You're surrounded by a gaggle of Smurfs, someone just dropped the contents of a frozen, condom-sized bag on your head which smells suspiciously like cachaça and it's still only 8am. Welcome to the mayhem of the bloco.
Fun, free and utterly unique, you will need to summon all your reserves of staying power and banish any hang-ups about your ‘personal space’ to get through Rio Carnival as the streets of Rio swarm with fancy-dressed folk dancing to the distant beat of a long-lost band. The Prefeitura (Council) do their best to spread the load across the city in the weeks either side of Carnival proper, but it matters little. The city grinds to a halt for a party where everybody is invited. Dogs and all. So be prepared to make some new friends, fight off some unwanted admirers, and get covered in beer/water/miscellaneous and you’re basically all set. Blocos aren’t places for the faint of heart.
The first blocos started up as a response by the poorer communities to the lavish annual parties thrown by the elite in the early 1900s. Known back then as Pequeno Carnaval (Little Carnival), these simple affairs bore little resemblance to the million-attracting super-productions by the likes of Monobloco you'll find filling the streets today. Their popularity rose steadily until the early thirties, however, at which point the samba school parade was first formalised and immediately took centre stage over the more informal street gatherings.
Not until the late '90s did that original popularity return with real force, and now every neighbourhood’s blocos are attracting bigger crowds than ever before. Every year the Prefeitura has to rewrite the rules on license-granting and time constraints to try and stop the city grinding to a standstill in a sea of beer and revellers - but, of course, it invariably fails.
Unlike the strict rules governing the samba school parade, once that license is granted, pretty much anything goes. From small soundsystems to traditional neighbourhood samba baterias (drum groups) and the big boys that demand the three-lane highway along the Flamengo waterfront, the emphasis is on dressing up and drinking and dancing until the crowds disperse to find the next concentração (meeting point). Drag for the boys is de rigeur, glitter and tu-tus for the girls, or take inspiration from the latest blockbuster film, the only rule of thumb is that you'll feel more daft if you don't dress up in something ludicrous.
Engineer a pocket for some sun block, somewhere to hide your cash and a little time for water in between the beers and frozen caipirinhas (a lifesaver when the mercury hits 40 degrees), and forget about bussing or cabbing around town. Without warning the traffic can grind to a halt in seconds, so have your trunks or bikini on underneath your outfit and duck to the nearest beach to cool off.
Remember that the bloco’s published start times are often deliberately inaccurate in a bid to avoid crowd sizes becoming unmanageable, so the dawdler might just miss all the action and that would be tragic. Last year the Baianada bloco went wandering off from its Centro starting point and suddenly 700 people found themselves samba-ing through Santos Dumont for half an hour before being kicked out. That's Carnival.
- Read our full guide to Rio Carnival 2013