Rio Carnival – Everything You Need To Know

Rio Carnival, backpacking rio carnival on a budget

 I thought I would share some of the insights I gleaned from visiting Rio Carnival and this incredible city, during the world’s most famous festival in which two million people per day hit the streets to celebrate. I will discuss the dos and don’ts, where to stay and the best way to plan your carnival (or not, as the case may be).

  • When?

The festival starts on a Friday each year in the run up to Lent and finishes on Ash Wednesday. However, many locals will have already begun the celebrations, with many pre-festival street parties having already happened.

One little tip: To keep costs down and still get a feel for the carnival, you can visit either side of the festival official dates and enjoy the FREE street parties. The atmosphere is still incredible to witness, however it has nothing on being there during the official carnival dates.

A winner’s parade will also take place after the Carnival on Saturday 4th March, and will celebrate the samba school winners.

  • Where?

The festival takes place in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, however there are many carnival’s to go to in other cities in Brazil (and South America). Again, this is another way to cut your costs, however for me I had always wanted to experience the legendary Rio Carnival.

Although the official carnival competition and Samba Parade will take place in the Sambadrome, the whole city is full of street parties to attend. Everywhere you look the city is taken over by the carnival.

  • The Sambadrome 

What many people are unaware of is that most of the schools that perform in Rio Carnival represent the working class community from the favelas. I took a tour that was organised by Cabanacopa, the hostel I stayed at, that took me all round the city and into the favelas. This is where I was told that the vital elements of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival stem from the favelas themselves.

Rio Carnival - Samba School Parade

The schools spend months coming up with a theme, designing elaborate floats, creating their incredible costumes and finally nailing their performance.

You can read more about these awe inspiring schools here .

  • Tickets for the Sambadrome

Although you may read that you MUST buy your tickets for the Sambadrome before you arrive, this is not essential. I managed to buy tickets very easily when I arrived for Rio Carnival. However, if you want good tickets make sure you book in advance here.

Rio Carnival Dancer, Samba School Dancer, The Sambadrome

  • Alternative parties and nights out in Rio.

To break up the week from street parties and the Sambadrome, head to Resident Advisor here and check out what other nights and what DJs are on.  I headed to Circoloco and partied all night watching Seth Troxler and DJ Sneak. There will be plenty of flyers and posters around the city, so do not worry.

There is plenty to do, if not too much!

Circoloco, Rio de Janiero (2013)
Circoloco, Rio de Janiero (2013)
  • Where to stay during Rio Carnival?

Before leaving for South America I researched many hostels and how to get the best deal. Looking back this was not necessary. Wherever your hostel is located you will be able to enjoy the carnival!

The cost of accommodation can be steep and you usually have to book for the entire period (I think most hostels make you book for at least 5-7 days).

One little tip: As a solo traveller, the most important thing when booking accommodation for carnival is that you are staying in a hostel that has a good, sociable atmosphere and you can meet fellow backpackers easily. You won’t spend any time in your room, so my advice would be to go for a cheap dorm bed, dump your stuff and head out to start the party!

I stayed at CabanaCopa hostel and it was everything I needed. It backs onto a national park and you will find little monkeys regularly looking at you through the trees at the back! It’s extremely close to Copacabana beach, which is where I spent my days hungover (not too bad for a place to recuperate) and one block from the metro station. There is also a cash machine very close by.

Me and Dan, Cabanacopa hostel, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro
Me and Dan, Cabanacopa hostel, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro (2013)

I felt completely safe staying here during Rio Carnival, as they have 24hr security. They helped me to book my tours of the city and gave me advice on where to go and what to see. After carnival I flew to Manaus to visit the Amazon rainforest; however when I returned to Rio I immediately booked to stay at CabanaCopa.

I even had the bad luck of having to visit the dentist during carnival as I had an infected wisdom tooth and my face was extremely painful. As I was unable to speak Portuguese, the hostel owner organised for one the staff to come with me and requested that the dentist prescribe me much needed antibiotics.

Overall it was a great place to meet people, get advice on top sights to see and the staff went above and beyond to make my stay enjoyable.

For carnival booking early can mean the cost for 5 nights can be as low as 1000 BRL = roughly £250  Book here!

  • My top tips to get you through the festival

With the sheer amount of people that head to Rio Carnival, it can be a little overwhelming at times. Therefore I suggest being overly cautious when hitting the streets to party.

  • Ensure you leave all your valuables locked away in your dorm room and only take small money out with you. I kept money in my bra or in my money wallet, which is easy to conceal. Especially round the touristy areas there can be a lot of petty theft. As long as you use your common sense, you shouldn’t have any problems.
  • Only take money out of the cash machine in the day time and try not to take out too much at one time. Many of these areas are watched by thieves looking for an easy target.
  • Try not to do too much! I didn’t plan my week until I arrived, that way it gave me the freedom to pick and choose once there. The amount of people trying to get around the city makes it very difficult to get everywhere. You may have lined up a couple of things you would like to do in one day, however you need to understand, it might not actually be physically possible to get from A-B that quickly.
  • If you’re looking to see the sights while you are there and party…it may be wise to book a couple of days for when the partying has died down. The cost of a bed is reduced and the city is calm again. You will be much more able to see everything you want to see and this also means you are free to party all night and not feel guilty for not getting up and seeing the sights in the day.

If you didn’t manage to get there for 2018, there is always next year! I highly recommend adding this to your bucket list or ticking it off if it’s already on there.

Please share your comments below, if you’ve been or would like to ask any questions.

Abigail x

One Reply to “Rio Carnival – Everything You Need To Know”

  1. Welcome. Just wanted to share with you the best of Europes festivals over the past year. We have visited most of these in the past and I can assure you that they are great fun. Find time to relish in life and attend one of these this year. Looking forward to some more interesting posts on the Marina de Bolnuevo blog ( Have a great day.

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