Rio Is Carnaval

Rio Is Carnaval

He opens the door and makes a face in disgust, as if someone else
and not he was responsible for that malodorous apartment.
He starts by the trash, by the dishes and only the next day
in the afternoon he finds a plunger and cleans the sink…
He doesn’t even notice he is humming "Just One of Those Things".
By Brazzil Magazine

Language Courses

The Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos (IBEU) (255-8332) has a variety of
Portuguese-language classes that start every month or two. The cost for a four-week course
that meets three times a week is about $150. For information stop by Avenida Nossa Senhora
de Copacabana 690, on the 5th floor.

Next door to IBEU is a Casa Matos store which sells the language books for the IBEU
courses. It’s a good place to pick up a book or dictionaries to study Portuguese on your
own. Other places that offer courses include Britannia (511-0143), with branches in
Botafogo, Leblon and Barra; Berlitz (240-6606) in the Centro and Ipanema; and Feedback
(221-1863), in the Centro, Copacabana, Ipanema, Botafogo and Barra.

Organized Tours

City Tours

Most of the larger tour companies operate sightseeing tours of Rio. They include Gray
Line (294-1444; fax 2595847), Expeditours (287-9697; fax 521-4388) and Kontik-Franstur
(255-2442). Their brochures are sitting on the reception desks of many hotels. Tours cover
the usual tourist destinations and their prices are quite reasonable. A four-hour tour to
Corcovado and Tijuca costs around $25.

For a more personalized tour, Rio Custom Tours (274-3217), run by Maria Lúcia Yolen,
is recommended. Maria Lúcia is an excellent guide who likes to show that Rio is not all
samba, beaches and Corcovado. Some of her tours include the Sunday mass at São Bento,
complete with Gregorian chants, a trip to the Casa do Pontal and its excellent folk-art
collection, and a tour through Santa Teresa. She will pick you up and drop you off at your

Historic Rio Tour

Run by art historian Professor Carlos Roquette (322-4872), who speaks English and
French as well as Portuguese, these tours bring old Rio to life. Itineraries include a
night at the Teatro Municipal, colonial Rio, baroque Rio, imperial Rio and a walking tour
of the Centro. Professor Roquette really knows his Rio, and if you have an obscure
question, I’m sure he would welcome it.

Favela Tour

If you want to visit a favela you’d be crazy to do it on your own. Since large
amounts of cocaine are trafficked through them each week, there are lots of young,
heavily-armed characters around. Don’t get the idea though, that favelas are
complete slums. The ones I’ve seen reminded me more of some poor country village. But
unless you go with a local, there will be a lot of suspicious eyes on you. The safest
alternative is to take one of the favela tours that now operate in Rio. Marcelo
Armstrong (322-2727, mobile 989-0074) is the pioneer of favela tourism. He takes
individuals and small groups to visit Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, and Vila
Canoas near São Conrado. The tour takes in a school, medical center and private houses,
and you come away with a good idea how a favela operates. Some of the climbs are
steep, so you need to be reasonably fit. You can take a camera, but ask permission before
taking anybody’s picture and don’t take photos of suspicious or armed characters. Avoid
going after heavy rain, because mudslides are common.

Villa Riso Colonial Tour

Villa Riso in São Conrado, next to the Gávea Golf Club, recreates a colonial fazenda
(farm), complete with employees wearing colonial gear. The house and gardens actually date
from the early 18th century. A three-hour tour includes a buffet lunch (normally a feijoada
or churrasco) and a medley of Brazilian theatrical music. You must make
reservations (322-1444; fax 322-5196). The cost is $40 and this includes picking you up
and returning you to your hotel.

Bâteau Mouche

On New Year’s Eve 1988, 55 people out of the 59 on board drowned when an overloaded
Bâteau Mouche bay cruiser capsized in Baía de Guanabara. This private company still runs
cruises, and they’re much more careful with the number of passengers they let on board.
Their modern boats cruise the bay and go out into the Atlantic. They usually have a
morning and afternoon cruise that costs from $25 to $35. The scene is too slick-touristy
for our taste but the voyage out into the ocean is undeniably beautiful. Don’t take their
bay cruise, because for a 50th of the price you can take a ferry or hydrofoil to Paquetá
island and cover much of the same ground while traveling with the locals.

Ferry to Niterói

This is the poor person’s Bâteau Mouche. It costs about $0.30 and the views are great,
particularly returning to Rio around sunset. Over at Niterói you can walk around a bit to
see Rio’s poor relation or catch a local bus to Niterói’s beaches. Leaving from Praça 15
de Novembro (in Centro), the ferry goes every 20 minutes and is always full of commuters.
Buses to Praça 15 de Novembro include: from Flamengo, No. 119; from Copacabana, No 119,
413, 415, 154, 455 or 474; and from Ipanema, No 474 or 154.


Carnaval is a pagan holiday originating perhaps as Roman bacchanalia celebrating Saturn
or in the ancient Egyptian festival of Isis. Carnaval was a wild party during the Middle
Ages until tamed in Europe by Christianity, but the sober Church of the Inquisition could
not squelch Carnaval in the Portuguese colony, where it came to acquire African rhythms
and Indian costumes.

People speculate that the word Carnaval derives from carne-vale, meaning
`goodbye meat’. The reasoning goes something like this: for the 40 days of Lent, nominally
Catholic Brazilians give up liver or flank steaks. To compensate for the big sacrifices
ahead, they rack up sins in a delirious carnal blow-out in honor of King Momo, the king of

Carnaval is celebrated everywhere in Brazil and each region has a particular way of
celebrating. In Bahia, Carnaval is celebrated in the streets under the blasting
loudspeakers of the trio elétrico trucks; in Recife and Olinda merry-makers dance
the frevo. These are more authentic Carnavals than Rio’s glitzy celebration, which
has become the big draw for the tourism industry. More than anywhere else in Brazil,
Carnaval in Rio is a spectator event, but it’s a fantastic spectacle nonetheless.

Every year wealthy and spaced-out foreigners descend on Rio en masse, get drunk, get
high, bag some sunrays and exchange exotic diseases. Everyone gets a bit unglued at this
time of year and there are lots of car accidents and murders. Some of the leaner and
meaner Cariocas can get a little ugly with all the sex, booze and flash of money.
Apartment rates and taxi fares triple and quadruple and some thieves keep to the spirit of
the season by robbing in costume.

The excitement of Carnaval builds all year and the pre-Lenten revelry begins well
before the official dates of Carnaval. A month before Carnaval starts, rehearsals at the escolas
de samba (samba clubs) are open to visitors on Saturday. The rehearsals are usually in
the favelas. They’re fun to watch, but, for your safety, go with a Carioca.
Tourist Carnaval shows are held all year round at Scala, Plataforma I and up top at Pão
de Açúcar.

The escolas de samba are actually predated by the bandas (nonprofessional
equivalents of the escolas de samba), which are now returning to the Carnaval scene
as part of the movement to return Rio’s Carnaval to the streets. Last year there was a
Banda de Ipanema, a Banda do Leblon, a Banda da Boca Maldita and a Banda Carmen Miranda,
among others. The bandas are great fun, a good place to loosen up your hip joints
for samba, and there are excellent photo opportunities; transvestites always keep the
festivities entertaining.

Riotur has information on the scheduled bandas, or you could just show up in
Ipanema (most of them are in Ipanema), at Praça General Osório or Praça Paz around 5 pm
or so, a couple of weekends before official Carnaval. Other street festivities are held in
Centro on Avenida Rio Branco. Riotur has all the information in a special Carnaval guide.

Carnaval Balls

Carnaval balls are surreal and erotic events. In one ball at Scala we saw a woman
(transsexual?) bare her breasts and offer passers-by a suck while rickety old ladies were
bopping away in skimpy lingerie. A young and geeky rich guy was dancing on tables with
prostitutes past their prime, young models and lithe young nymphets, all in various stages
of undress. Breasts were painted, stickered with adhesive tattoos, covered with fishnet
brassieres or left bare. Bottoms were spandexed, G-stringed or mini-skirted.

More action took place on the stages. One stage had a samba band, the other was crushed
with young women. They didn’t dance, but ground their hips and licked their lips to the
incessant, hypnotic music and the epileptic flashing of the floor lights. Throngs of
sweaty photographers and video crews mashed up to the stage. Everyone played up for the
camera, vying for space and the attention of the photographers. The Vegas headdresses, the
pasty-faced bouncers and the rich men in private boxes overlooking the dance floor lent a
Mafioso feel to the place.

Carnaval is the holiday of the poor. Not that you could tell from the price of the
tickets to the balls. Some of them cost more than the minimum monthly wage. There are
snooty affairs like the ones at the Copacabana Palace (255-7070, $80), Hotel
InterContinental (322-2200, $150) or the new venue in Barra, the Metropolitan (385-0515,
$90 plus a stiff cab fare). Raunchier parties are held in Leblon at Scala (239-4448, $40),
Canecão (295-3055, $40) in Botafogo and Help disco in Copacabana, ($20). Tickets go on
sale about two weeks before Carnaval starts and the balls are held nightly for the week
preceding Carnaval and through Carnaval. Buy a copy of the Veja magazine with the
Veja Rio insert. It has details of all the balls and bandas.

There are three rules of thumb: beautiful, flirtatious and apparently unescorted women
are either escorted by huge, jealous cachaça-crazed men wielding machetes, or else
they are really men dressed up as women; everything costs several times more within the
club than outside; and, finally, don’t bring more money than you’re willing to
lose—the club bouncers are big, but not that effective.

Street Carnaval

What do Cariocas do in the afternoon and early evening during Carnaval? They
dance in the streets behind bandas (marching bands with brass and percussion
instruments), which pump out the banda theme song and other Carnaval marching
favorites while they move along. To join in the fun, all you need to do is jump in when
you see the banda pass. They are one of the most traditional aspects of Carnaval in
Rio. There are many bandas and including Banda de Ipanema, one of our favorites.
This is a traditional banda that parades two Saturdays before Carnaval from Praça
General Osório in Ipanema. It’s full of drag queens and party animals. It starts around 5
pm and goes until around 9 pm. The banda also parades again on Carnaval Saturday.

Banda Carmen Miranda, with its famous gay icon, is also lot of fun, not only for gays
but everyone. It parades through Ipanema around 4 pm on the Sunday before Carnaval. There
are lots of bandas in Copacabana before and during Carnaval too.

The street parades in Avenida Rio Branco in the Centro and Boulevard 28 de Setembro in
Vila Isabel, both on Carnaval Saturday, are really worth checking out, but you won’t see
many other tourists there. Just carry a few dollars in your pocket for beers and a snack,
and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

The Sambódromo Parades

In the Sambódromo, a tiered street designed for samba parades, the Brazilians harness
sweat, noise and confusion and turn it into art. The 16 top-level samba schools prepare
all year for an hour of glory in the sambódromo. The best escola is chosen
by a hand-picked set of judges on the basis of many components including percussion, the samba
enredo (theme song), harmony between percussion, song and dance, choreography,
costume, storyline, floats and decorations and others. The championship is hotly
contested; the winner becomes the pride of Rio and Brazil.

The parades begin with moderate mayhem, then work themselves up to a higher plane of
frenzy. The announcers introduce the escola, the group’s colors and the number of
wings. Far away the tone voice of the puxador starts the samba. Thousands more
voices join him, and then the drummers kick in, 600 to 800 per school. The booming drums
drive the parade. This samba enredo is the loudest music you’re ever likely to hear
in your life. The samba tapes flood the airwaves for weeks prior to the beginning of
Carnaval. From afar the parade looks alive. It’s a throbbing beast slowly coming
closer—a pulsing, Liberace-glittered, Japanese-movie-monster slimemould threatening
to engulf all of Rio in samba and vibrant, vibrating mulatas.

The parades begin with a special opening wing or abrealas, which always displays
the name of the school and the theme of the escola. The whole shebang has some
unifying message, some social commentary, economic criticism or political message, but
it’s usually lost in the glitter. The abrealas is then followed by the commissão
de frente, who greet the crowds. The escola thus honors its elderly men for
work done over the years.

Next follow the main wings of the escola, the big allegorical floats, the
children’s wing, the drummers, the celebrities and the bell-shaped Baianas twirling
in their elegant hoop skirts. The Baianas honor the history of the parade itself,
which was brought to Rio from Salvador da Bahia in 1877. The mestre-sala (dance
master) and porta-bandeira (standard bearer) waltz and whirl. Celebrities, dancers
and tambourine players strut their stuff. The costumes are fabulously lavish:
1.5-meter-tall feathered headdresses, flowing sequin capes and rhinestone-studded

The floats gush neo-baroque silver foil and gold tinsel. Sparkling models sway to the
samba, dancing in their private Carnavals. All the while the puxador leads in song,
repeating the samba enredo for the duration of the parade. Over an hour after it
began, the escola makes it past the arch and the judges’ stand. There is a few
minutes’ pause. Globo and Manchete TV cranes stop bobbing up and down over the Pepsi caps
and bibs of the foreign-press corps. Now, garbage trucks parade down the runway clearing
the way for the next escola. Sanitation workers in orange jump suits shimmy, dance
and sweep, gracefully catching rubbish thrown from the stands and then taking their bows.
It’s their Carnaval too. The parade continues on through the night and into the morning,
eight more samba schools parade the following day, and the week after, the top eight
schools parade once more in the parade of champions.

Getting tickets at the legitimate prices can be tough. Many tickets are sold 10 days in
advance of the event; check with Riotur on where you can get them, as the outlet varies
from year to year. People queue up for hours and travel agents and scalpers snap up the
best seats. Riotur reserves seats in private boxes for tourists for $200.

If you do happen to buy a ticket from a scalper (don’t worry about finding
them—they’ll find you), make sure you get both the plastic ticket with the magnetic
strip and the ticket showing the seat number. Different days have different colored
tickets, so check the date as well.

Don’t fret if you don’t get a ticket. It’s possible to see the show without paying an
arm and a leg. The parades last eight to 10 hours each and no one can or wants to sit
through them that long. Unless you’re an aficionado of an escola that starts early,
don’t show up at the sambódromo until midnight, three or four hours into the show.
Then you can get tickets at the grandstand for about $10. And if you can’t make it during
Carnaval, there’s always the cheaper (but less exciting) parade of champions the following

If you can avoid it, don’t take the bus to or from the sambódromo; it’s safer
to take the metro, which is open 24 hours a day during Carnaval. It’s also fun to check
out the paraders in their costumes on the train.

By the way, there’s nothing to stop you taking part in the parade. Most samba schools
are happy to have foreigners join one of the alas (wings). All you need is between
$200 and $300 for your costume and you’re in. It helps to arrive in Rio a week or two in
advance to get this organized. Ask at the hotel how to go about it. It usually takes just
a few phone calls.

Places to Stay

Rio has a star system. Hotels are ranked from one star for the cheapest to five for the
most luxurious. Rio has 12 five-star hotels to choose from, 22 four-star hotels, 40
three-star hotels, 16 two-star hotels, three one-star hotels, 23 aparthotels, 36 motels
and 47 hotels unclassified by Embratur (our specialty), but still regulated.

So what do these stars mean? Well, a five-star hotel has a pool or two, at least two
very good restaurants, a nightclub and bar, gym, sauna and a beauty salon. A four-star
hotel has a good restaurant, a sauna and a bar. A three-star hotel may have everything a
four-star hotel has, but there’s something that downgrades it; the furnishings may be a
bit beat-up, cheaper, or a bit sparser. There’s a big gap between three-stars and
two-stars. A two-star hotel is usually clean and comfortable, but that’s about all. By the
way, all hotels with a star rating have air-con in the rooms, though some of the older
models sound like you’re in a B-52 bomber! All rated hotels also have a small frigobar
(refrigerator) in the rooms; sometimes empty or full of nibbles costing triple what they
would in the nearby supermarket. Bathrooms have bidets, a sign of the continental

Below one and two-stars there are still plenty of decent places to stay if you’re
traveling on a tight budget and need a safe place to sleep. Air-con is usually optional
(if available), but mostly the rooms have fans. Hotels which are not regulated by Embratur
may try to slip in additional charges and other assorted petty crimes against the tourist.
Threaten to call Sunab price regulation if this happens, discuss a price before accepting
a room and also ask if a 10% service charge is included.

Breakfast is usually included in the room rate. It ranges from sumptuous buffets at the
top-end to coffee and a bread roll at the bottom. In between there should be fresh juice,
good coffee, fresh rolls with a slice of ham and cheese and a couple of pieces of fruit.

Reservations are a good idea in Rio, especially if you plan to stay in a mid-range or
top-end hotel. Aside from the fact that a reservation ensures you a room, you can save up
to 30% on the room rate just by booking in advance. If you want to make sure you have an
ocean view, request it when you make your reservation. It will cost around 20% more than
other rooms. At Carnaval time hotel prices go up and everyone gives dire warnings of there
being no places to stay. It’s not a good time to arrive without a reservation, even the
bottom-end places get full.

Read the book for a list of hotels

Places to Eat

As in most of Brazil, restaurants in Rio are abundant and cheap. The plates at the many
lanchonetes are big enough to feed two and the price is only $3 to $4. For
something lighter, and probably healthier, you can eat at a suco bar. Most have
sandwiches and fruit salads. Make a habit of asking for an embalagem (doggie bag)
when you don’t finish your food. Wrap it and hand it to a street person.

For a list of restaurants read the book.

Excerpts from Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit, 3rd edition, by
Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey, Leonardo Pinheiro,  and Robyn Jones. For more
information call Lonely Planet: (800) 275-8555. Copyright 1996 Lonely Planet Publications.
Used by permission.

Buy it at

Lonely Planet
Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit

by Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey,
Leonardo Pinheiro, Robyn Jones,
704 pp.

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