If attending Carnival in Rio is not on your lifetime bucket list, it should be! Nowhere else in the world does this annual explosion of joy and dance and music and fun take over a city, indeed a country, than in Rio de Janeiro.
Carnival is at its base a religious observation in the Christian calendar. In ancient times, both the Greeks and Romans held springtime festivals to honor the gods of wine and excess (Dionysis, Bacchus and Saturnalia). It was adapted into the Christian tradition as a way of letting off some steam just before the 40-day season of Lent, which calls for prayer, self-denial and sacrifice leading up to Easter.
In Brazil, the origins of Carnival can be traced to a celebration called Entrudo, imported from Portugal, in which people would throw water, and sometimes lemons and limes, at each other on the public streets. Though most often done in fun, sometimes Entrudo could get out of hand, and authorities often tried to ban the festival over the years.
In the middle of the 19th century, a shoemaker named José Nogueira de Azevedo began to lead parades through the streets of Rio with a bass drum, inviting anyone to join him. Friends with flutes, trumpets and tambourines fell in behind him, and the parades become more and more popular.
That led to the formation of the Grandes Sociedades, groups of artistocrats marching in costumes and masks, and then to the Cordaos, groups of commoners dressed like kings, queens, witches and peasants, marching, singing and playing music. Next came the Ranchos from Rio’s poorer neighborhoods, who added costumes, elaborate masks, and orchestras to provide the background for their parades.
In 1907, the city’s few car owners began the Corso, or motorized parade, decorating their autos with streamers. By the 1930s, almost every car owner in Rio joined the parade.
At the same time, the musical tradition known as samba developed in Brazil. Originating with the descendants of African slaves, this rhythmic driving beat matched up well with the annual parades and parties of Carnival, and beginning in the 1920s, the escola de samba, or samba schools, began to evolve throughout Rio.
By the 1940s and ‘50s, these escolas developed their own theme, costumes, floats and songs each year, performing along the parade route and inviting onlookers to join in. As years went on, these themes and costumes became more and more elaborate every year.
Now, the center of Carnival is the Sambadrome, a 700-meter long section of Marquês de Sapucaí street flanked on both sides by bleacher seating that can hold 90,000 spectators or more. Each of the samba schools gets 90 minutes to parade the length of the street, showing off its costumes, bands, floats and dancing figures for the enjoyment of all. These parades last for four consecutive nights, from 8 p.m. until dawn.
You will experience the best of Rio’s Carnival from your base at the deluxe Copacabana Palace Hotel overlooking the Copacabana Beach. This beautiful Art Deco-designed hotel has long been one of the leading hotels in Rio.
You will be invited to attend the city’s official Carnival Ball, held at the Copacabana Palace. While many will be dressed in costumes and masks, you may also wear business attire. But expect a long evening of good food and drink, and plenty of music and dancing.
The next evening, you will be driven to the Sambadrome, where tickets have been procured for you in Section 9, the bleacher section reserved for tourists and visitors where the bands always stop and perform their best numbers for the crowd.
You may stay as late as you wish at the Sambadrome, enjoying the elaborate, highly choreographed parades, wildly colorful costumes, and the beat of the Brazilian spirit. It’s a wild, sensory experience, a fierce competition between the marching schools and a wonderful time. Once you’ve finished partying, a private car will be ready to whisk you back to the hotel.
Your Carnival experience will also include the usual sightseeing stops in Rio, including a visit to the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado, a tour of the Sugar Loaf mountain overlooking Rio’s waterfront, and a visit to one of the city’s top nightclubs.
Put on your party shoes and get ready for an unforgettable five day/four night celebration of …well, celebrating!