The crowd of people. The lights, the sounds, the street food. The carnival is in town. Only this one is spelled Carnival (well, Carnaval) and its excitement has taken over the Cidade Maravillhosa. That Marvelous City – Rio de Janeiro.
This was our second trip to Rio. Our first time in was so much fun. Rio always looked incredible in pics and on TV and it proved to be one of those special places that more than lives up to expectations. We spent a day visiting all the great sights. Christ the Redeemer, the cable cars up Sugarloaf Mountain, etc.
Rio during Carnival is a different animal entirely. There is a palpable difference in the air. The sounds and smells. The general buzz in the air. In a city that is always filled with a natural energy this is something on a whole other level. The ordinarily crowded beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema swell with tourists and Cariocas alike. Street parties – called blocos – crowd the streets with energy as the street bands march. There are the famous ones that attract hundreds of thousands of revelers such as Banda Ipanema and the Cordão do Bola Preta with their distinctive black and white polka dots, and the hundreds of smaller, impromptu parties.
The city, truly all of Brazil, celebrates. Carnival allows the Brazilian people to put their difficulties aside and celebrate. The beaches of Brazil are egalitarian places – shared and enjoyed by rich and poor alike. During Carnaval this spreads throughout the country.
While the Portuguese brought Carnival to Brazil around 1850, it soon took on a decidely Brazilian flair. The African slaves were allowed to be free for the three days – dressing in costume and dancing. This tradition continues in the neighborhoods of Rio today.
No matter where you go in the city there are people celebrating. Groups breaking out into spontaneous chants and drum beats. The partiers in costume; from the strange to the sublime. My favorite was the guy who had made a cape out of a black, plastic trash bag and drew the Batman symbol on his bare chest with a marker!
Carnival is definitely not the time to try and see the normal tourist sights. While picking up our parade tickets in Catete, we visited the Stairs of Selaron in the nearby neighborhood of Lapa. We had missed it on our previous trip. There are always groups of people visiting the steps, but when we were there it was a madhouse. However, like all things we have found in Brazil, the people were politely stepping aside and waiting their turn to take their pictures.
Monday night was all about the Sambadrome. Twelve different samba schools put on elaborate parades with outrageous floats, hundreds of drummers, and thousands of dancers in order to win the coveted title of Campeão of the Special Group. Six parade on Sunday and the other six on Monday. The samba parade is to Carnival as the Christ the Redeemer statue is to Rio itself. It is the visual image that most people have when they hear, “Carnival in Rio”.
The parades start around 9pm and last until six the next morning – so pack a lunch! Each samba school gets 90 minutes to parade the full 700 meters of the sambadromo. The samba parade was without doubt one of the most impressive spectacles I have ever seen. The elaborate costumes, the bright colors, the singing of the parading school’s samba song is an enjoyable assault on the senses. What truly brings the magic of the sambadromo home for me is that after an hour and a half of standing and admiring a school’s parade you collapse onto your bench seat. Yet, when the drums start for the next school you are on your feet with the rest of the 70,000 strong crowd, craning your neck to catch the entry of the first line. Did I mention it’s four in the morning?
The ride home on the metro in the early hours of the morning after the parade is more subdued – the revelers have worn themselves out – but soon somebody breaks into a chant and as everyone joins in you can feel the sense of joy and pride the Cariocas feel for ‘their’ Carnaval and their city.