Carnival in Rio

Rio De Janeiro must have the most beautiful setting of any large city in the world. The sprawl of 7 million people snakes around ocean bays, islands, towering rock pinnacles, lakes, tropical rainforests and of course its famous sandy beaches. Inside it may have its rougher edges but it makes a great first impression. And traveling around the city, you are frequently surprised by a gorgeous view that unexpectedly opens up as you turn a corner.

Laurel spent a week in Rio 10 years ago to show Oil & Water at the Rio International Film Festival, which had venues all across town. On this trip, she was eager to revisit some old favorite spots and also spend substantial time in the museums of the city to get a deeper understanding of their air conditioning systems (extremely hot humid weather was correctly forecast for our visit).

Our welcoming party. Don’t look too closely or you’ll see that several men are peeing off the dock. We were told that Rio gets a complete hose-down after Carnival.

But as soon as we arrived, these plans began to crumble under the reality of Rio during the main week of Carnival (they spell it “Carnaval” but my auto-correct does not approve, so we’ll stick with the English spelling). Our first view into the city revealed a huge party with thousands of people dressed in brightly colored outfits, completely blocking the streets. “Dressed” is perhaps the wrong word – “undressed?” The standard attire for women was a tiny bikini, perhaps overlaid with neon fishnet stockings. Men were mostly shirtless and in shorts, often jazzed-up with a rainbow tutu or a metallic fabric. Many also accessorized with fanciful add-ons like glitter, a pair of bunny ears or angel wings.

This was our first view of “Blocos” – the street parties that pop-up all over Rio during Carnival. At all times of day and night, there are several going on at different spots around town. Some might have only a few hundred participants, others, hundreds of thousands. Every few hours, one party dissolves and another forms in a different area. On the sidewalks throughout the city, you see endless streams of costumed (un-costumed?) people migrating from one party to another. It all made travel from one part of town to another time consuming and unpredictable…but very entertaining.

Before arriving in Rio, we received many warnings about the high crime rate and the importance of taking precautions. Under most circumstances, roving bands of drunk revelers would make us even more on edge. But that wasn’t the case at all. The joy of the people in the parties was palpable and infectious. Maybe at night things get more wild, but when we were out during the day, the blocos were full of smiles and good cheer. It is hard to feel threatened by a man in a tutu and bunny ears.

When most people think of Rio’s Carnival, they think of the big samba parade with colorful floats and dancers wearing giant feather headdresses and little else. We were more than a little apprehensive about attending the parade (especially considering that it started at 10pm and ran until 6am) but it was a rare opportunity that we couldn’t pass up. We imagined a crush of spectators lining a street, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on steroids, but the reality was more reminiscent of a crowded but well-organized stadium event like the Super Bowl or a Taylor Swift concert. We had tickets to a section of reserved seats called “Frisas” that were pretty close to the action and the people around us were mostly tourists. The bleachers above and across from us seemed like where the more boisterous locals sat. “Sat” is actually a misnomer because actually everyone stands and dances the whole time (or in the case of tourists like ourselves, tentatively sways to the beat).

The parade is a contest among 12 “schools” (teams) and each has an hour to present their show. Each is accompanied by an original song, looping over and over until it worms its way deeply into your subconscious. Most of the locals have learned the words to the songs beforehand and sing along. The floats (about six per school) are more elaborate and huge than anything imagined in a parade in the US: several stories tall and studded with dancers and robotic elements. Between each float are platoons of costumed dancers. The song, floats and dancers are all coordinated to tell a linear story as you watch the parade. They were about surprisingly weighty topics, like indigenous rights or the life of an important author, but always presented with exuberance and glamour.

And every year the schools must come up with a new story, new song, new floats, new costumes…the effort is unimaginable. It is only possible because each school is a community effort with 10’s of thousands of active participants working all year for this one event. The 60,000 Seahawk fans at Lumen Field imagine themselves as the 12th man of the team, but in Rio it really is a community effort and you can imagine the pride and enthusiasm that all of those genuine team members feel when their Super Bowl comes around.

In the recent Barbie movie, Ken says “actually my job, it’s just Beach.” But the real experts are at Copacabana beach, a 2.5-mile carpet of sand in the middle of Rio. The first sign that the locals really know how to “do beach” are the soaker hoses laid across the sun-scorched sand to provide cool paths for bare feet. Although the beach is very wide, everyone knows to pack tightly at the water line where the air felt about 20 degrees cooler than the “feels like 104” that our weather apps panicked about. Under each of the approximately one billion umbrellas was a family or group of friends happily chatting, listening to music or building sandcastles. Every 100 feet or so along the splash zone was a small circle of friends bouncing a soccer ball between around. Looking down the length of the beach, it sometimes looked like a popcorn machine of flying neon-colored balls. Some women sported tiny bikini tops made of electrical tape, which a recent article in The Guardian says are prized for their ability to create the crispest tan lines. These people are real pros.

Across the street from Copacabana beach, is a famous all-you-can-eat restaurant called Marius Degustare.  Every inch of the ceiling and walls is dripping with kitschy knick-knacks, most with a nautical theme but also the odd full-sized car or giant Coke bottle. They put a flag on each table to represent the country (or Brazilian state) you are from and we could see it was quite a diverse crowd. The woman sitting alone at the table next to us personified this: she was Kenyan-born, Texas-raised, worked for the Nordstrom headquarters in Seattle, but was living and working remotely in Rio. A bejeweled self-serve buffet had dozens of hot and cold food options, and waiters circulated with an endless variety of meat and seafood.

It was all tasty, though in retrospect, eating lukewarm shrimp stew from a buffet at 3pm in a developing country probably wasn’t a good idea. The restaurant is featured in the book 1000 Places To See Before You Die, which seemed a little too appropriate when Laurel came down with a nasty bout of food poisoning. Thankfully, she survived to eat another day. In the future, we’ll stick to Yelp for restaurant recommendations.  

Here are a few videos from the big parade so you can get a feel for the atmosphere. First some fancy floats: one with an Amazonian rainforest tribe, one with a lion and one with an Aquaman-like character. Here is example of the costumed dancers between floats. And finally, a longer clip of a highly mechanized hummingbird float here that puts all the elements together. If you want a little taste of a live bloco, here you go.