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Parades, parties, pageantry: What to know about Rio’s Carnival

After weeks of sweaty, pulsating street parties, the Rio Carnival reaches its crescendo this Sunday with its main event.

Revellers take part in a 'bloco' group parade in Rio de Janeiro's Santa Teresa neighborhood in Brazil on February 4, 2024. — © AFP
Revellers take part in a 'bloco' group parade in Rio de Janeiro's Santa Teresa neighborhood in Brazil on February 4, 2024. — © AFP
Lucia LACURCIA

After weeks of sweaty, pulsating street parties, the Rio Carnival reaches its crescendo this Sunday with its main event, in which samba schools compete in dazzling parades.

Here are five things to know about the Rio Carnival:

– The Sambodrome –

Rio de Janeiro vibrates with Carnival fever throughout February, but the main event is the parade of samba schools through the massive “Sambodrome” venue.

For two nights, the schools — community organizations deeply rooted in Brazil’s vibrant samba culture — try to out-strut, out-shimmy, and out-shine their competitors in massive parades.

These feature elaborate, massive floats, fantastical costumes, and intricate choreography by performers dancing to the beats of a specially composed samba.

Rio de Janeiro vibrates with Carnival fever throughout February — © AFP MAURO PIMENTEL

Each parade can include up to 3,000 participants who move up the 700-meter (2,300-foot) long avenue flanked by up to 70,000 spectators.

This year 12 schools  will compete for the coveted title of Carnival champion.

Much like football teams, each school has its fervent fans.

There are also different divisions in which schools rise and fall — and getting to the main competition in the Sambodrome is no easy feat. Rio de Janeiro alone has 120 schools.

Those who make it are called the “Special Group.”

They put on a million-dollar production, with up to 75 minutes to seduce the jury with their story told in music and dance.

Themes often revolve around social and political issues or key historical events.

Tickets to the event cost between $14 and $400.

– Street Carnival –

For most revelers, the real Carnival happens far from the iconic Sambodrome, in hedonistic street “blocos.”

These parties, whose name refers to the neighborhood blocks they are held on, are thronged by thousands, some of whom dance in place, while others move through the streets following bands performing live music.

The Carnival will bring in about one billion US dollars to the local economy, according to official statistics. — © AFP

Drums, costumes and flowing alcohol — even when the party starts early in the morning — are the name of the game.

Blocos mostly have themes and there are some for all tastes. Loucura Surburbana (Suburban Madness) and Zona Mental are for patients and workers from mental health hospitals.

The “Sergeant Pepper” bloco plays Beatle songs, Besame Mucho (Spanish for kiss me a lot) plays samba versions of famous tangos and even the infectious tune “Despacito.”

This year there will be some 600 blocos in the city.

– Serious business  –

Behind the pleasure-fueled festivities lies some serious money.

This year the Rio Carnival received its largest-ever cash injection from the state government, 62.5 million reais (USD $12.5 million), 40 million of which went to the samba schools.

The Rio prefecture allocated them another 40 million reais.

Carnival will bring in about USD $1 billion to the local economy, according to official statistics.

This is 18 percent more than in 2023.

The whole of Brazil will see its economy boosted by $1.8 billion.

– Water guns and urine –

For most revelers, the real Carnival happens far from the iconic Sambodrome, in hedonistic street ‘blocos’ — © AFP

Carnival is not all fun and games, with crowded events rife with opportunity for pick-pockets.

The northeastern state of Bahia has recently banned water pistols at parties after images went viral of a woman being surrounded and pushed around by a group of men carrying the toys.

And beneath the glamour and glitter, lies a lot of pee.

The city of Rio has announced that once the party is over, it will use 2,000 liters of concentrated eucalyptus essence to rid the streets of the odor of urine.

– Other cities party too –

Rio may be the most emblematic of Brazil’s Carnival extravaganza, but many of the country’s cities come to a standstill.

Authorities estimate some 15 million people will take to the streets in the economic powerhouse Sao Paulo, which boasts 500 blocos.

In the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte, some five million people will party, while another three million will join in on the fun in northeastern Recife.

It is that city which holds the Guinness Record for the biggest bloco, which brought together 2.5 million people last year.

AFP
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