How to experience the Rio carnival without going bankrupt

How to experience the Rio carnival without going bankrupt

Lots of people dream to visit Rio de Janeiro during the carnival. We already have this amazing experience behind us, so we can share several first-hand thoughts and tips!

Where did the carnival come from?

Portuguese colonists brought the first carnival traditions to today’s Brazil. The last days before the start of Lent were a time of respite and fun not only for the elite, but also for the indigenous people and African slaves. The latter had a special impact on the modern face of the world’s largest carnival. It was the rhythms from the Black Continent that shaped the samba that the whole country is dancing till today.

Parades, parties and balls take place all over Brazil. Cities such as Salvador, Pernambuco and São Paulo are famous for their unique momentum, but the carnival in Rio de Janeiro is unquestionably the most popular.

When to go?

To see Rio in the carnival scenery, you must go there in the last days before Lent. The fun starts on Friday evening and lasts until Ash Wednesday.

The dates for the coming years are:

2021: 13-17.02
2022: 26.02-2.03
2023: 18-22.02
2024: 10-14.02

Transport to Rio Carnival from Europe

As expected, during the peak of the tourist season, prices of air connections from Europe rise. We started hunting for a good opportunity about half a year before the planned trip, we mainly used Skyscanner. We like this comparison tool, because as one of the few it has the option of marking the whole country as the place of departure.

Ultimately, we bought tickets not to Rio de Janeiro, but to São Paulo. Start from Nice, transfer in Lisbon. It cost us less than 900 PLN (~210 EUR) per person, including one shared checked baggage. What’s important, we were only interested in one-way flights. While searching, we also noticed prices of around 1,400 PLN (~325 EUR) for return tickets.

Of course, when landing in São Paulo you still need to organize transport to Rio. We hitchhiked in just over one day (400 km distance), but people who travel by bus will also be happy, because the cost of the trip is only about 12 dollars.

What does Rio Carnival look like?

First of all, the whole city, along with countless tourists, is partying hard. During the weekend, a good 90% of the people we passed were wearing costumes (or at least glitter). If you want to blend in with the crowd, complete your wardrobe with elements such as: a tulle skirt, fishnet stockings, headband with animal ears, angel wings, devil’s horns, police cap, crown…

From morning to night, in almost all districts of the city, street parties take place, so-called blocos. Every year the city publishes a schedule with the largest of them, but in our experience, it is pretty difficult not to bump into them on a regular basis.

Although we did not go to any, during the carnival in Rio de Janeiro there is lots of all kinds of balls, usually costume ones.

What attracts real crowds to the festival, however, are the parades on Sambodrom.

Samba school parades

What are they?

Samba schools come mostly from the poorest parts of the city, including the favelas. The first of them began to arise in the 20’s and quickly became the greatest attraction of the carnival. The parades are held on a competitive basis - the best twelve schools perform on Sunday and Monday, the next dozen on Friday and Saturday. In total, there are over 70 schools in Rio, so it’s not easy to get into this group.

What does the parade look like?

Initially, the competition took place on a regular street, but currently it is held in an arena specially designed for this purpose, called the Sambadrome. The performance starts around 10pm and lasts until each of the six schools finishes performing. This means that if you want to watch the whole thing, you will have to stay in the stands until at least 4:00 in the morning! Despite our determination, we left after the fifth parade (we didn’t get bored, we were just exhausted after a whole day of sightseeing).

How to get into the Sambadrome?

Theoretically, the easiest way is to book directly from the Rio Carnival organizers. It’s not as simple as it sounds. We heard that this can only be done by phone, or through a Portuguese page that is difficult to find in a search engine, and that you need to have a Brazilian ID … In short, it’s complicated for someone from abroad.

We booked tickets through an official broker who, as we confirmed after talking to Brazilians, charges only a small administrative fee.

Here’s how to get tickets for the Sambadrome:

  1. Go to the website
  2. Choose the day. Friday or Saturday are much cheaper than Sunday or Monday. As a rule, the parades of the first 12 schools are less spectacular. We chose Saturday and we do not regret it! We saw recordings of performances from the following days - there were maybe a bit more special effects, but the general form was practically the same.
  3. Choose your spot. The basic types of spots are: open front boxes (at the level of the arena, the dancers can be seen up close) and the grandstand (in the stands, the entire parade can be seen better). The second ones seemed more interesting to us, and they have better prices, so we decided to take them without much thought.
  4. Choose the sector. Sambodrom is divided into 12 sectors. The Internet claims that the closer to the center, the more interesting, because the participants of the parade try their best to please the six judges sitting in the central sector. Funny story: we chose sector 5, which is one of the cheaper ones, but due to overbooking we sat in the 7th, opposite the jury. The view couldn’t have been any better!
  5. Pay by card. In our case, the price was 49 BRL per person + 9.80 BRL administrative fee (per transaction). After payment, we received the voucher by email.
  6. Receive tickets. At first, we were terrified that tickets can be picked up only in Rio de Janeiro, specifically in Clube Israelita Brasileiro in the Copacabana district. It did not sound very legitimate, but it turned out to be very simple. English-speaking informants were ready to help. Importantly, you had to show the card you used to buy the tickets and leave a photocopy of your ID (can be done in the same building).
  7. Enjoy the parades!

Summary of expenses

As probably all our friends know, we’re not really party people. We did not treat the carnival in Rio as a special dream, but as one of the attractions in Brazil. Apparently, it is a very expensive city, especially in this crazy period, but our stay turned out to be relatively budget-friendly.

In the table below, we summarize the expenses for two people, excluding flight tickets to Brazil. Our stay in Rio lasted three nights.

accommodation (room rented by Airbnb) 297 BRL  
food (supplies in supermarkets, snacks outside) 92 BRL  
public transport 65 BRL  
Sambodrom Tickets 108 BRL
glitter 2 BRL  

Contrary to popular belief, you can have a good time during the carnival in Rio de Janeiro on a small budget. We liked it, it gets a thubs-up from us.