Rio de Janeiro Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
The citizens of the fourteen-million-strong city of Rio de Janeiro call it the Cidade Marvilhosa – and there can’t be much argument about that. Although riven by inequality, Rio has great style. Its international renown is bolstered by a series of symbols that rank as some of the greatest landmarks in the world: the Corcovado mountain supporting the great statue of Christ the Redeemer; the rounded incline of the Sugar Loaf mountain, standing at the entrance to the bay; and the famous sweeps of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, probably the most notable lengths of sand on the planet. It’s a setting enhanced annually by the frenetic sensuality of Carnaval, an explosive celebration that – for many people – sums up Rio and its citizens, the cariocas. The major downside in a city given over to conspicuous consumption is the rapacious development that has engulfed Rio. As the rural poor, escaping drought and poverty in other regions of Brazil, swell Rio’s population, the city has been squeezed like a toothpaste tube between mountains and sea, pushing its human contents ever further out along the coast. Over the decades, much of the city’s rich architectural heritage has been whittled away, along with the destruction of much of its natural environment.
Sitting on the southern shore of the magnificent Guanabara Bay, Rio has, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most stunning settings in the world. Extending for 20km along an alluvial strip, between an azure sea and forest-clad mountains, the city’s streets and buildings have been moulded around the foothills of the mountain range that provides its backdrop, while out in the bay there are many rocky islands fringed with white sand. The aerial views over Rio are breathtaking, and even the concrete skyscrapers that dominate the city’s skyline add to the attraction. As the former capital of Brazil and now its second largest city, Rio has a remarkable architectural heritage, some of the country’s best museums and galleries, superb restaurants and a vibrant nightlife – in addition to its legendary beaches. With so much to see and do, Rio can easily occupy a week and you may well find it difficult to drag yourself away.
The state of Rio de Janeiro, surrounding the city, is a fairly recent phenomenon, established in 1975 as a result of the amalgamation of Guanabara state and Rio city, the former federal capital. Fairly small by Brazilian standards, the state is both beautiful and accessible, with easy trips either northeast along the Costa do Sol or southwest along the Costa Verde, taking in unspoilt beaches, washed by a relatively unpolluted ocean. Inland routes make a welcome change from the sands, especially the trip to Petrópolis, a nineteenth-century mountain retreat for Rio’s rich.
It’s easy to get out of Rio city, something you’ll probably want to do at some stage during your stay. The easiest trips are by ferry just across the bay to the Ilha de Paquetá – a car-free zone popular with locals – or to Niterói, whose Museu de Arte Contemporânea has become an essential sight for visitors to Rio. After that, the choice is a simple one: either head east along the Costa do Sol to Cabo Frio and Búzios, or west along the Costa Verde to Ilha Grande and Paraty; both coasts offer endless good beaches and little holiday towns, developed to varying degrees. Or strike off inland to Petrópolis and Teresópolis, where the mountainous interior provides a welcome, cool relief from the frenetic goings-on back in Rio.
Inter-urban buses fanning out to all points in the state make getting out of the city easy. If you plan on renting a car, this is as good a state as any to brave the traffic: the coasts are an easy drive from the city and stopping off at more remote beaches is simple; additionally, having your own wheels would let you get to grips with the extraordinary scenery up in the mountains.
The ILHA DE PAQUETÁ is an island of one square kilometre in the north of Guanabara Bay, an easy day-trip that is very popular with cariocas at weekends. It was first occupied by the Portuguese in 1565 and later was a favourite resort of Dom João VI, who had the São Roque chapel built here in 1810. Nowadays, the island is almost entirely given over to tourism. About two thousand people live here, but at weekends that number is multiplied several times by visitors from the city, here for the tranquillity – the only motor vehicle allowed is an ambulance – and the beaches, which, sadly, are now heavily polluted. Still, the island makes a pleasant day’s excursion – with colonial-style buildings that retain a certain shabby charm – and the trip is an attraction in itself: if possible, time your return to catch the sunset over the city as you sail back. Weekdays are best if you want to avoid the crowds, or come in August for the wildly celebrated Festival de São Roque.
Excellent bus services from Rio de Janeiro make the interior of the state easily accessible, and its mountainous wooded landscape and relatively cool climate are a pleasant contrast to the coastal heat. There’s not a great deal in the way of historical interest, but the scenic beauty of the countryside, studded with small towns still bearing their colonial heritage, is an attraction in itself.
One of Brazil’s most beautiful mountain regions, the Parque Nacional da Serra dos Órgãos straddles an area of highland Atlantic rainforest between Petrópolis and Teresópolis. The main features of the park are dramatic rock formations that resemble rows of organ pipes (hence the range’s name), dominated by the towering Dedo de Deus (“God’s Finger”) peak. There are tremendous walking possibilities in the park, with the favourite peaks for those with mountain-goat tendencies being the Agulha do Diablo (2050m) and the Pedra do Sino (2263m); the latter has a path leading to the summit, a relatively easy three-hour trip (take refreshments). There are some campsites but no equipment for rent, so you’ll need to come prepared.
Approaching from Petrópolis, take one of the frequent buses to Corrêas (30min; R$3) and change to a #616 “Pinheiral” bus (hourly; 35min; R$3), which will leave you near the park entrance.
To many people, coffee and Rio de Janeiro are synonymous, a legacy of the nineteenth century when Brazil completely dominated the trade. But Rio’s coffee boom was actually short-lived, getting under way in the 1820s and collapsing suddenly in 1888 as a consequence of the abolition of slavery, on which plantation owners were completely dependent. Many of the more resourceful farmers migrated south to São Paulo to take advantage of Italian and other immigrant labour and the availability of fertile, well-watered land. Furthermore, single-crop farming on the hilly terrain of the Paraiba Valley had resulted in serious levels of soil erosion, while the felling of the forest to plant coffee bushes altered the climate, causing draught. The “coffee barons” either abandoned their fazendas (plantations) or looked for other uses of their land. Dairy farming was eventually found to work, and today almost all the land is given over to cattle grazing – the area, some 200km west of Petrópolis, is a peaceful backwater, with the evidence of the coffee boom most clearly apparent in the fazenda houses that are left standing in various states of repair.
With a few days and, ideally, a car, a visit to the Paraiba Valley can be fascinating. The area can be reached in two hours from Rio, and is a convenient stop-off if travelling between Petrópolis and Paraty, or other points on the coast. A particularly attractive place to make for is Rio das Flores, a sleepy little place dotted with grand fazenda houses, some right alongside the approach road to town, others hidden from view off side-roads. The tourist information office at Rua Cesar Nillares 120 can usually help with visiting these houses, and you can even stay in one, the Fazenda Santo Antônio, set amidst beautiful gardens some 22km southeast of town. The six guest rooms are either in the impeccably preserved casa grande, or plantation house, that dates back to 1842, or in the former senzala, or slave quarters, and there’s a pool and horses to ride. The helpful English-speaking owner and his wife can make arrangements for visits to neighbouring properties: the slightly run-down look of Fazenda Campos Eliseos, established in 1847, contrasts greatly with the beautifully preserved Fazenda Santa Justa, the detail of the period decor of the casa grande seemingly leaping from the pages of a coffee-table book.
The best time to visit both city and state, at least as far as the climate goes, is between May and August, when the region is cooled by trade winds, the temperature remains at around 22–32°C and the sky tends to be clear. Between December and March (the rainy season), it’s more humid, with the temperature hovering around 40°C; but even then it’s rarely as oppressive as it is in northern Brazil, and there’s a chance of blue sky for at least part of the day.
Although it sometimes seems that one half of Rio is constantly being robbed by the other, don’t let paranoia ruin your stay. It’s true that there is quite a lot of petty theft in Rio – pockets are picked and bags and cameras swiped – but use a little common sense and you’re unlikely to encounter problems. Most of the real violence affecting Rio is drug related and concentrated in the favelas. In addition, there are certain areas that should be avoided.
In Centro, contrary to popular belief, Sunday is not the best time to stroll around – the streets are usually empty, which means you can be more easily identified, stalked and robbed. The area around Praça Mauá, just to the north of Centro, should be avoided after nightfall, and even during the day care should be taken. In the Zona Sul’s Parque do Flamengo it’s also inadvisable to wander unaccompanied after nightfall. Similarly, tourists who choose to walk between Cosme Velho and the Corcovado have been subject to robbery and assault – both of which can be best avoided by taking the train. Copacabana ’s record has improved since the authorities started to floodlight the beach at night, but it’s still not a good idea to remain on the sand after sunset.
Much of historical Rio is concentrated in Centro, with pockets of interest, too, in the neighbouring Saúde and Lapa quarters of the city. You’ll find you can tour the centre fairly easily on foot, but bear in mind that lots of the old historical squares, streets and buildings disappeared in the twentieth century under a torrent of redevelopment, and fighting your way through the traffic – the reason many of the streets were widened in the first place – can be quite a daunting prospect.
From Rio’s Bay of Guanabara to the Bay of Sepetiba, to the west, there are approximately 90km of sandy beaches, including one of the world’s most famous – Copacabana. Rio’s identity is closely linked to its beaches, which shape the social life of all the city’s inhabitants, who use them for recreation and inspiration. For many, they provide a source of livelihood, and a sizeable service industry has developed around them, providing for the needs of those who regard the beach as a social environment.
Rio’s beaches may attract hordes of tourists but they’re first and foremost the preserve of cariocas. Rich or poor, old or young, everybody descends on the beaches throughout the week, treating them simply as city parks. The beaches are divided into informal segments, each identified by postos (marker posts) assigned a number. In Copacabana and Ipanema in particular, gay men, families, beach-sport aficionados and even intellectuals claim specific segments, and it won’t take you long to identify a stretch of sand where you’ll feel comfortable.
Looking good is important on Rio’s beaches, and you’ll come across some pretty snappy seaside threads. Fashions change regularly, though, so if you’re really desperate to make your mark you should buy your swimsuits in Rio. Keep in mind that although women may wear the skimpiest of bikinis, going topless is completely unacceptable.
Maintaining an even tan and tight musculature is the principal occupation for most of Rio’s beachgoers. Joggers swarm up and down the pavements, bronzed types flex their muscles on parallel bars located at intervals along the beaches, and beach football on Copacabana is as strong a tradition as legend would have it. There’s lots of volleyball, too, as well as the ubiquitous batball, a kind of table tennis with a heavy ball, and without the table.
A lot of people make their living by plying food – sweets, nuts, ice cream – and beach equipment along the seashore, while dotted along the sand are makeshift canopies from which you can buy cold drinks. Like bars, most of these have a regular clientele and deliver a very efficient service. Coconut milk, côco verde, is sold everywhere, and is a brilliant hangover cure.
The water off many of the beaches can be dangerous. The seabed falls sharply away, the waves are strong, and currents can pull you down the beach. Mark your spot well before entering the water, or you’ll find yourself emerging from a paddle twenty or thirty metres from where you started – which, when the beaches are packed at weekends, can cause considerable problems when it comes to relocating your towel. Copacabana is particularly dangerous, even for strong swimmers. However, the beaches are well served by lifeguards, whose posts are marked by a white flag with a red cross; a red flag indicates that bathing is prohibited. Constant surveillance of the beachfronts from helicopters and support boats means that, if you do get into trouble, help should arrive quickly.
Pollution is another problem to bear in mind. Although much has been done in recent years to clean up Guanabara Bay, it is still not safe to swim in the water from Flamengo or Botafogo beaches. While the water beyond the bay at Copacabana and Ipanema is usually clean, there are times when it – and the beaches themselves – aren’t, especially following a prolonged period of heavy summer rain, when the city’s strained drainage system overflows with raw sewage.
Natural dangers aside, the beaches hold other unwelcome surprises. Giving your passport, money and valuables the chance of a suntan, rather than leaving them in the hotel safe, is madness. Take only the clothes and money you’ll need – it’s quite acceptable to use public transport while dressed for the beach.
For a bird’s-eye view of Rio’s beaches and forest, take off with an experienced pilot on a tandem hang-glider flight from the Pedra Bonita ramp on the western edge of the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, 520m above the beach at São Conrado. Depending on conditions, flights last between ten and thirty minutes, flying alongside the mountains and over the forest and ocean before landing on the beach at São Conrado.
The most experienced operator, Just Fly, offers flights daily when weather permits, which includes pick-up and drop-off from your hotel.
In a low-wage economy, and with minimal social services, life is extremely difficult for the majority of Brazilians. During the last forty years, the rural poor have descended upon urban centres in search of a livelihood – often unable to find accommodation, or pay rent, they have established shantytowns, or favelas, on any available empty space, which in Rio usually means the slopes of the hills around which the city has grown.
Favelas start off as huddles of cardboard boxes and plastic sheeting, and slowly expand and transform: metal sheeting and bricks provide more solid shelters of often two or more storeys. Clinging to the sides of Rio’s hills, and glistening in the sun, they can from a distance appear not unlike a medieval Spanish hamlet, perched secure atop a mountain. It is, however, a spurious beauty. The favelas are creations of need, and their inhabitants are engaged in an immense daily struggle for survival, worsened by the prospect of landslides caused by heavy rains, which could tear their dwellings from their tenuous hold on precipitous inclines.
Life for some of Rio’s favela dwellers is slowly changing for the better, however. Bound together by their shared poverty and exclusion from effective citizenship, the favelados display a great resourcefulness and cooperative strength. Self-help initiatives – some of which are based around the escolas de samba that are mainly favela-based – have emerged, and the authorities are finally recognizing the legitimacy of favelas by promoting favela-bairro projects aimed at fully integrating them into city life. Private enterprise, too, is taking an interest as it becomes alert to the fact that the quarter of the city’s population that live in favelas represents a vast, untapped market.
Wandering into a favela does not, as many middle-class cariocas would have you believe, guarantee being robbed or murdered. Law and order is essentially in the hands of highly organized drugs gangs, but it’s simply not in their interest to create trouble for visitors, as this would only attract the attention of the police who normally stay clear of favelas. Alone, you’re liable to get lost and, as in any isolated spot, may run into opportunistic thieves, but if accompanied by a favela resident you’ll be perfectly safe and received with friendly curiosity. For the majority of people, however, the best option is to take a tour, with the most insightful and longest-established run by Marcelo Armstrong. Marcelo, who speaks excellent English, is widely known and respected in the favelas that are visited and has made a point of getting community approval. It is strongly advised to make your own arrangements with Marcelo rather than through a travel agent or hotel front desk, where you may end up with an inferior tour and be charged too much – some operators treat the favelas rather as they might an African game park, ferrying groups in open-topped camouflaged jeeps. But if you’re worried about voyeurism, you shouldn’t be: residents want outsiders to understand that favelas are not in fact terrifying and lawless ghettos, but inhabited by people as decent as anywhere else, eager to improve the local quality of life.
Marcelo’s highly responsible tours usually take in two favelas: Roçinha, Rio’s largest, with around 200,000 inhabitants, and Vila Canoas, much smaller, with some 3000 residents. Twice a day, tourists are picked up from their hotels or pre-arranged spots in the Zona Sul for the two-hour tour, which stops at lookout points, a day-care centre, a bar and other places of interest. Marcelo offers a fascinating commentary, pointing out the achievements of favelas and their inhabitants without romanticizing their lives. For more information, check out www.favelatour.com.br.
The Instituto Moreira Salles is one of Rio’s most beautiful private cultural centres. Located in the former home of the Moreira Salles family (the owners of Unibanco, one of the country’s most important banks), the house, built in 1951, is one of the finest examples of modernist residential architecture in Brazil. Designed by the Brazilian architect Olavo Redig de Campos – with gardens landscaped by Roberto Burle Marx, who also contributed a tile mural alongside the terrace, the building has been open to the public since 1999. Important exhibitions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting and photography are staged and there’s a tearoom that serves light lunches, cakes and ice creams, and a good, but expensive, high tea. It’s a good half-hour walk to the Instituto from the Jockey Club; alternatively, you can take bus #170 from Centro (Av. Rio Branco), Botafogo, Humaitá or Jardim Botânico, or #174 from Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon.
When the Portuguese arrived, the area that is now the city of Rio was covered by dense green tropical forest. As the city grew, the trees were felled and the timber used in construction or for charcoal. However, if you look up from the streets of Zona Sul today, the mountains running southwest from the Corcovado are still covered with exuberant forest, the periphery of the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, which covers an area of approximately 120 square kilometres.
In the seventeenth century, the forests of Tijuca were cut down for their valuable hardwood and the trees replaced by sugar cane and, later, coffee plantations and small-scale agriculture. In the early nineteenth century, the city authorities became alarmed by a shortage of pure water and by landslides from the Tijuca slopes, and in 1857, a reafforestation project was initiated: by 1870, over 100,000 trees had been planted and the forest was reborn. Most of the seeds and cuttings that were planted were native to the region, and today the park serves as a remarkable example of the potential for the regeneration of the Mata Atlântica.
Following on from the success of the forest, fauna have gradually been reintroduced to the extent that it is once again the home of insects and reptiles, ocelots, howler monkeys, agoutis, three-toed sloths and other animals. Most successful of all has been the return of birdlife, making Tijuca a paradise for birdwatchers. At the same time, however, overstretched park rangers have been struggling to keep residents of the eight neighbouring favelas from hunting wildlife for food or for trade.
As one of the world’s most exotic tourist resorts and with (for Brazil) a relatively large middle-class population, Rio is well served by restaurants offering a wide variety of cuisines – from traditional Brazilian to French and Japanese. In general, eating out in Rio is not cheap – and can, in fact, be very expensive – but there’s no shortage of low-priced places to grab a lunchtime meal, or just a snack and a drink. Cariocas generally dine late, and restaurants don’t start to fill up until after 9pm. Last orders are usually taken around midnight, but there are some places where you can get a meal well after 2am.
The best way to find out what’s on and where in Rio is to consult Caderno B, a separate section of the Jornal do Brasil, which lists cinema, arts events and concerts; O Globo, too, details sporting and cultural goings-on in the city. Veja, Brazil’s answer to Newsweek, includes a weekly Rio supplement with news of local events; the magazine reaches the newsstands on Sunday. Regardless, you should never find yourself stuck: there’s no end of things to do come nightfall in a city whose name is synonymous with Carnaval, samba and jazz.
If you’re expecting Rio’s gay nightlife to rival San Francisco’s or Sydney’s, you may well be disappointed. In general, nightlife is pretty integrated, with gay men, lesbians and heterosexuals tending to share the same venues; apart from transvestites who hang out on street corners and are visible during Carnaval, the scene is unexpectedly discreet.
A good starting-point for an evening out is Rua Visconde Silva in Botafogo, which is lined with gay- and lesbian-oriented cafés, bars and restaurants that are liveliest on Friday and Saturday nights. The classic introduction to Rio’s more traditional male gay society is Le Ball, a bar in the Travessa Cristiano Lacorte, just off Rua Miguel Lemos, at the Ipanema end of Copacabana. Opposite this, the Teatro Brigitte Blair hosts a gay transvestite show from around 10pm. Also in Copacabana, the bar and nightclub Inc (formerly called Encontros), at Praça Serzedelo Correia 15, next to Rua Siquera Campos, is open nightly and very popular, although mainly with tourists.
In Lapa, at Rua Mem de Sá 25, behind a pink facade under the Aqueduto da Carioca, the Cabaré Casanova is Rio’s oldest and most interesting gay bar. In business since 1929, the Casanova features drag shows, lambada and samba music, with large ceiling fans to cool down the frenetic dancers. The most popular gay nightclub is undoubtedly Le Boy at Rua Raul Pompéia 102 in Copacabana, towards Ipanema. Based in a former cinema, this huge club is open nightly apart from Mondays and features dancefloors, drag shows and much more besides.
The strip of beach between Rua Farme de Amoedo and Rua Teixeira do Melo in Ipanema is the best-known daytime gay meeting-point. For Ipanema’s post-beach gay crowd, there’s Bofetada, a bar and café at Rua Farme de Amoedo 87. The beach area in front of the Copacabana Palace Hotel is also frequented by gay bathers, and the café next door, Maxims, is a fun gay place to hang out. Nearby on Avenida Atlântica at the junction with Rua Siqueira Campos, is the Gay Kiosk Rainbow, a summertime information point for gay visitors – ask about circuit parties, usually held in Centro.
For information about Rio’s gay balls, see the carnival in Rio de Janiero page. If it’s tours highlighting Rio’s gay history you’re after, Carlos Roquette, a rather dapper former federal judge turned tour guide, can help you to explore. Useful websites on gay and lesbian Rio include www.riogayguide.com and www.riogaylife.com, while www.arco-iris.org.br offers more political and campaigning insights, but the website is only in Portuguese.
It’s not hard to find things to buy in Rio, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find much that’s distinctively Brazilian. Throughout the city are shops geared to tourists (most of which sell a similar line in semi precious stones, mounted piranha fish and T-shirts), but the best shopping area is undoubtedly Ipanema, with a wealth of boutiques lining Rua Visconde de Pirajá and its side streets. Books and CDs make good purchases – sales assistants in music stores are usually delighted to offer recommendations and you’ll be able to listen before you buy. Of Rio’s markets, the so-called Hippie Market in Ipanema has nowadays become very touristy; much better is the Babilônia Feira Hype in Gávea, the Mercado das Pulgas at Largo dos Guimarães in Ipanema, or the Feira de Antiguidades at Praça Santos. For arts, crafts and food from Brazil’s Northeast, there’s nowhere better than the Feira Nordestina in the Zona Norte.
Top image © Marcos Amend/Shutterstock
Carnaval is celebrated in every Brazilian city, but Rio’s party is the biggest and flashiest of them all. From the Friday before Ash Wednesday to the following Thursday, the city shuts up shop and throws itself into the world’s most famous manifestation of unbridled hedonism. Carnaval’s greatest quality is that it has never become stale, thanks to its status as the most important celebration on the Brazilian calendar, easily outstripping either Christmas or Easter. In a city riven by poverty, Carnaval represents a moment of freedom and release, when the aspirations of cariocas can be expressed in music and song. And at the end of the very intense long weekend, there’s a brief collective hangover before attention turns to preparing for the following year’s event.
The origins of Carnaval in Rio can be traced back to a fifteenth-century tradition of Easter revelry in the Azores that caught on in Portugal and was exported to Brazil. Anarchy reigned in the streets for four days and nights, the festivities often so riotous that they were formally abolished in 1843 – this edict was ignored, however, allowing street celebrations to stand out as the most accessible and widely enjoyed feature of Carnaval ever since. In the mid-nineteenth century, masquerade balls were first held by members of the social elite, while processions, with carriages decorated in allegorical themes, also made an appearance, thus marking the ascendancy of the procession over the general street melee. Rio’s masses, who were denied admission to the balls, had their own music – jongo – and they reinforced the tradition of street celebration by organizing in Zé Pereira bands, named after the Portuguese tambor that provided the basic musical beat. The organizational structure behind today’s samba schools (escolas da samba) is partly a legacy of those bands sponsored by migrant Bahian port workers in the 1870s – theirs was a more disciplined approach to the Carnaval procession: marching to stringed and wind instruments, using costumes and appointing people to coordinate different aspects of the parade.
Music written specifically for Carnaval emerged in the early twentieth century, by composers such as Chiquinho Gonzaga, who wrote the first recorded samba piece in 1917 (Pelo Telefone), and Mauro de Almeida e Donga. In the 1930s, recordings began to spread the music of Rio’s Carnaval, and competition between different samba schools became institutionalized: in 1932, the Estação Primeira Mangueira school won the first prize for its performance in the Carnaval parade. The format has remained virtually unchanged since, except for the emergence in the mid-1960s of the blocos or bandas: street processions by the residents of various bairros, who eschew style, discipline and prizes and give themselves up to the most traditional element of Carnaval – street revelry, of which even the principal Carnaval procession in the Sambódromo is technically a part.
Rio’s street celebrations centre on the evening processions that fill Avenida Rio Branco (metrô to Largo do Carioca or Cinelândia). Be prepared for the crowds and beware of pickpockets: even though the revellers are generally high-spirited and good-hearted, you should keep any cash you take with you in hard-to-reach places (like your shoes), wear only light clothes and leave your valuables locked up at the hotel.
Most of what’s good takes place along Avenida Rio Branco. The processions include samba schools (though not the best); Clubes de Frevo, whose loudspeaker-laden floats blast out the frenetic dance music typical of the Recife Carnaval; and the Blocos de Empolgacão, including the Bafo da Onça and Cacique de Ramos clubs, between which exists a tremendous rivalry. There are also rancho bands playing a traditional carioca carnival music that predates samba.
The samba schools, each representing a different neighbourhood or social club, are divided into three leagues that vie for top ranking following the annual Carnaval parades. Division 1 (the top league) schools play in the Sambódromo, Division 2 on Avenida Rio Branco and Division 3 on Avenida 28 de Setembro, near the Maracanã.
Preparations start in the year preceding Carnaval, as each school mobilizes thousands of supporters to create the various parts of their display. A theme is chosen, music written and costumes created, while the dances are choreographed by the carnavelesco, the school’s director. By December, rehearsals have begun and, in time for Christmas, the sambas are recorded and released to record stores.
The main procession of Division 1 schools – the Desfile – takes place on the Sunday and Monday nights of Carnaval week in the purpose-built Sambódromo, further along the avenue beyond the train station; the concrete structure is 1.7km long and can accommodate 90,000 spectators. The various samba schools – involving some 50,000 people – take part in a spectacular piece of theatre: no simple parade, but a competition between schools attempting to gain points from their presentation, which is a mix of song, story, dress, dance and rhythm. The schools pass through the Passarela da Samba, the Sambódromo’s parade ground, and the judges allocate points according to a number of criteria. Each school must parade for between 85 and 95 minutes, no more and no less.
Regardless of the theme adopted by an individual samba school, all include certain basic elements within their performances. The bateria, the percussion section, has to sustain the cadence that drives the school’s song and dance; the samba enredo is the music, the enredo the accompanying story or lyric. The harmonia refers to the degree of synchronicity between the bateria and the dance by the thousands of passistas (samba dancers); the dancers are conducted by the pastoras, who lead by example. The evolução refers to the quality of the dance, and the choreography is marked on its spontaneity, the skill of the pastoras and the excitement that the display generates. The costumes, too, are judged on their originality; their colours are always the traditional ones adopted by each school. The carros alegóricos (no more than 10m high and 8m wide) are the gigantic, richly decorated floats, which carry some of the Figuras de Destaque (“prominent figures”), amongst them the Porta-Bandeira (“flag bearer”) – a woman who carries the school’s symbol, a potentially big point-scorer. The Mestre-Sala is the dance master, also an important symbolic figure, whose ability to sustain the rhythm of his dancers is of paramount importance. The Comissão da Frente, traditionally a school’s “board of directors”, marches at the head of the procession, a role often filled these days by invited TV stars or sports teams. The bulk of the procession behind is formed by the alas, the wings or blocks consisting of hundreds of costumed individuals each linked to a part of the school’s theme.
In addition to a parade, every school has an Ala das Baianas – a procession of hundreds of women dressed in the flowing white costumes and African-style headdresses typical of Salvador – in remembrance of the debt owed to the Bahian emigrants, who introduced many of the traditions of the Rio Carnaval procession.
The parade of schools starts at 7.30pm, with eight Division 1 schools performing on each of the two nights, and goes on until noon the following day. Two stands (7 & 9) in the Sambódromo are reserved for foreign visitors and seats cost over R$150 per night. Though much more expensive than other areas, the seats here are more comfortable and have good catering facilities. Other sections of the Sambódromo cost from R$15 to R$60 and there are three seating options: the high stands (arquibancadas), lower stands (geral) and ringside seats (cadeiras de pista) – the last being the best, consisting of a table, four chairs and full bar service.
Unless you have a very tough backside, you will find sitting through a ten-hour show an intolerable test of endurance. Most people don’t turn up until 11pm, by which time the show is well under way and hotting up considerably. Tickets are available from the organizers online or at premium prices from travel agents in Rio. Book well in advance, or try local travel agents who often have tickets available for a modest commission.
In whatever bairro you’re staying there will probably be a bloco or banda – a small samba school that doesn’t enter an official parade – organized by the local residents; ask about them in your hotel. These schools offer a hint of what Carnaval was like before it became regulated and commercialized. Starting in mid-afternoon, they’ll continue well into the small hours, the popular ones accumulating thousands of followers as they wend their way through the neighbourhood. They all have a regular starting-point, some have set routes, others wander freely; but they’re easy to follow – there’s always time to have a beer and catch up later.
Some of the best blocos are: the Banda da Glória, which sets off from near the Estação Glória metrô station; the Banda da Ipanema (the first to be formed, in 1965), which gathers behind Praça General Osório in Ipanema; the Banda da Vergonha do Posto 6, starting in Rua Francisco Sá in Copacabana; and the Carmelitas de Santa Teresa, which gathers in the bairro of the same name. There are dozens of others, including several in each bairro of the Zona Sul, each providing a mix of music, movement and none-too-serious cross-dressing – a tradition during Carnaval in which even the most macho of men indulge.
It’s the Carnaval balls (bailes) that really signal the start of the celebrations – warm-up sessions in clubs and hotels for rusty revellers, which are quite likely to get out of hand as inhibitions give way to a rampant eroticism. The balls start late, normally after 10pm, and the continual samba beat supplied by live bands drives the festivities into the new day. At most of the balls, fantasia (fancy dress) is the order of the day, with elaborate costumes brightening the already hectic proceedings; don’t worry if you haven’t got one, though – just dress reasonably smartly.
You’ll often have to pay an awful lot to get into these affairs, as some of the more fashionable ones attract the rich and famous. There’s none grander than the Magic Ball held at the Copacabana Palace Hotel drawing the elite from across the world. For the privilege of joining in, expect to pay well over R$1000 – black tie or an extravagant costume is obligatory. If you’ve got the silly costume but a little less money, other lavish balls worth checking out include the Pão de Açúcar, on the Friday before Carnaval, halfway up the famous landmark – spectacular views, exotic company, but well over R$200 a head and very snobby. The Hawaiian Ball, hosted by the Rio Yacht Club, opens the season on the Friday of the week before Carnaval: it takes place around the club’s swimming pool, amid lavish decorations, and is popular and expensive (about R$150); tickets are available from the Yacht Club, on Avenida Pasteur, a few hundred metres before the Sugar Loaf mountain cable-car terminus. On the same Friday, other big parties take place, with the Baile de Champagne and the Baile Vermelho e Preto being amongst the most important. The latter (the “Red and Black Ball”) has developed a particular reputation as a no-holds-barred affair. Named after the colours of Rio’s favourite football team, Flamengo, it’s a media event with TV cameras scanning the crowds for famous faces – exhibitionism is an inadequate term for the immodest goings-on. In Leblon, the Monte Libano (t 21/3239-0032 for details) hosts a number of “last days of Rome” festivities – the Baile das Gatas, Baile Fio Dental, even Bum Bum Night – sexually charged exercises all, though safe to attend and reasonable at around R$50 a ticket. In recent years, the Rio Scala club at Av. Afrânio de Melo Franco 292, Leblon, has become an important centre for balls, each night of Carnaval hosting a different school of samba. To reserve a table (R$300), go to the box office at least five days before the event. To stand, you can simply show up on the night.
There are a number of gay balls, too, which attract an international audience. The Grande Gala G is an institution, usually held in the Help disco on Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica. Another is the Baile dos Enxutos, hosted by the Hotel Itália on Praça Tiradentes, Centro.
If you can’t make Carnaval, give the shows put on for tourists in the Zona Sul a miss and get a taste of the samba schools at the ensaios (rehearsals) below. They take place at weekends from August to February: phone to confirm times and days. After New Year, Saturday nights are packed solid with tourists and prices triple. Instead, go to one on a midweek evening or, better still, on Sunday afternoon when there’s no entrance fee and locals predominate.
Most of the schools are in distant bairros, often in, or on the edge of, a favela, but there’s no need to go accompanied by a guide. It’s easy, safe and not too expensive to take a taxi there and back (there are always plenty waiting to take people home). Of the schools, Mangueira is certainly the most famous; it has a devoted following, a great atmosphere and includes children and old people amongst its dancers. The gay-friendly Salgueiro has a more white, middle-class fanbase.
The Cidade do Samba, a purpose-built arena and studio complex in Centro, is an even easier way of observing Carnaval preparations. All the Division 1 schools are represented here and their daily musical and dance demonstrations are produced for the public.