Rio's Sambódromo is the epicentre of the city's Carnival action every year, with 75,000 spectators descending on the 700 metre-long stadium in Catumbi for two nights of feather-preening, float rumbling and feet samba-ing parades from the Grupo Especial, the Premier League of Rio samba schools. Entering to a barrage of fireworks to announce the start of their alloted hour, the floats backed up along Presidente Vargas slowly turn the corner to face the cheering, obsessed crowd and the jury that ultimately decide who walks away with the glory after ten months of work spent pieceing the intricate, finely choreographed show together.
Tickets are never straightforward to come by, and although some are usually sold around the stadium on the night, be sure that they are official and the date is correct, particularly on the Monday when leftovers from Sunday night are palmed off on unwary tourists. Arching over Avenida Presidente Vargas is a bridge erected for locals who cannot afford a ticket to glimpse a site of the action on the way in, albeit before the samba begins, and R$10 tickets can be bought for the area known as Arquibancadas Populares, past the finishing line and without the full impact but still offering a sense of the majesty involved.
Keep an eye out for the different themes running through each school's parade, ranging from homages to specific countries to folklore heroes and Brazilian pop stars, as well as some rather more off-the-wall options that always sneak in looking to catch the judges off-guard. Skiing Spidermen? Check. Articulated giant animals? Par for the course. The enredos (songs) work their way into the crowd's heads as they are repeated over and over with miraculously increasing vigour throughout the hour, while the spectaular queens somehow shimmy their way elegantly along despite enormous high-heels and costumes that tend to look like instruments of torture.
Extra information: Getting to and from the Sambódromo by bus or taxi is usually straightforward, but the closest Metrô stations close. Seats, except for those in block 9, are not reserved, so crowds begin early to get the best views, but arriving after midnight having watched the first few schools on television over a leisurely dinner is also worthwhile, not least because the party lasts until sunrise.