after Sandra had done some research on the best seats to view the precession from. For the 2012 event, they had rebuilt the stands on the southwestern side so the total capacity was doubled. Our tickets gave us access to sector 11 – the stand immediately opposite the judges – it is also the stand next to the singers and drummers so, in our opinion, was worth the ticket prices.

We had purchased our tickets via and were disappointed with:

  • the length of time to pick up the tickets from the local office;
  • the quality of the T-shirts (touted as quality merchandise that will remind us of our memories whenever we wear them).

Carnival is Rio

The Carnival is not just the parade in the Sambodromo. The entire city of Rio de Janeiro turns on multiple street parties in each barrio. More than two million people partying until the early hours of the morning for nearly a week. While we skirted around one street party in Ipanema (thousands of drunk and boisterous youths made us feel a little unsafe), the local one at Santa Theresa was more community-based. I had expected a lot more drums and dancing, but all we saw was a lot of generally happy drunk people all dressed up.

Everywhere we went, it felt like the Sydney Mardi Gras, but for straight people. Guys were wearing their girlfriend’s, wife’s, even their mother’s old dresses and makeup, or Fred Flintstone outfits or silly masks. Several even sported giant nappies and equally large dummies – there was no shame.

Highest quality of show on Sunday

We were well prepared for the day – we had opted to go on Sunday when the highest quality and last year’s winners would be on the show. We had an afternoon sleep and took an expensive taxi ride to the Sambodromo by 1900hours. Upon entering the area, the quality of signage, service, and entertainment was high. These people really know how to throw a party. Bring on the Soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. We had a pre-show drink and then went up to our allocated grandstand which was starting to fill up by 2000h.

The show started at 2100h and I did not leave that grandstand until 0700hours the next morning. There were seven schools on display that night each taking over 1h20m each to dance along the Sambodrome from one end to the other. I calculated there were at least 1000 performers from each school each dancing around or on the six to seven floats that were driven, pushed or pulled along.

Within each, there was a minimum of 10 different costumes. Each costume was colourful, elaborate, detailed and was used to tell part of the story. The story was the song specifically written for the school for that the Carnaval. At first, the next song never sounded as good as the previous one, but after listening to it being repeated over and over, it became quite catchy. The schools obviously had their different supporter groups in the crowd. The songs had been out on CD and available to download for months before, the words of the songs were also in the official daily programs, so the crowd was able to sing along. By the end of the 80 minutes, Sandra and I were also singing in our broken Portuguese.


As this was a competition, the quality of dancing, costumes, floats and sheer enthusiasm was amazing. We were blown away by the happiness and joy in the faces of dancers and equally of the crowd.

As each school passed by our stand, singers and drummers who had been sitting below and beside us fell in behind them to finish off and exit with their school. At first, I didn’t realize that they had been performing live.

When the final school had performed, the sun had already risen. We had been there all night – surviving on two caipirinhas, two cans of cokes, three bottles of water, one bottle of energy drink and some filled rolls we had made ourselves.

All night, Sandra had kept asking me to pinch her, as this had been a goal of hers to attend for the last four years. Me – this was up there with my attendance at events such as the Olympic Games. We had a great time, were entertained, felt safe, and if and when we ever return to Rio for the Carnival, we may even participate.

Our 2012 three-month dancing tour included many adventures including:

How to survive the Rio Carnival