26th Jan 2013 11:26am | By Andrew Westbrook
“I couldn’t work it out,” explains one beefy but confused Aussie traveller. “For two days straight I found myself walking home at sunrise, wearing little more than a miniskirt.
“Even weirder,” he continues, “is that both times they were different skirts, skirts I’d never seen before. I’ve no idea why or with who I’d swapped them for my clothes!”
Welcome to Rio Carnival, the biggest party on the planet. It’s a time when days merge into nights, sunsets into sunrises and men into women.
Cross-dressing might be optional (or accidental, apparently), but getting involved in some shape or form is inevitable.
For the best part of a week next month (February 8-12), in the hedonistic run-up to Lent, two million people will take to the streets of Rio de Janeiro each day and each night.
The roads will be alive with the pulsating rhythms of samba, endless throngs of scantily clad bodies and the zesty aroma of lime-filled caipirinhas.
And after a year of anticipation, everything is almost in place. The floats have been constructed, under James Bond-esque levels of secrecy, while the dance moves and costumes have been all but perfected.
The only thing that remains is for the residents of Rio themselves to make their final preparations.
“Carnival is a marathon not a sprint,” says Luiz Farias, a barman in his mid-twenties, with a cheeky smirk.
“It’s about free dancing, free drinking and free loving, for day after day after day. So right now we’re working on our stamina, our tans and on getting single!”
However, while the Cariocas (the locals) break hearts and brown their bodies, you might be wondering just where to start in a place where the whole city is gearing up for a celebration of dance, freedom and a week as good as the good times get. Luckily, we’ve got you covered.
Feathers, fur and plenty of flesh are, for most people, the images that first spring to mind when you mention carnival.
However, most of those iconic photos you see each year aren’t taken out on the street, but in the Sambadrome, Rio’s purpose-built cathedral to all things samba.
Recently given a fresh lick of paint in preparation for when the city hosts the 2016 Olympic Games, the Sambadrome squeezes in 90,000 spectators to shake their hips, while a further 30,000 costumed dancers do the samba along the half-mile runway.
This is where the grandest, most colourful and professional parades take place.
Organisers boast it’s the biggest stage on earth, and it’s hard to argue.
Getting tickets for the parades, however, can be a bit of a minefield, so here are the bare essentials.
First up, there are four main parade nights. The 12 biggest and best samba schools, known as the Special Group, compete on the last two nights – Sunday and Monday (February 10 and 11).
Meanwhile, 19 other not-so-special samba schools, known as the Access Group, do the deed on the Friday and Saturday nights (February 8 and 9).
The budget choice is the latter, when tickets start at around £35, rather than nearer £85 for the closing nights.
Sign up for the Friday night and you’ll also get the carnival’s opening ceremony thrown in for free.
Once you’ve picked when you’re going, you’ve then got to choose where to sit.
Ultimately, you could buy a small island for what some of the packages cost, sat among Latin America’s rich and famous, but most people will find themselves in the ‘grandstands’, which are swathes of concrete steps without allocated seating – you just turn up and hope not to get too squished.
If you want to be near the front, get there early, and if you don’t intend on dancing until dawn, bring a cushion.
In case you wonder why the prices look to the skies in the middle of the runway – around sector 10 – it’s because that’s where the drummers from every school must stop and put on a show.
The parades all start at 9pm, with each samba school’s 4000 dancers given 75 minutes to strut their stuff to impress the judges.
More: For ticket information, check out rio-carnival.net.
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