Carnival is serious business. Spanning a week it’s the cultural highlight of the year, and arguably the most well known celebration in the world. After a few days of checking out Rio’s sights, the big carnival weekend rolled around and the city changed. Shops boarded up their windows in preparation for the carnage ahead, main roads shut down, and every street seller was now flogging glitter and hats.
Its size can’t be understated: 509 official blocos (street parties), as well as countless other events of music, dance and debauchery across this sprawling city. With so much going on it’s hard to know where to start, but we opt for the historical Carmelitas bloco. It’s a moving float where participants traditionally dress up as nuns, due to its starting location at a monastery. The party is started by a woman in her 40s with the energy of one in her 20s leading an open top bus through the crowd with singers performing the traditional carnival music. The music itself may not be quite to my taste, less samba and more ukulele than expected, but you can’t argue with the passion of those involved.
The bus is followed by thousands, one continuous, energetic, sweaty mass of people. And you will sweat. Once you’re in that crowd there’s no getting out and you have no choice but to embrace it and ride the wave, bodily fluids and all. Trollies are pushed through either selling beer or pumping Brazilian bass tunes, tinny speakers pushed to within an inch of their lives, forming their own mini-raves inside the mass crowd alongside the variety of drums being beaten.
It’s hot, messy and intense. Like any situation with such a sheer amount of people in such a small space, there’s sometimes an uneasy tension in the air. That energy does occasionally bubble over, whether it’s someone talking to a girl they shouldn’t have, or mass chants with spicy language aimed at Brazil’s controversial president.
After eight hours of being completely drenched in cachaca and sweat (both mine and others) it’s time to escape the crowd and seek refuge in the greasiest burger joint going.
Thank U, Next (Bloco)
Each bloco has its own flavour: different music, different costumes, different traditions. The next bloco we visited couldn’t be any different from the last. Named New Kids On The Bloco, it’s a celebration of pop anthems, with flamboyant samba renditions of everything from Backstreet Boys to Beyoncé. Rather then the moving parade of the day before, this was a more traditional gig inside a concert venue. Except rather than the gigs I’d typically go to where bodies are crammed in elbow to elbow and pints regularly fly overhead, it’s friendly, welcoming and safe. The frontman joyfully parades around like a cross between Robbie Williams and Freddie Mercury, the visuals behind him a gleeful trip down memory lane, ’90s icons reanimated.
It may not be on-brand for me, but pop classic after classic is served up, the place is rocking, and the atmosphere is euphoric. The musicians and the crowd are one (including a Lady Gaga impersonator being dragged up on stage for some Bad Romance), with each chorus sparking a new wave of excitement. It’s not the traditional carnival celebration: it’s better.
Will I be coming back to carnival next year? No. Can I understand why it’s the ultimate bucket list event for so many? Absolutely. It’s at times overwhelming, almost intimidating, and often not at all what I expected. But there’s also moments of pure elation, you just have to leave your expectations behind, down a few caipirinhas and dive right in.