Rio Carnival: enjoy the best party in the world on a budget
The biggest party on the planet doesn't have to cost you a fortune. It's entirely possible to enjoy Rio Carnival on a budget.
A time when you can wander the streets wearing as much or as little as you wish. When it's socially acceptable to kiss a stranger you met just a few minutes before.
Rio Carnival is the biggest street party on the planet and it's a time when social norms are forgotten and people really let loose.
But the biggest party on the planet doesn't have to cost you a fortune. It's entirely possible to enjoy Rio Carnival on a budget.
Dating back to the 19th century, Carnival is a mix of European Masquerade Balls and African tribal traditions. Paying homage to their gods, the African slaves would dress in elaborate masks, decorated with feathers, bones and paint to re-enact their religious stories and ward off bad spirits.
The origins of the word Carnival (Carnaval in Portuguese) come from the Catholic expression 'Carne Vale', or 'Goodbye to meat'. It was the last time to stuff your face and indulge before the 40 days of Lent.
Facts and stats about Rio Carnival
Rio Carnival is officially the biggest Carnival in the world.
Apart from the epic Samba School dance-off showdown in the Sambódromo (a custom-built stadium), there are also over 500 street performances (or blocos) spread all over the city (mostly free).
Rio isn't the only city partying. There are huge carnivals all over Brazil in Sao Paulo, Salvador, Recife, Manaus, etc.
Two million people take to the streets each day.
An estimated 400 million liters of beer are consumed across the whole of Brazil during Carnival.
The local economy will receive over R$3 billion ($8 million US) over the festive period.
Practical advice for Rio Carnival on a budget
The official Rio Carnival App (available on Android and iOS) is a good start.
It (allegedly) features a list of all the registered street performances, or blocos, as well as their locations and times. I say 'allegedly' because I wandered across plenty more performances that weren't on the schedule, and also got to some that had previously been cancelled.
After you find some groups you like and create your own daily schedule, cross-reference them against their individual Facebook pages for live updates. An extra bonus of the app is it also provides all the emergency numbers you may need, should you ever get into trouble.
Getting around Rio during Carnival can be tricky. Due to the sheer number of people on the streets and the various performances, lots of streets are closed and you're recommended to avoid driving and use public transport. In theory, this is a great idea but, in reality, you're probably going to end up doing a lot of walking (which is handy for keeping your Rio Carnival on a budget).
If you're using public transport, you'll want to get a RioCard. It's a top-up card which allows you to travel on buses, trains, subway and the VLT (the metrolink/tram system). You can get the card at any subway or VLT station, and top up in the station or online with a credit card. (Accurate as of March 2019 — Bus: R$4.05, VLT: R$3.80, Subway R$4.30).
A good idea would be, when using Google Maps, to save the map of Rio de Janeiro as an offline map. This way, should you be without an internet connection, you can still find your way from point A to B. If you do have an internet connection, an Uber is probably the safest option (but with the road closures you could be waiting a long time).
With regards to having an internet connection, the telephone company TIM offer a good deal exclusively for foreigners called 'Visitantes Estrangeiros'. You can get a pre-paid chip for your phone, which you can then top up at most kiosks, supermarkets, lottery shops, etc. Because it's aimed at visitors, you don't need to register or provide documentation to get the chip.
I visited Rio Carnival both in 2018 and 2019, and my experiences couldn't have been more different.
I was working during the 2018 festival, filming and photographing several blocos, so I got to stand onstage in front of thousands of revelers and wander amongst the musicians and dancers as they performed to the fans.
In 2019, I was just a spectator. I feel lucky to have a rounded perspective.
While I never partied like a rockstar, I learnt that it's entirely possible to enjoy Rio Carnival on a budget and still have an amazing time.
Carnival is a spectacular event. There are lots of flaws and areas for improvement, but as far as events go... it's unforgettable. Even if you're prepared for the noise, the smell, the heat and the general madness, it would be a miracle if you didn't feel overwhelmed.
Two million people wandering the streets from party to party, most of them dressed as superheroes, fairies, Egyptians, angels and demons... if you can imagine it, someone was probably dressed as it.
If there is a costume for everyone, there is certainly music for everyone.
Do you like Samba, Rock, Pop, Marchinha, African Rhythm, Maracatu? Do you want to dance along with a live band as they wander through the streets of Rio — an excellent way of seeing much more of the city (Bloco do Boitata)? Stand like sardines surrounded by one and a half million other people (Bloco da Bola Preta)? Or sit in a bar with a cold drink listening to rock classics with a Brazilian twist (Bloco Cru)?
Whatever your desire (and energy level), you'll find it at Rio Carnival.
2018 had temperatures hot enough to overheat and shut down my camera, and 2019 saw my girlfriend struggling to get back home due to flooded streets and knee-high water.
When you're preparing for Carnival, prepare for anything.
The drainage system in Rio is terrible, so if it's heavy rain you can expect some flooding. Check the weather forecast before heading out as it's entirely possible to get stranded and have to wait out the rain, which is neither pleasant nor entirely safe.
Of all the forecasts, I'd recommend WindGuru. It's the most accurate predictor I've used, and a favorite of surfers and water sports fanatics.
It's cheaper to bring your own food and drink, but difficult to keep things refrigerated if it's a particularly hot day. You'll find people wandering the streets selling all kinds of things, from cakes to sandwiches to beer to single shots of tequila. As a rule, they're usually fairly cheap and trustworthy, but I would strongly recommend you avoid the tequila, the catuaba (tastes nice/makes you crazy) and anyone selling a caipirinha for R$5. The saying "cheap and cheerful" does not apply to street alcohol.
As I said earlier, most of the street parties are free and you can just turn up and dance your day away. Some do charge an entry fee, and it's probably easiest to check on their individual Facebook page (all of them have one).
Lots of blocos give the option to put your name on a guest list. If you arrive before a certain time, then admittance can be free or much cheaper.
One bloco that is definitely not free is the Samba School Competition at the Sambadrome (or Sambódromo in Portuguese).
This is the most iconic and internationally famous image of Rio Carnival, featuring the gigantic floats and parades, hundreds of dancers moving in perfect harmony and the 'Queen of the Drums', the women in fantastic glittery, feathery, shiny outfits.
To get the cheap tickets you'll need to book far in advance, or take your chances with the ticket touts outside. Prices range from R$120 up to R$105,000, so there's something for all budgets.
As I said, Rio Carnival is a fantastic event, and one which I would highly recommend everyone experiences at least once in their life.
Is it perfect? No. 25,000 public toilets for 2,000,000 people is always going to lead to problems (which is why you should NOT wear flip-flops). Does it take forever and a day to get a bus anywhere? Yes. Can it be unsafe at times? Absolutely.
Leave the giant cameras at home. Keep your valuables hidden away. Don't flash your money around. Always try and travel in groups. Follow these common sense travel tips and, along with the advice above, you should have an amazing time.
The most expensive part will probably be finding accommodation, so why not cut that expense out completely and find a work exchange or volunteer project through Worldpackers? You'll get tips and advice from the locals, learn some key phrases and vocabulary, plus amazing recommendations for where to go and what to see.
If you're volunteering in Rio, you can absolutely enjoy Rio Carnival on a budget.