It’s difficult to convey in words the electric vibe and raucous atmosphere of Carnival, the world’s biggest party where millions of people (this year more than two million people showed up for Carnival in Rio de Janeiro) from every international background are seemingly represented in one place.
It’s an event that needs to be experienced firsthand in order to truly understand and appreciate the energy and eccentric atmosphere that makes Carnival unlike any other festival in the world.
But, for those unfamiliar with the madness that is Carnival, it’s essentially a four day Halloween-like fest, where millions of people dress up in costume (it’s not uncommon for men to dress like women and women to dress like men) and follow their favorite bands, parading through the streets and playing live music for hours on end. It never ends during Carnival; there are hundreds of blocos (street parties) playing at all times of the day and night.
Here are five things you should know before heading out to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
If you find you’re in need of money during Carnival, don’t expect to make any withdrawals from ATM machines while in Rio de Janeiro. During Carnival ATM machines are purposefully shutdown due to common pickpocket thefts of wallets and purses. There has been a proactive effort by the city to prevent illicit withdraws from would-be thieves. Trust me, I’ve tried at least a dozen ATMs in Rio and none worked. So it’s best to bring as much money as possible before the actual festivities begin.
You will also notice that during a regular day in Rio (or, for that matter, anywhere in Brazil) many ATMs will not work. It’s quite common so you’ll need to be diligent when hunting down an ATM that actually works. US citizens be wary, your ATM card may not work in Brazil, so it’s best to speak with your bank before you leave and be sure to withdraw as much money as possible before you arrive (a lesson I had to learn the hard way, where I was essentially left with no cash for a couple weeks and only had my credit card to get by, since my ATM card did not work in Brazil).
To withdraw money, look for ATMs that say saques (withdrawals) above them. For US citizens, look for Santander or HSBC banks, which offer a greater rate of success with ATM withdrawals since they regularly deal with international banks. Also, be sure that all your debit and credit cards come equipped with a PIN and chip feature. Most South American countries will not accept a card without it.
Carnival is expensive, and when it comes to accommodations prices are typically inflated four or five-fold. Unless you happen to know someone in the city, expect to pay at least USD$100 a night for a basic bed in a hostel (I paid about USD$90 a night for my hostel bed, which was in an eight person shared room) and many hotels will run you at least USD$150 a night (depending on your location, of course). Keep in mind that some people plan a year in advance to save money, book their room, apartment or house and to figure out which costumes to wear, so plan accordingly.
Safety can be a concern and it should be taken seriously, but I have to say that I never feared for my safety or felt like I was in danger during my stay in Rio de Janeiro. Being safe means avoiding the favelas, especially if you don’t know anyone from the area. And though I personally never experienced any crime while in Rio, I have met a couple of travelers who were unfortunately robbed of their belongings. In every case, it was always a nonviolent event and never life threatening.
Remember to never keep valuables on your person unless you absolutely need to use them for the day (i.e. passport, credit and debit cards, phone, camera), always walk in groups (especially true for women), perhaps carry a little cash on you just in case someone does try to rob you and keep all items in your front pockets (never in your back pockets).
Women should be careful when walking around, especially during the blocos. Men will try to touch or grab you if they see that you’re walking alone or simply if you appear to be a foreigner or gringo (which is more of a facetious term than a derogatory one). It’s crucial that women never walk alone at night and always call a taxi if necessary.
4. Expect the unexpected:
Carnival can either be the greatest experience of your life or an overcrowded mass of drunken anarchy and bohemian raunchiness; it really depends on your perspective. Keep in mind that with the heat, humidity, heavy drinking and thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people at any given bloco, you can only imagine the line for the bathroom (with many men and women opting for the nearest tree as a suitable toilet, in clear view of anyone and everyone).
5. No sleep for the weary:
Don’t expect to sleep. Depending on where you choose to stay (I stayed in the Santa Teresa neighborhood), blocos will come marching down your street, with several thousands of people bellowing, whistling, singing and dancing their way to no specific destination. Let’s just say that there were some days (and nights) I think I went to sleep, but I have no idea.
All in all, I have to say that Carnival has been well worth the time, expense and energy it demands of you. So pack your bags, book your overpriced room and enjoy Carnival while it lasts!