As if Rio needed any more encouragement to let its hair down and party, Carnival once again shimmies into view in February. A whole month's worth of celebrations, two-days of parades from the best of the city's escolas de samba (samba schools) on 10 and 11 February lie at its epicentre, the various eccentricities of which are fully explained in our Bluffer's Guide to Carnival. As well as the schools' rehearsalswhich are open to the public, and the more fancy bailes (balls) during the public holidays that are firmly back in fashion, for the weeks before and after the parade, hundreds of street parties or blocos (starting 26 January) force offices in Centro to board up their windows and the unconvinced flee to the hills and beyond. For the rest of the city, all that remains is to get down to the important business of collective, brotherly debauchery.
Each city may have its own eccentricities and charm, from Olinda's giant dolls to the seething madness of Salvador streets, but flying the carnival flag highest is Rio's two-day extravaganza. A dazzling display of colour and sound, Rio Carnival has captured the imagination of the planet, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, eager to taste the city's unique energy.
And for good reason. Almost 12 months' worth of highly secretive blood, sweat and tears goes into every samba school's theme, costumes, music and choreography, the slightest chink in the armour costing precious points from the watchful judges on Ash Wednesday. The whole affair may have ballooned unrecognisably from the 1930s when the simple parades along Avenida Presidente Vargas were first formalised and overtook the street blocos in popularity, but since the construction of the purpose-built Sambódromo in 1984, cariocas have never looked back.
Bigger, bolder and never without its controversies, Rio Carnival provides another source of rich drama and obsessive support for a city that gorges on such things. And as unlikely as it is that any of the survivors will be denying themselves for the forty days of Lent that follows, there's always a few who probably should.
Some 75,000 spectators will pack into the Sambódromo on 10 and 11 February, ready to witness a 'spectacle' in the truest sense of the word as the top twelve samba schools in the city get the chance to strut their stuff. Built on a 700-metre stretch of Avenida Marquês de Sapucaí (hence its nickname, Sapucaí), the Sambódromo is so long it starts in one neighbourhood (Cidade Nova) and ends in another (Catumbi). Renovated this year to boost the capacity and relay the well-trodden floor, tickets are priced according to designated blocks along the route, highest where the view is least obstructed or nearest to the judges' dugouts where the performers really lay the show on thick.
There are no fewer than nine 'divisions' of schools in all in Rio, with only the winners from Grupo de Acesso (parading on 8 and 9 February) gaining promotion to the Grupo Especial the following year. To the winners, of course, the glory, as well as the opportunity to revel in a stress-free performance as they do it all again the following Saturday (16 February) in the Parade of Champions.
- Read more about the Sambódromo parade 2013
The samba schools
The epicentre of the action, the samba schools are in it for the big prize and spend the best part of a year getting ready for parade day, individually crafting the thousands of costumes and building the floats to tell the story as created by their carnivalesco, the creative mastermind. Success hinges on his vision, as well as, of course, on the musicians and the power with which they can relentlessly deliver their theme song. For months beforehand, weekly rehearsals at their respective quadras (headquarters) are public affairs and a perfect introduction for devotees and newcomers alike to get infused with Rio Carnival fever.
Street carnival: blocos
The flipside of Rio Carnival, and one that has become as important as the parade itself for the loose and the lively, are the blocos, local neighbourhood street parties ranging from the smallest bunch of oddly-festooned loons with trumpets to the mighty Monobloco, who last year pulled over one million lairy samba lovers to Centro at 9am for a parade down Avenida Rio Branco. Each year there is a new word-of-mouth hit (like 2011's Sargenta Pimenta who nailed four hours of samba'd up Beatles and brought Botafogo to a standstill), a 'were you there?' moment (the couple having sex on the Fasano Hotel balcony as thousands danced past) and the dependable classics (Céu na Terra and Banda de Ipanema to name but two), you just have to get amongst the action.
Samba school rehearsals
As well as the weekly practices at their respective headquarters, in the weeks before the main event, the top divisions' samba schools get the opportunity to see just how close they are to the finished article with a dress rehearsal down the sambódromo. A great introduction to the real thing, and a chance to align yourself with one of the schools, getting to know the songs and theme for the year as they are drilled relentlessly into the spectators' heads.
- See our choice of the best samba school rehearsals
Back in fashion and firmly on the Rio Carnival agenda 170 years since first being introduced, to some, the idea of a nightly baile (ball) having pounded the streets and danced all day might seem a little excessive. For the more mature partygoers, or simply the hardcore who don't know when to call time, the events at stately venues like the Jockey Club and Scala offer a rare chance to get dressed up smart instead of stupid, however, and have become more popular than ever as the blocos expand beyond recognition.
- Read our selection of the best Carnival balls
The explosion of colour and sound as each samba school enters the Sambódromo is all well and good, but as the parade wears it is well worth becoming acquainted with the finer points behind what is essentially a highly lucrative competition. Why is there a section of grannies in the middle of the glitz and glamour? Why do they all stop and give their best white-toothed smile and samba shimmy at a specific section of the crowd? How many times are they going to repeat that song? All these questions and more are answered in our essential bluffer's guide.
- Read our full Bluffer's Guide to Rio Carnival