1. The big parade, or Desfile das Ecolas de Samba.
Yes, it’s traditional. Yes, it’s beautiful. But it’s also exhausting, I’ll tell you that. For those of us fortunate enough to call Rio home, it’s something you have to do once and then never again. Those who go every year usually live in one of the communities that houses a samba school (They are a part of the carnival all year round) or if you’re famous and extremely VIP. Because there are four ways to enjoy the parade: the first (and let’s get it out of the way quickly because you don’t want to do that) is watching from the bleachers, which are just big concrete steps with no designated seats and very little infrastructure in terms of food and drink.
Then you have the VIP areas, which are pretty awesome and have an amazing view, but you need to be invited to one. There are also the frisas, which are tables set on the ground floor, pretty much inside the parade. These are pretty cool, though you miss the bird’s eye view of it all, and the tickets are impossibly expensive and hard to get. The best way to enjoy the parade is by parading yourself — yes, by being part of a samba school. Usually the componentes are people from the community where the samba school was created, but because they need money and we need to party, some costumes are set aside for people who want take part.
A few things to consider if you want to do this: like soccer, samba also has divisions. The best samba schools belong to the Grupo Especial and parade on Sunday and Monday, while the schools that are looking to rise to this group belong to Grupo A and parade on Friday and Saturday. It’s just as big and just as fun. Also, if you can, have a good look at the costume you’re getting. Make it light and be very careful with things that go on your head. You’ll be in stuck in it for quite a few hours, and you’ll have to get to the Sambódramo carrying it — it’s a day’s work for an hour of really good fun.
2. The bloquinhos, or street blocos.
This is what our carnival is made of — democratic, free, and slightly anarchic street parties. It’s a tradition that dates back to the nineteenth century and it’s what you should be doing if you find yourself here come February. Over 500 of them are going to be taking the streets this year, ranging from a few hundred people to over a million. Over the last 10 years cariocas have rediscovered and reinvented the street carnival, and now we have blocos for literally any taste. A bloco that only plays Beatles’ songs? Go to “Sargento Pimenta” (Sgt. Pepper, yes). A bloco that only plays 80s songs and where everyone dresses in gym clothes from that decade? That also exists and goes by the name of “Bunytos de Corpo”. LGBT blocos, geek blocos, very early blocos, midnight blocos — we have it all. And the best part is you end up going to places tourists would never go, or seeing some very touristic spots from different angles.
Last year, for example, a secret bloco called “Óh Menage” invaded the Santos Dumont airport. These are a few I recommend if you want to have a blast in a smaller crowd: “Prata Preta” on Saturday, “Boi Tolo” on Sunday, “Bunytos de corpo” on Monday, “Cacique de Ramos” on Tuesday and “Me beija que eu sou cineasta” on Wednesday. A few tips before you attend: Don’t bring anything valuable; a little bit of cash for beer, a copy of your passport, your costume and you’re good to go!
3. RMC – Rio Music Conference/Carnival.
So, you don’t like samba. Or you don’t even know if you like samba, but you do love electronic music. Well, if the sun and the streets are just too much for you, then you can always sleep during the day and party hard at night. Some eight years ago a genius figured out that not everyone loved carnival music and decided to host a huge e-music festival and conference during this particular holiday. And boy has it worked. I myself, before being converted to the bloquinhos, have participated in many editions. To be honest it wasn’t long ago that I ditched a day of blocos to rest up and go to a Fatboy Slim gig at RMC. The setting is usually beautiful, production is excellent and don’t get me started on the line up. This year, if I were you, I’d definitely go on Sunday (the 7th) to see Brazil’s biggest funk stars play. Valesca Popozuda alone is worth the ticket, seriously.