How to Do Carnaval in Rio Like a VIP
If you thought you missed the big party in Rio de Janeiro last summer, when the city hosted South America’s first Olympic Games, take heart: You still have a chance to go to Carnaval, which culminates this year on Feb. 27 and 28 after a few weeks of buildup. And for what it’s worth, Carnaval (or Carnival) is always the biggest, sexiest, most exciting party in Rio—even when you compare it to the Games.
That wasn’t always the case.
“Outside of a few great parties and the main events at the Sambadrome [or Sambódromo, where the dance competitions take place], Carnaval used to be pretty subdued,” explained Martin Frankenberg, a Brazil specialist at Matuete who has celebrated the holiday in Rio more times than he can count on both hands.
He explained that the Carnaval you see in movies (the one that’s in your travel dreams) is a recent reinvention: “It’s what Carnaval was originally about—street parties, free love, free everything. We’ve seen a huge resurgence of that. Now the street parties take over the city in a huge way, whereas 10 years ago it used to be pretty subdued.” He calls the current version of Carnaval ‘food for your soul’—or, more accurately, the little part of your soul that thinks it’s still in its early twenties.
Yes, surviving Carnaval typically requires a constant stream of caipirinhas and espresso shots. But for the luxury-leaning, Frankenberg has lots of tips and tricks to tailor a trip to any personality—as long as that personality has the willingness to take on a few Back Samba Shuffle Steps and shoulder shimmies.
A key point, he said, is to have a local guide.
“Carnaval is made up of about 50 individual blocos [street parties] that each draw as many as 2 million people to the streets,” he said. They all have one thing in common: live music. But from there, there’s tons of variation: Some blocos are family friendly, some are rowdier, some are (relatively) small, with just 500 attendees, some have more traditional music, and so on."
We pair every guest with a guide who understands their travel profile and how intense they want to be,” said Frankenburg.
Battling the Sambadrome
Then there’s the main event: the showdown of samba schools at the Sambadrome, an Oscar Niemeyer-designed parade hall that stretches a half mile through central Rio, with a jaw-dropping seating capacity of 90,000. Frankenberg likens the competition to a premiere football league with 12 teams, all facing off in a fierce annual showdown. Points are awarded for storytelling, dancing ability, costumes, music, percussion, and so forth. Each year one team is demoted to a junior level, while one from the lesser ranks is promoted—just to fuel their fire.
Attending can feel a little like being in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, if you're not savvy. “Most tickets don’t have assigned seats, so you’ll see people get to the Sambadrome in time for breakfast to get good seats and stay until the show is over at 6 a.m.,” he said.
Frankenberg's strategy is to buy assigned seats in the frisas, or front boxes, where the $460 ticket gets you an up-close view of the costumes without having to wait around all day. This year, a new section of luxury boxes will debut: They’re fully enclosed, offering the venue's only protection against inclement weather. But Frankenberg said rain is rare during Rio's summer nights, so the $1,100 price tag may not be worth it.
The strategy about when to arrive is just as important.
“I’ll buy my seats, go out for dinner, and arrive at 11 p.m., when things are starting to pick up,” he said, not putting much pressure on punctuality. The shows generally start at 9 p.m., but “very few tourists have the stamina to stay the whole night,” confessed Frankenberg. Watching three or four of the six shows is generally more than enough.
Better yet, Frankenberg can get guests into the parade itself—a service very few outfitters offer.
Each year, he strikes a partnership with two samba schools that are scheduled to perform earlier in the evening (read: not at 5 a.m.). He buys official costumes from them and gets the scoop on the music they’re using for their performances. Guests can then learn the lyrics ahead of their trip, and they can hold on to the costumes as keepsakes after rocking them down the so-called “samba runway.”
“It’s like being in a Fellini movie,” said Frankenberg of the backstage vibes. “Everyone is fully dressed and getting psyched up.” The whole experience costs roughly $750.
Book It Now
Sound like fun? Book now. You have a limited amount of time to snag seats in the Sambadrome’s frisas, as the good seats are starting to sell out. Hotel inventory is still available, if running slim. At press time, there were just a few rooms left at the Emiliano, one of the city’s poshest places to stay, but the beloved Fasano was already sold out. And you can still claim one of the 1,000 tickets to the Copacabana Palace Ball—the most exclusive party in town.
What's more, according to travel app Hopper, now is the right time to buy flights.
Last year, tickets to Rio hovered around $1,200 for the three months prior to Carnaval but took a sudden dip to $900 with just 40 days to go. This year, prices are more favorable on the whole; Hopper’s fare analysts consider bargain fares to be in the low $800 range for departures from Los Angeles, Newark, Miami, and Washington. Good deals from other major U.S. cities are hewing closer to $900.
Just bear in mind the following logistics: A trip to Rio during Carnaval won’t include much sightseeing, if any, as the streets are too jammed. And most hotels will require you to stay for a minimum of four nights. So plan to arrive on the Friday or Saturday, scope out the Copacabana Palace Ball on Saturday night, and then plan to party and rest up in bursts until Tuesday. Then, said Frankenburg, you can wrap it all up with a few days of R&R (recovery and rehab, perhaps) in the beautiful beach towns of Trancoso or Paraty.