Still the greatest reason for visiting Rio seems to be the Carnival. This highly advertised party lasts for almost two weeks and it is well known for the escolas de samba (samba schools) that parade in Centro, on a gigantic structure called Sambódromo (Sambadrome). During Carnival, Rio has much more to offer though, with the blocos de rua, that parade on the streets. There are now hundreds of these street "samba blocks", that parade almost in every neighborhood, especially in Centro and the South Zone, gathering thousands of people. Some are very famous, and there are few cariocas that have not heard of "Carmelitas", "Suvaco de Cristo", "Escravos da Mauá" or "Simpatia É Quase Amor".
Carnival is Rio's main event. It happens at the peak of summer, when Cariocas are at their best. Festivities attract thousands of people from all corners of the world. Carnaval, as spelled in Portuguese, is a 4-day celebration. It starts on Saturday, and ends on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi-Gras. Carnival Sunday is seven weeks before Easter Sunday. Dates change every year.
History of Carnival in Rio
The first records of Carnival festivities in Rio de Janeiro date back to 1723. Immigrants from the Portuguese islands of Açores, Madeira and Cabo Verde introduced here the Entrudo.
The idea was basically getting everybody soaked wet. People would go out in the streets with buckets of water and limes, and everybody could be a potential victim. Even Emperors took part in the fun. There's a curious record of a woman being arrested in 1855 for throwing a lime at Dom Pedro I's escorts.
Zé Pereira was a contribution of a Portuguese shoemaker named José Nogueira de Azevedo, in the mid XIX century. On Carnival Mondays he would march in the streets with his friends playing drums, tambourines, pans, and whistles. Everybody was welcome to join the fun.
Grandes Sociedades or Great Societies was a more organized parade that debuted in 1855, with the presence of the Emperor himself. A group of eighty aristocrats in masks paraded with luxury costumes, music, and flowers. It was a big success. Democráticos, Fenianos and Tenentes do Diabo were the three most well-known groups.
Cordăo Carnavalesco is a concept that got its start in 1870. There were characters like queens, kings, witches, peasants and dancers, and they performed according to the costumes they were wearing. There were also the Cordőes de Velhos, where participants would wear huge papier-mâché masks and walk in an old man's gait.
Ranchos Carnavalescos are a contribution of an immigrant from Bahia named Hilário Jovino da Silva. They started in 1872 as working class festivity. People would dress up in costumes and perform on the parade accompanied by an orchestra of strings, ganzás, flutes, and other instruments. They were more organized than the Cordőes, and gained popularity around 1911.
With the sponsorship of brewery Hanseática, the Ranchos started organized competitions. They became one of the main attractions of Rio de Janeiro's Carnival, together with the Great Societies. The parade already included a first-wing (abre alas), an orchestra, a male and female choir, and a couple of mestre sala and porta bandeira.
The parades were halted during World War II and started again in 1947. By then the competition happened on Av. Rio Branco.
The Samaba Parade
The Samba School Parade at Rio´s Sambodrome is something everybody has to experience at least once in life. The event is broadcast live to several countries, and all Brazilian states. Watching on TV is cool, but not half as much fun as being there. You have to mingle with the crowd, sweat, maybe even march with a samba school.
Unlike Street Carnival the Samba Parade is not free. Tickets are actually quite expensive, but more than worth the investment. Fourteen special group schools march on Carnival Sunday and Monday, seven each night. The parade starts at 9 p.m. and goes on until sunlight the next day, around 6-7 a.m. This samba marathon is more than a show - it's also a fierce competition. Each year a school is downgraded from special to access group, and vice-versa.