Ever been to a street party?
Truth is, if someone had asked me that question a few months ago, I’d have reeled off a bunch of outdoor urban gatherings, from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations to Notting Hill Carnival. Hell, I might have even thrown in a couple of sleepovers from when I was a prepubescent and we used to roller blade up and down the pavement at the end of my parents’ driveway.
But now, and with no disrespect to our reigning monarch, those tiny highlights on my social calendar feel like insignificant non-events, when compared with the world’s biggest street party – Rio Carnival.
That’s because, until you’ve had your limbs squashed up against thousands of international revellers dressed in the most ludicrous and elaborate costumes you’ve ever seen – the sun beating down on a sea of shimmering bronzed bodies; until you’ve been propositioned for a kiss from a 14-year-old bisexual boy (for the record I said no); until you’ve drunk beer and caiparinhas on the Lapa steps in the early hours of the morning while discussing the meaning of life with a bloke who moments earlier was trying to push you cocaine; and until you’ve done this every day for over a week, from dawn till dusk, and let’s be honest, on one or two occasions, from dawn till dawn, you haven’t experienced a true street party.
I had my reservations about Rio Carnival. After all the hype, would it live up to expectations? And would I have the energy or the inclination to keep up the party spirit for well over a week? I needn’t have worried.
What I do wish I’d had, however, are a few pointers on how best to experience Rio Carnival, to really make the most of it. So, on that note, here are my top 10 tips:
1. Plan your accommodation ahead of time
I have to admit, I came up trumps with this one. You might even say I was a total jammy git. That’s because I have the most wonderful family living in Rio, and they were kind enough to allow me and my friend Christina to stay with them for a full week last February. I can never repay their generosity.
If you’re not so fortunate, I recommend you think about where you’ll be staying well ahead of time. Hostel beds in massive dorms quadrouple in price to at least £60 a night. Great alternatives would be to consider CouchSurfing or to book a large apartment share months before. I met one guy who’d booked an apartment without knowing anyone who’d be in Rio, then arrived a week or so before Carnival and mopped up a bunch of disorganised backpackers to split the cost between them, giving him a rent-free week.
2. Get yourself a funky fancy dress outfit
I failed miserably at this one and regretted not having been more proactive in the run up to Rio Carnival. Not everyone dresses up, but the majority of people can be seen sporting hilarious costumes, from giant diapers to drag, and from pirates to porn stars. My token gesture was to put a giant flower in my hair. Pathetic I know, but if nothing else, it helped my friends find me among the masses.
3. Find a great crowd of friends to hang out with
Sure, it might be tougher to keep track of a large group, but it’s generally more fun and safer to build up the numbers. If you’re meeting people at the start point of a street parade, choose a very obvious spot, like a popular cafe, and stick to times. We had a few issues with multiple metro exits and delayed arrivals. It would be a good idea to have a few functioning mobile phones within the group, to save wasting hours waiting in the wrong place or searching a heaving mass of thousands in the vague hope you might find people you know.
As soon as you do meet up, decide on a meeting place for later, in case you’re separated. Believe me, unsynchronised toilet stops, differing food van preferences and a bit too much alcohol will make this inevitable.
Whoever took this was either highly inebriated, or needs to refer to my earlier post on how not to take a photo…
4. Pick up a guide to the best blocos
The street parties are known as blocos throughout Brazil. They are localised parades of varying sizes organised by a particular suburb or carnival association. The most famous one is Banda de Ipanema, which draws around 250,000 party seekers and should definitely not be missed.
To get an idea of what’s happening where and when, and to help you plan your party route, you can turn to local newspapers or internet listings. However, I found the most useful source of information to be a little booklet I picked up at the information desk at the bus terminal. They also give out free maps with bus schedules. Mine was in tatters by the time I left, which just goes to prove its value.
5. Be a sensible drunk
I’m not your mum. I won’t order you to go easy on the booze. But there is one golden rule you should stick to at these kinds of events, and that’s not to accept drinks from strangers. Buying a can or caiparinha from a vendor is fine – and there are plenty of those – but it’s not worth risking a potential roofie spiking. We’ve all seen The Hangover, and no one wants to wake up with a facial tattoo, or God forbid, something worse having happened to them.
I’d also recommend taking along your own booze. Preferably something other than beer. Not only will it save you cash, but you won’t spend the majority of your sacred party time tracking down and queuing for a portaloo while a bunch of angry drunks slur at you in indecipherable Portuguese.
6. Mingle with the locals
There’s never a better time than when everyone is gathered for one common goal to get to know a bunch of complete strangers. Where, only days earlier, it might have been seen as strange to strike up a conversation with a passerby in the street (didn’t stop a few dodgy men, but that’s beside the point), it’s now the perfect time to practice your Portuguese, get some inside info on what it’s like to live in Rio, or simply whistle, shout and sing to your heart’s content with people you will never likely see again.
We met a lovely couple who invited us to a barbecue the following evening. Just beware of this lechy pirate…
7. Prepare for the heat
Never are that bottle of sunscreen and flask of water as important as when you’re crammed into the centre of a street with thousands of people between you and refuge. The sun can be blisteringly hot in Rio, especially during the summer months, and if there’s anything worse than waking up with a sore head it’s waking up with full-body third-degree sunburn as well.
You’re likely to be drinking more than you would typically during the hottest hours of the day, and some of the parties will go on for way longer than your typical night out, so stay hydrated and use protection. While we’re on that subject, I’ve never been handed so many free condoms as I was during that week, so at least that’s one fewer thing to worry about!
8. Buy some Engov
I’ve just realised that most of my tips are centred around drinking, but, let’s face it, it’s a party, and that’s what most people do…usually to excess. That’s where these bad boys come in. Pop into any Brazilian pharmacy and ask the shop assistant to show you where the Engov is, then buy it in bulk.
Each packet contains two tablets – one to be taken just before you get on it, and the other when you’ve had your last shot of the evening and can no longer walk in a straight line.
They’re a mixture of caffeine, paracetamol and some kind of miracle ingredient, and somehow they wipe out any chance of a hangover the next day. They also make a great little budget holiday gift for your friends back home – if you have any left by the end of Rio Carnival…
9. Know your transport options
If you’re staying near the street party then great. If you intend to continue partying until the morning, when public transport is set to return to a respectable level of service, even better. But what you definitely don’t want is to get stranded on the dark streets of Rio at night time.
Before you set off to each event, make sure you have good knowledge of the travel options available. The buses tend to terminate their usual service at around 11 pm. Taxis can also be hard to come by when half the population of the city is trying to get home from the same place.
We found that a good option was to catch one of the many night service minibuses. They have their final destination printed on the front window and pull up at various predetermined stops to yell to people on the street to get on. They’re also colour coded with stripes along the side. Familiarise yourself with their branding so you don’t end up getting conned by any other minibus drivers with less respectable intentions.
10. Book parade tickets
It would be a crime to be in Rio during carnival and not attend the sambadrome parade. Tickets go on sale months before the event, but you can probably get away with waiting until a few weeks beforehand and still get good seats. The best seats are in the middle few blocks since you get a better view of the whole procession. I was glad to be quite high up as you can take in the full panorama, and if you have a good zoom on your camera, you still get to see the detail. Don’t pay extra for the tourist block. Who’s to say another tourist is less likely to rob you than a local?! And, while you should always keep an eye on your valuables, you shouldn’t have to worry too much. It’s a great atmosphere and you should feel safe.
If you don’t want to spend around US$100 on a good viewing spot, you can probably pick up tickets for next to nothing from your hostel or hotel in the few days running up to the parade, but bear in mind that your view will be heavily restricted and you will probably have to stand the whole time – no easy feat considering each show runs from 9 pm to around 7 am.
Have you been to Rio Carnival before? Do you have any other useful tips? Or can you suggest a similar experience that might come close to rivaling this one? I’d be very interested to hear, so please comment below.
Where to stay in Rio
I was very lucky to have family to stay with during the Carnival period, when hostels became more expensive and were fully booked way in advance, but where would I have stayed if I hadn’t been so fortunate?
I tried out a few hostels in Rio and my favourite, by a long shot, was Books Hostel in Lapa. In fact, it was one of my favourite hostels in South America. I went back to it twice after visiting other parts of Brazil, and I visited it in the evenings when I made the mistake of trying out a hostel near Copacabana Beach for a few nights. The guy who runs is – Felipe – is awesome, and there is a sense of homeliness to it that makes almost every backpacker extend their stay. Decorated with quirky graffiti murals and left-behind shoes, and with a small bar serving cachaca and beers every evening, it’s the perfect place to socialise with new friends before checking out the famous street parties of Lapa.