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The Rio carnival is the craziest shindig you’re ever likely to score an invite to. So how to make sure you have the time of your life? Simple. Read on for all the info on dates, tickets, costumes and staying safe. WORDS: JOHN MALATHRONAS

The Rio Carnival in Brazil is part Milan Fashion Week, part New Year’s Eve, part Eurovision telethon and part gay-pride exuberance, flaunted in such exotic attire that nature itself might flinch at it. It uses oceans of paint, mountains of plumes and galaxies of glitter. It makes and breaks celebrities, furnishes Brazil’s top ten tunes for weeks to come, and provides a pivot for the whole year: pre-Carnival anticipation gives way to post-Carnival hangovers that lead to debriefings for new Carnival designs and, finally, preparations for the next one. 

Most importantly, however, Rio Carnival is not a spectacle to be enjoyed passively; it demands your complete involvement and participation. Here’s a practical guide so that you can enjoy it to the max.

Getting there
The cheapest flights to Rio are the ones with TAP via Lisbon, starting at about £550 ( Even cheaper is arriving earlier, leaving later and making a longer holiday out of your trip. Another savings idea is to include Rio in a round-the- world ticket: you can get an RTW ticket to Australia or New Zealand, including Rio from just £1499 ( From Rio’s Central Station (Estação Central do Brasil at Praça Cristiano Ottoni), Intercity and Interstate buses – cheap, comfortable and air-conditioned – can take you anywhere, while the easy-to-remember GOL airlines ( is the Brazilian version of easyJet with a no-frills flying policy.

Where to stay
The bad news first: about 350,000 tourists descend on Rio during Carnival and accommodation prices double or, in some cases, triple. Hotels, hostels and pensões (B&Bs) require you book a minimum of seven days, whereas the Carnival only lasts for the five days leading to Ash Wednesday – this year, it’s from February 17-21. You can minimise the price by reserving the room directly with some of the cheaper hotels involved (that normally insist on part-pre-payment). Rio Hostel Ipanema ( is in an unbeatable location and good value for money; its sister in Santa Teresa ( is slightly away from the action but has amazing views. Medium-price hotels include the neo-classical but noisy Hotel Imperial in Catete ( and Atlantis in Arpoador, popular with surfers (

Finding the action
The good news is that once in Rio, you can get by for little. Beer in choperias (pubs) is cold and cheap, food in lanchonetes (snack bars) is plentiful, lying on the beach is free and relaxing, and you don’t have to look out for entertainment: the action finds you.

Your hotel should be able to secure you tickets for the grand processions in the Sambódromo, an Oscar Niemeyer modernist creation that seats 60,000 screaming and dancing revellers every parade night. The marching ‘samba schools’ have nothing to do with educational institutions; they are large, competing organisations whose parades are graded by judges on precision, music, concept, attire, rhythm, choreography and a dozen other aspects of the spectacle. They are organised in two divisions: the lesser-known ones march on Friday and Saturday when tickets are cheaper, while the most popular form the Grupo Especial and march on Monday or Tuesday, when prices skyrocket.

You can also buy tickets in any travel agency, but your best bet is to try in person at the Sambódromo Box Office itself for Friday or Saturday – even if you don’t get in, the area around it quickly becomes festive by itself. The best tickets are those towards the end of the parade – especially Sector 9, which sells out quickly – while the cheapest are the Grandstand tickets which are high up and where seating is unallocated.

Sambódromo parades start at 9pm and each samba school takes exactly 75 minutes to cross the 700m of the parade ground: they have to; they lose points if they don’t. However, if you are in Rio earlier you can watch the rehearsals for a pittance; these take place every weekend for at least one month leading to Carnival and are, unsurprisingly, followed by impromptu parties outside.

Yet the main, incomparable buzz of Carnival is found in full participation in these parades. You can choose the samba school you prefer (the 2011 winners were Beija Flor, but other top inclusive schools include Mocidade, Mangueira and Imperatriz), though you have to buy the set costume of your marching division, learn the basic dance movements and, if you are well advanced, chant their Carnival song. The easiest way is to view the available styles and buy via

There are cheaper attractions, too. During Carnival there are free concerts, raves and street parties every night. That’s where you can join in without having to buy expensive outfits, although dressing up will certainly improve your ‘grim gringo’ status. Start at 5pm every night at Praça Floriano in Cinelândia for a retro night with an older but still remarkably up-for-it crowd celebrating past Carnivals, continue at about 7pm in the Rua do Mercado with its al fresco dance nights, and finish under the Arches of Lapa, dancing to more contemporary Brazilian sounds from up-and-coming groups and DJs all through the night. Then, there are the blocos, where you can follow a moving sound system, can of beer in hand and gyrating hips at the ready, through a particular route. Bloco Céu da Terra at Santa Teresa kickstarts the party at 7am (!) and there are blocos in Copacabana and Ipanema every afternoon.

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