Having had the opportunity to do my year abroad in Rio de Janeiro, there was one particular event I knew I had to attend, Carnival (Carnaval in Portuguese). The Christian Festival, which is often cited as the ´world´s largest party´, certainly lives up to its name with an average of 2 million people on the street partying and taking part in parades every day. Its origin dates back to 1723, and although it has changed a lot since then (including getting much bigger!) it has kept many of its same principles including the incredibly colourful parades of samba schools.
This year the official dates of Carnival were February 24th until March 1st but what I came to learn, living in Rio, was that the festivities started much earlier and ended much later, both to my joy and dismay. The main processions (or desfiles in Portuguese) take place in the Sambadrome which is basically a huge stadium for the Carnival where people come to watch the Samba Schools of Rio parade their dancers in incredible costumes, samba singers and large and incredibly detailed floats. The parades are held at night from 10pm until 4:30am in order to avoid the heat of the sun; within the Sambadrome there are countless people selling snacks and drinks which are definitely necessary if you want to make it through the whole 6.5 hours. The atmosphere was incredible with the crowds cheering and singing for each Samba School. The variety of different colours was indescribable and once you saw the Samba Schools in the flesh it was only then you realised the countless hours of work that must have gone into the costume and float design, production and choreography. Each Samba School also had its own general theme which it tried to portray through its costumes, floats, dances and music; sometimes these were lighthearted including one school which had a musical theme with a float portraying the judges on The Voice with spinning chairs. However, others had a more controversial, political agenda such as the Portela Samba School (who won the Rio Carnival Parade) which showed the 2015 disaster of the burst dam in the Minas Gerais state of Brazil which caused 19 deaths and has been viewed as one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of Brazil. Overall, although a long night, it was completely different to anything I had seen before and an absolute must for anyone in Rio during Carnival!
Although when most people, including myself, think of Carnival they think of the parades of the Samba Schools in the Sambadrome, there are only a handful of nights when this happens and the main bulk of Carnival involves street parties, or blocos / blocquinhos, all across the city. The blocos varied hugely, some starting at 7am (yes 7am!), some much later at midnight, some official, some unofficial, some big with hundreds of thousands of people and stages of performers, some much smaller with just a few hundred people and most importantly, they each had different themes regarding the genre of music ranging from techno to rock to samba; they even had a Beatles themed bloco which was one of the most popular, appropriately named Bloco do Sargento Pimenta or (The Sergeant Pepper Street Party). This year in total there were 451 blocos and 578 desfiles (or processions) – and that doesn’t include the unofficial ones… Needless to say I didn´t make the majority. It was at this point that I started to realise quite how much the Cariocas (people from Rio) liked to party and how good at it they were! People would get up at 5am in order to get ready and then commute to street parties across the city which started at 7am which to me seemed like madness; being a university student I was used to partying until the early hours but to wake in the early hours to start partying was a whole new concept for me! It´s no wonder that many locals leave Rio during Carnival to head somewhere quieter because, as much fun as the street parties were, if you were trying to go by your normal day they could be very disruptive. Buses couldn’t go their usual routes with road closures, shops were either shut or very low on stock, cashpoints either closed off or out of money, drunk people forever coming up to you and asking for beijos (kisses) which is tradition during Carnival and obviously the increase of crime, mainly petty theft. However, saying all of this, I don´t want to end on a negative note, Carnival was INCREDIBLE and I would definitely recommend to anyone to come to Rio for it, even if it is only once in their lives! It definitely lives up to its name as the World´s Biggest Party.
Written by Julia Summers – Pontificia Universidade Catolica Do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil