Rio Is Carnaval

    Rio Is Carnaval

    He opens the door and makes a face in disgust, as if someone else
    and not he was responsible for that malodorous apartment.
    He starts by the trash, by the dishes and only the next day
    in the afternoon he finds a plunger and cleans the sink…
    He doesn’t even notice he is humming "Just One of Those Things".
    By Brazzil Magazine

    Language Courses

    The Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos (IBEU) (255-8332) has a variety of
    Portuguese-language classes that start every month or two. The cost for a four-week course
    that meets three times a week is about $150. For information stop by Avenida Nossa Senhora
    de Copacabana 690, on the 5th floor.

    Next door to IBEU is a Casa Matos store which sells the language books for the IBEU
    courses. It’s a good place to pick up a book or dictionaries to study Portuguese on your
    own. Other places that offer courses include Britannia (511-0143), with branches in
    Botafogo, Leblon and Barra; Berlitz (240-6606) in the Centro and Ipanema; and Feedback
    (221-1863), in the Centro, Copacabana, Ipanema, Botafogo and Barra.

    Organized Tours

    City Tours

    Most of the larger tour companies operate sightseeing tours of Rio. They include Gray
    Line (294-1444; fax 2595847), Expeditours (287-9697; fax 521-4388) and Kontik-Franstur
    (255-2442). Their brochures are sitting on the reception desks of many hotels. Tours cover
    the usual tourist destinations and their prices are quite reasonable. A four-hour tour to
    Corcovado and Tijuca costs around $25.

    For a more personalized tour, Rio Custom Tours (274-3217), run by Maria Lúcia Yolen,
    is recommended. Maria Lúcia is an excellent guide who likes to show that Rio is not all
    samba, beaches and Corcovado. Some of her tours include the Sunday mass at São Bento,
    complete with Gregorian chants, a trip to the Casa do Pontal and its excellent folk-art
    collection, and a tour through Santa Teresa. She will pick you up and drop you off at your

    Historic Rio Tour

    Run by art historian Professor Carlos Roquette (322-4872), who speaks English and
    French as well as Portuguese, these tours bring old Rio to life. Itineraries include a
    night at the Teatro Municipal, colonial Rio, baroque Rio, imperial Rio and a walking tour
    of the Centro. Professor Roquette really knows his Rio, and if you have an obscure
    question, I’m sure he would welcome it.

    Favela Tour

    If you want to visit a favela you’d be crazy to do it on your own. Since large
    amounts of cocaine are trafficked through them each week, there are lots of young,
    heavily-armed characters around. Don’t get the idea though, that favelas are
    complete slums. The ones I’ve seen reminded me more of some poor country village. But
    unless you go with a local, there will be a lot of suspicious eyes on you. The safest
    alternative is to take one of the favela tours that now operate in Rio. Marcelo
    Armstrong (322-2727, mobile 989-0074) is the pioneer of favela tourism. He takes
    individuals and small groups to visit Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, and Vila
    Canoas near São Conrado. The tour takes in a school, medical center and private houses,
    and you come away with a good idea how a favela operates. Some of the climbs are
    steep, so you need to be reasonably fit. You can take a camera, but ask permission before
    taking anybody’s picture and don’t take photos of suspicious or armed characters. Avoid
    going after heavy rain, because mudslides are common.

    Villa Riso Colonial Tour

    Villa Riso in São Conrado, next to the Gávea Golf Club, recreates a colonial fazenda
    (farm), complete with employees wearing colonial gear. The house and gardens actually date
    from the early 18th century. A three-hour tour includes a buffet lunch (normally a feijoada
    or churrasco) and a medley of Brazilian theatrical music. You must make
    reservations (322-1444; fax 322-5196). The cost is $40 and this includes picking you up
    and returning you to your hotel.

    Bâteau Mouche

    On New Year’s Eve 1988, 55 people out of the 59 on board drowned when an overloaded
    Bâteau Mouche bay cruiser capsized in Baía de Guanabara. This private company still runs
    cruises, and they’re much more careful with the number of passengers they let on board.
    Their modern boats cruise the bay and go out into the Atlantic. They usually have a
    morning and afternoon cruise that costs from $25 to $35. The scene is too slick-touristy
    for our taste but the voyage out into the ocean is undeniably beautiful. Don’t take their
    bay cruise, because for a 50th of the price you can take a ferry or hydrofoil to Paquetá
    island and cover much of the same ground while traveling with the locals.

    Ferry to Niterói

    This is the poor person’s Bâteau Mouche. It costs about $0.30 and the views are great,
    particularly returning to Rio around sunset. Over at Niterói you can walk around a bit to
    see Rio’s poor relation or catch a local bus to Niterói’s beaches. Leaving from Praça 15
    de Novembro (in Centro), the ferry goes every 20 minutes and is always full of commuters.
    Buses to Praça 15 de Novembro include: from Flamengo, No. 119; from Copacabana, No 119,
    413, 415, 154, 455 or 474; and from Ipanema, No 474 or 154.


    Carnaval is a pagan holiday originating perhaps as Roman bacchanalia celebrating Saturn
    or in the ancient Egyptian festival of Isis. Carnaval was a wild party during the Middle
    Ages until tamed in Europe by Christianity, but the sober Church of the Inquisition could
    not squelch Carnaval in the Portuguese colony, where it came to acquire African rhythms
    and Indian costumes.

    People speculate that the word Carnaval derives from carne-vale, meaning
    `goodbye meat’. The reasoning goes something like this: for the 40 days of Lent, nominally
    Catholic Brazilians give up liver or flank steaks. To compensate for the big sacrifices
    ahead, they rack up sins in a delirious carnal blow-out in honor of King Momo, the king of

    Carnaval is celebrated everywhere in Brazil and each region has a particular way of
    celebrating. In Bahia, Carnaval is celebrated in the streets under the blasting
    loudspeakers of the trio elétrico trucks; in Recife and Olinda merry-makers dance
    the frevo. These are more authentic Carnavals than Rio’s glitzy celebration, which
    has become the big draw for the tourism industry. More than anywhere else in Brazil,
    Carnaval in Rio is a spectator event, but it’s a fantastic spectacle nonetheless.

    Every year wealthy and spaced-out foreigners descend on Rio en masse, get drunk, get
    high, bag some sunrays and exchange exotic diseases. Everyone gets a bit unglued at this
    time of year and there are lots of car accidents and murders. Some of the leaner and
    meaner Cariocas can get a little ugly with all the sex, booze and flash of money.
    Apartment rates and taxi fares triple and quadruple and some thieves keep to the spirit of
    the season by robbing in costume.

    The excitement of Carnaval builds all year and the pre-Lenten revelry begins well
    before the official dates of Carnaval. A month before Carnaval starts, rehearsals at the escolas
    de samba (samba clubs) are open to visitors on Saturday. The rehearsals are usually in
    the favelas. They’re fun to watch, but, for your safety, go with a Carioca.
    Tourist Carnaval shows are held all year round at Scala, Plataforma I and up top at Pão
    de Açúcar.

    The escolas de samba are actually predated by the bandas (nonprofessional
    equivalents of the escolas de samba), which are now returning to the Carnaval scene
    as part of the movement to return Rio’s Carnaval to the streets. Last year there was a
    Banda de Ipanema, a Banda do Leblon, a Banda da Boca Maldita and a Banda Carmen Miranda,
    among others. The bandas are great fun, a good place to loosen up your hip joints
    for samba, and there are excellent photo opportunities; transvestites always keep the
    festivities entertaining.

    Riotur has information on the scheduled bandas, or you could just show up in
    Ipanema (most of them are in Ipanema), at Praça General Osório or Praça Paz around 5 pm
    or so, a couple of weekends before official Carnaval. Other street festivities are held in
    Centro on Avenida Rio Branco. Riotur has all the information in a special Carnaval guide.

    Carnaval Balls

    Carnaval balls are surreal and erotic events. In one ball at Scala we saw a woman
    (transsexual?) bare her breasts and offer passers-by a suck while rickety old ladies were
    bopping away in skimpy lingerie. A young and geeky rich guy was dancing on tables with
    prostitutes past their prime, young models and lithe young nymphets, all in various stages
    of undress. Breasts were painted, stickered with adhesive tattoos, covered with fishnet
    brassieres or left bare. Bottoms were spandexed, G-stringed or mini-skirted.

    More action took place on the stages. One stage had a samba band, the other was crushed
    with young women. They didn’t dance, but ground their hips and licked their lips to the
    incessant, hypnotic music and the epileptic flashing of the floor lights. Throngs of
    sweaty photographers and video crews mashed up to the stage. Everyone played up for the
    camera, vying for space and the attention of the photographers. The Vegas headdresses, the
    pasty-faced bouncers and the rich men in private boxes overlooking the dance floor lent a
    Mafioso feel to the place.

    Carnaval is the holiday of the poor. Not that you could tell from the price of the
    tickets to the balls. Some of them cost more than the minimum monthly wage. There are
    snooty affairs like the ones at the Copacabana Palace (255-7070, $80), Hotel
    InterContinental (322-2200, $150) or the new venue in Barra, the Metropolitan (385-0515,
    $90 plus a stiff cab fare). Raunchier parties are held in Leblon at Scala (239-4448, $40),
    Canecão (295-3055, $40) in Botafogo and Help disco in Copacabana, ($20). Tickets go on
    sale about two weeks before Carnaval starts and the balls are held nightly for the week
    preceding Carnaval and through Carnaval. Buy a copy of the Veja magazine with the
    Veja Rio insert. It has details of all the balls and bandas.

    There are three rules of thumb: beautiful, flirtatious and apparently unescorted women
    are either escorted by huge, jealous cachaça-crazed men wielding machetes, or else
    they are really men dressed up as women; everything costs several times more within the
    club than outside; and, finally, don’t bring more money than you’re willing to
    lose—the club bouncers are big, but not that effective.

    Street Carnaval

    What do Cariocas do in the afternoon and early evening during Carnaval? They
    dance in the streets behind bandas (marching bands with brass and percussion
    instruments), which pump out the banda theme song and other Carnaval marching
    favorites while they move along. To join in the fun, all you need to do is jump in when
    you see the banda pass. They are one of the most traditional aspects of Carnaval in
    Rio. There are many bandas and including Banda de Ipanema, one of our favorites.
    This is a traditional banda that parades two Saturdays before Carnaval from Praça
    General Osório in Ipanema. It’s full of drag queens and party animals. It starts around 5
    pm and goes until around 9 pm. The banda also parades again on Carnaval Saturday.

    Banda Carmen Miranda, with its famous gay icon, is also lot of fun, not only for gays
    but everyone. It parades through Ipanema around 4 pm on the Sunday before Carnaval. There
    are lots of bandas in Copacabana before and during Carnaval too.

    The street parades in Avenida Rio Branco in the Centro and Boulevard 28 de Setembro in
    Vila Isabel, both on Carnaval Saturday, are really worth checking out, but you won’t see
    many other tourists there. Just carry a few dollars in your pocket for beers and a snack,
    and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

    The Sambódromo Parades

    In the Sambódromo, a tiered street designed for samba parades, the Brazilians harness
    sweat, noise and confusion and turn it into art. The 16 top-level samba schools prepare
    all year for an hour of glory in the sambódromo. The best escola is chosen
    by a hand-picked set of judges on the basis of many components including percussion, the samba
    enredo (theme song), harmony between percussion, song and dance, choreography,
    costume, storyline, floats and decorations and others. The championship is hotly
    contested; the winner becomes the pride of Rio and Brazil.

    The parades begin with moderate mayhem, then work themselves up to a higher plane of
    frenzy. The announcers introduce the escola, the group’s colors and the number of
    wings. Far away the tone voice of the puxador starts the samba. Thousands more
    voices join him, and then the drummers kick in, 600 to 800 per school. The booming drums
    drive the parade. This samba enredo is the loudest music you’re ever likely to hear
    in your life. The samba tapes flood the airwaves for weeks prior to the beginning of
    Carnaval. From afar the parade looks alive. It’s a throbbing beast slowly coming
    closer—a pulsing, Liberace-glittered, Japanese-movie-monster slimemould threatening
    to engulf all of Rio in samba and vibrant, vibrating mulatas.

    The parades begin with a special opening wing or abrealas, which always displays
    the name of the school and the theme of the escola. The whole shebang has some
    unifying message, some social commentary, economic criticism or political message, but
    it’s usually lost in the glitter. The abrealas is then followed by the commissão
    de frente, who greet the crowds. The escola thus honors its elderly men for
    work done over the years.

    Next follow the main wings of the escola, the big allegorical floats, the
    children’s wing, the drummers, the celebrities and the bell-shaped Baianas twirling
    in their elegant hoop skirts. The Baianas honor the history of the parade itself,
    which was brought to Rio from Salvador da Bahia in 1877. The mestre-sala (dance
    master) and porta-bandeira (standard bearer) waltz and whirl. Celebrities, dancers
    and tambourine players strut their stuff. The costumes are fabulously lavish:
    1.5-meter-tall feathered headdresses, flowing sequin capes and rhinestone-studded

    The floats gush neo-baroque silver foil and gold tinsel. Sparkling models sway to the
    samba, dancing in their private Carnavals. All the while the puxador leads in song,
    repeating the samba enredo for the duration of the parade. Over an hour after it
    began, the escola makes it past the arch and the judges’ stand. There is a few
    minutes’ pause. Globo and Manchete TV cranes stop bobbing up and down over the Pepsi caps
    and bibs of the foreign-press corps. Now, garbage trucks parade down the runway clearing
    the way for the next escola. Sanitation workers in orange jump suits shimmy, dance
    and sweep, gracefully catching rubbish thrown from the stands and then taking their bows.
    It’s their Carnaval too. The parade continues on through the night and into the morning,
    eight more samba schools parade the following day, and the week after, the top eight
    schools parade once more in the parade of champions.

    Getting tickets at the legitimate prices can be tough. Many tickets are sold 10 days in
    advance of the event; check with Riotur on where you can get them, as the outlet varies
    from year to year. People queue up for hours and travel agents and scalpers snap up the
    best seats. Riotur reserves seats in private boxes for tourists for $200.

    If you do happen to buy a ticket from a scalper (don’t worry about finding
    them—they’ll find you), make sure you get both the plastic ticket with the magnetic
    strip and the ticket showing the seat number. Different days have different colored
    tickets, so check the date as well.

    Don’t fret if you don’t get a ticket. It’s possible to see the show without paying an
    arm and a leg. The parades last eight to 10 hours each and no one can or wants to sit
    through them that long. Unless you’re an aficionado of an escola that starts early,
    don’t show up at the sambódromo until midnight, three or four hours into the show.
    Then you can get tickets at the grandstand for about $10. And if you can’t make it during
    Carnaval, there’s always the cheaper (but less exciting) parade of champions the following

    If you can avoid it, don’t take the bus to or from the sambódromo; it’s safer
    to take the metro, which is open 24 hours a day during Carnaval. It’s also fun to check
    out the paraders in their costumes on the train.

    By the way, there’s nothing to stop you taking part in the parade. Most samba schools
    are happy to have foreigners join one of the alas (wings). All you need is between
    $200 and $300 for your costume and you’re in. It helps to arrive in Rio a week or two in
    advance to get this organized. Ask at the hotel how to go about it. It usually takes just
    a few phone calls.

    Places to Stay

    Rio has a star system. Hotels are ranked from one star for the cheapest to five for the
    most luxurious. Rio has 12 five-star hotels to choose from, 22 four-star hotels, 40
    three-star hotels, 16 two-star hotels, three one-star hotels, 23 aparthotels, 36 motels
    and 47 hotels unclassified by Embratur (our specialty), but still regulated.

    So what do these stars mean? Well, a five-star hotel has a pool or two, at least two
    very good restaurants, a nightclub and bar, gym, sauna and a beauty salon. A four-star
    hotel has a good restaurant, a sauna and a bar. A three-star hotel may have everything a
    four-star hotel has, but there’s something that downgrades it; the furnishings may be a
    bit beat-up, cheaper, or a bit sparser. There’s a big gap between three-stars and
    two-stars. A two-star hotel is usually clean and comfortable, but that’s about all. By the
    way, all hotels with a star rating have air-con in the rooms, though some of the older
    models sound like you’re in a B-52 bomber! All rated hotels also have a small frigobar
    (refrigerator) in the rooms; sometimes empty or full of nibbles costing triple what they
    would in the nearby supermarket. Bathrooms have bidets, a sign of the continental

    Below one and two-stars there are still plenty of decent places to stay if you’re
    traveling on a tight budget and need a safe place to sleep. Air-con is usually optional
    (if available), but mostly the rooms have fans. Hotels which are not regulated by Embratur
    may try to slip in additional charges and other assorted petty crimes against the tourist.
    Threaten to call Sunab price regulation if this happens, discuss a price before accepting
    a room and also ask if a 10% service charge is included.

    Breakfast is usually included in the room rate. It ranges from sumptuous buffets at the
    top-end to coffee and a bread roll at the bottom. In between there should be fresh juice,
    good coffee, fresh rolls with a slice of ham and cheese and a couple of pieces of fruit.

    Reservations are a good idea in Rio, especially if you plan to stay in a mid-range or
    top-end hotel. Aside from the fact that a reservation ensures you a room, you can save up
    to 30% on the room rate just by booking in advance. If you want to make sure you have an
    ocean view, request it when you make your reservation. It will cost around 20% more than
    other rooms. At Carnaval time hotel prices go up and everyone gives dire warnings of there
    being no places to stay. It’s not a good time to arrive without a reservation, even the
    bottom-end places get full.

    Read the book for a list of hotels

    Places to Eat

    As in most of Brazil, restaurants in Rio are abundant and cheap. The plates at the many
    lanchonetes are big enough to feed two and the price is only $3 to $4. For
    something lighter, and probably healthier, you can eat at a suco bar. Most have
    sandwiches and fruit salads. Make a habit of asking for an embalagem (doggie bag)
    when you don’t finish your food. Wrap it and hand it to a street person.

    For a list of restaurants read the book.

    Excerpts from Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit, 3rd edition, by
    Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey, Leonardo Pinheiro,  and Robyn Jones. For more
    information call Lonely Planet: (800) 275-8555. Copyright 1996 Lonely Planet Publications.
    Used by permission.

    Buy it at

    Lonely Planet
    Brazil – A Travel Survival Kit

    by Andrew Draffen, Chris McAsey,
    Leonardo Pinheiro, Robyn Jones,
    704 pp.

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