Experiencing Rio Carnaval

 So when we arrived in Rio on Friday the 13th at midnight, the first day of Carnival, with no hotel reservations, no phones or internet, and again, no cash, we knew we were way past the point of giving up. Delusional as we were, our goal was in sight and we could hear the music and smell the caipirinhas.

We came from Lima. In just a few weeks, we traveled through five countries and crossed a continent to make it to our event of the year: Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For those of you following along on our adventure, you know the pitfalls we had. Missed buses, blocked bank cards, days without proper sleep. We were on a mission and things like this couldn’t stop us.


We had meant to arrive the day before, which fairly may not have been much better. But Friday, after the start of Carnival- let’s say we weren’t the only ones with the idea to come by bus. Our bus, that we had spent a day on with quite an outrageous crowd, had taken 30 hours from Porto Alegre and arrived to Rio to sit in traffic. Once we were five minutes from reaching the terminal, every bus came to a halt.

When we finally arrived, it was as crazy as you’d expect. But the type of madness that I’m convinced only Rio can properly achieve. There were just people everywhere. Our bus couldn’t enter the parking spot until people were forced to move. Taxis were nonexistent. The ATMs had all broken because too many people were using them. Our last time here had been the World Cup, so it was a similar frenzy…except much, much more so.

From there, we proceeded to move inches every 15 minutes. We could see the terminal, but our driver refused to open the bottom because he had “cargo” he was worried would be stolen (the bus station isn’t in a good area), and so we sat inside knowing of the festivities happening all around us and waited. Like caged, samba-craved animals we watched beer vendors walk by, hands on the windows. We were being dramatic, no doubt, but our previous image of screeching to a stop in front of the terminal, running out with our bags and straight to the nearest street party was clearly far from realistic.


When we finally walked half a mile from the station to where everyone was assaulting the rare passing cabs, we snagged one. Our driver was a character, as they all are in the city, and he rolled up the windows, cranked the air conditioning way up, and cranked the Carnival samba music even higher. We drove through the streets of the downtown neighborhoods tapping our legs to the beat, trying to sing along with our driver and remembering why we came back to this enchanting place despite the madness that always followed.

We briefly considered leaving our stuff at our former hostel nearby and just trying to stay out late enough to not have to sleep that night. We entered to set down our stuff, and in one of the happiest most serendipitous moments an old friend ran by, covered in glitter and using the bathroom in between parties. She stopped in her tracks, saw us and our stuff and invited us home to stay with her. The stressor that had begun to consume the entire last leg of our journey was resolved, and we promptly hailed a taxi to Santa Teresa and passed out into the deepest stupor of relief possible..

We had him take us to the hostel we had stayed at last, in the bohemian downtown district of Lapa. We convinced him to accept dollars, emerged with our life’s luggage in our hands and looked around as if asking the city, “Now, what?”. We had nowhere to stay, first of all. We entered a random hostel that had had vacancy in the World Cup, but had since been renovated and was now completely full. The receptionist suggested we walk around asking the local “hotels” for availability (these are also very well-known as “love motels” in the area, and rent by the hour).


Vendors constantly parade through, dancing with signs advertising sacole (caipirinha, mojito or other kinds of cocktails made into a popsicle in a bag, like an alcoholic Otter Pop), yelling deals on beer, and waving tequila shots in the air. College kids dressed as clowns sell brigadeiros (chocolate dough balls), and most of the grown men are dressed in women’s dresses and wigs. If Rio is considered vibrant the rest of the year, I don’t know a word strong enough to describe this. As the heat bore down, people from the homes next to the party would periodically come out and house everyone down and the crowd would go wild. Every single person sang along to all of the lyrics, and whenever energy was dying, the band would pick things back up again and the crowd would continue on marching down the street.

So, on Day 2 of Carnaval, we officially began. We woke up in the beautiful hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa- also known for having some of the best blocos in Carnaval. As you may have seen in our Guide to Rio Carnaval, blocos are the street parties that crawl through the city every day of Carnaval, each with their own samba band, theme, and crowds following the music and singing along.

Some get up to half a million attendees, some have no more than two hundred, so you get the whole spectrum to choose from. In Santa Teresa, they’re known for being local, just big enough without the pitfalls of a massive crowd, and full of dedicated locals in every type of costume. By 8:00am, we could hear the crowds from the house, and rushed out into the sweltering heat to join them around 10. It was as if the party had already been in progress for days. Bloco in full swing, the band stood in the middle of the cobblestoned road playing as revellers circled around, standing on walls next to the side walk, jumping on each others’ shoudlers, and throwing confetti into the air.


As they day carried on, we paraded all around Santa Teresa and Lapa. We went into a super market and bought our own rolling cooler and cases of beer (our best idea yet), and no longer needed to seek out vendors. We parked our cooler in front of the Lapa Arches and stayed into the night, through rain and several band turnovers, in the giant mingling plaza of partiers. This is one of the best parts about Carnival- even though there’s a lot of intense partying and wild crowds, you can also just post up somewhere where the music will come to you and hang around with friends for hours. And somehow, it never seems to get old. By having options of things to do almost 24 hours a day for a week, time is very much on your side.

We went to bed that night feeling content, exhausted, and covered in a layer of the sweat and confetti that covers you in Carnaval. Our phones hadn’t been stolen and were full of happy memories.

And it continued like this for the next few days: Wake up, get fresh bread, make caipirinhas, decide what costume mood we were in, put on facepaint, and head to whichever neighborhood we would be taking on that day. On Sunday we were out by noon, roasting under the sun at the Bangelaflumenga bloco. By late afternoon, we were parading along the iconic beach of Ipanema at Simpatica E Quase Amor, intermittently jumping into the ocean when it got too hot, then returning to the party. By evening, the skies had turned gray and rain poured down, but the crowds continuing shimmying their way through Lapa nonetheless.


All throughout Carnival it’s amazing to see all the Brazilians or in-the-know-gringos singing along to the music, but if you’ve ever been, you can’t really participate in that part. But Beatles’ music- basically anyone can sing along with the crowd. And this several hundred thousand person crowd sings the entire time, jumping frantically to the samba band’s signature “Yellow Submarine”, and swaying along, singing and dancing to every other one. By the time we left we were walking with a bunch of new friends, had acquired an official sambodrome samba costume, and had all lost our voices completely.

Monday began even later, as happens with each new day. Sargento Pimenta, our absolute favorite bloco, was the main ticket item of Monday for the whole city, and we gathered as many friends as we could to join us at the park where it takes place. Beatles’-themed, this bloco is basically a music festival that lasts 3 hours, is free, and has the best music you could imagine. All the music is samba-style covers of Beatles’ songs, and the most wonderful part is that no matter where you’re from or if you’ve ever been to Carnival before, you can come and sing along to every single song with the rest.


Tuesday continued with smaller local blocos in Santa Teresa and Centro. We had said we’d take the day off and wait until the evening, but when we went to buy our morning bread we found the Carmelitas bloco going, and bread money soon turned into beer money and we partied in our pjs like half of the crowd. We wandered back to the house around 11am and went back to sleep. Just the start to another day of Carnival. We ended on a very different note, again dancing in the rain, at the very wild and fabulous Bloco das Quengas. Drag Queens literally stopped traffic for this party, and the personality was anything but lacking.

By Wednesday we had been everywhere, heard all of the songs, and danced until our feet were sore. Ash Wednesday is always the last day of Carnival, and the crowds become a mixture of the determined ones, the desperate ones, and us. We decided to wait until late afternoon and commited to what we knew would be the perfect last hurrah, as it had been the year before: The Super Mario Bloco. Up in Santa Teresa, Super Mario is just what you’re hoping it is- the ultimate nerd bloco, full of video game-inspired costumes, and video-game inspired samba music. All of the music that they play for 2 hours are themes and tunes from the most popular video games, and it’s amazing. The clever planners had also hung gold Mario coins from trees along the route, and as they passed, different members of the bands would take turns trying to reach them with a cut-out Mario. It was brilliant. All of the drink vendors had given their drinks video-game-inspired names, and the crowd couldn’t have been more into it.


Of course, even though Ash Wednesday is the final day, a couple of blocos continue onto Thursday and Friday, and Saturday and Sunday they’re practically in full swing again. We would visit whichever we’re closest to us, but went out with a bang with Monobloco on Sunday morning.

With the following Monday, more than a week after we had arrived, it finally came to an end. Our livers were shot, our wallets were empty, and we had all tanned about ten shades darker than before from our days on end of dancing in the sun. The house was full of the body glitter that had fallen off, and we kept finding costume items in every bag and pocket. Our long mission to Rio de Janeiro had been successful, and an incredible time at that. The Borderless Project had conquered Carnival!


For those unfamiliar, Monobloco is one of the most popular samba groups in Brazil and cover a wide range of classic and current samba songs. Brazilians love them, but usually concert tickets run a bit steep. All of their rehearsals for Carnival require a paid entrance, but then they give back to the city on the Sunday after Carnival by performing in the streets completely free on the largest avenue in the city. It’s insane, incredible, and then a bit more insane. It starts at 9am, and crowds begin gathering much earlier. And everyone holds on to the very last bit of Carnival and goes wild for their beloved Monobloco. For those staying past official Carnival dates, you can’t miss it.

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