Rio de Janeiro: Carnaval, Baby!

March 3, 2019

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d attend the world’s biggest party: Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.

Most crew members on our ship had been anticipating Carnaval (“Carnival” if you spell it the non-Brazilian/Portuguese way) their entire contract, whereas I wasn’t too fussed. I had already achieved my dream for the contract, which was seeing Antarctica and penguins in the wild.

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Antarctica post coming soon – the best cruises of my life ❤

And yet, even though I dread crowds of numbers in the thousands, strongly dislike humidity, and stay away from parties whenever I can, Carnaval was indeed the experience of a lifetime.

For those like me who had no prior knowledge about Carnaval, the highlight of this celebration takes place in the Sambadrome, a massive stadium that holds thousands of spectators from around the world. Rio’s top samba schools compete with spectacular floats that cost millions of dollars and involve thousands of dancers. It’s essentially a highly choreographed parade in which each samba school chooses a different theme. They’re judged in 10 categories: percussion, themed samba, harmony, theme, evolution, accomplishment, allegories & props, vanguard commission, and flag bearer & escort. The final floats are showcased in the Parade of Champions at the end of the multi-day festival.

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Image stolen from Joey (Destination Concierge) 😉

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There were a few mishaps and headaches along the way, in true Carnaval fashion. A few things leading up to the evening festivities left me feeling like the Grumpy Cat meme. Street closures, hour-long taxi rides, standing in line to pick up 13 Carnaval tickets for an hour, getting a pounding headache, drenched in the pouring rain (we’re talking like 2+ inches of rain), and a mass hoard of people cramming into the terminal all at once upon returning (my worst nightmare). I barely had time to squeeze in a brief nap before we all assembled and went to the Sambadrome at midnight.

I was destroyed. My eyes burned, I was running my mouth like a fiery little Asian about how I’d probably be better off just sleeping and staying in, and I was a complete zombie when I got up from my cat nap to “party the night away.” I had very low expectations but couldn’t back out since I’d likely never do this again. I threw on half my container of glitter, chugged a Red Bull, and hoped for the best.

And then we reached the Sambadrome itself and saw the scale and grandeur of all the floats and costumed dancers that filled every gap of the stadium floor.

My jaw literally hit the floor in awe.

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Everywhere we looked, there was colour. It was like the grittier version of Disney parades and the Rose Parade – but on steroids. Glitter, sparkles, prismatic sequins, giant feathers, bubbles, diamonds, 6+ inch heel stilettos. Thousands of dancers from each samba school participated in the parade and were in sync with their steps and dancing (after all, they’ve all auditioned to be a part of this and also practiced for months leading up to this). A samba song in Portuguese seemed to be the theme chant for the entire evening (or maybe every school had a different chant/song but I just couldn’t tell since everything sounded the same to me). Fireworks occasionally burst through the air as float after float and thousands of dancers kept parading through the stadium.

My favourite float was an under the sea-themed one. Each part of this particular float was made from a recycled material – bottlecaps, bubble wrap, trashbags, etc. It was based around ocean conservation and saving the environment. The turquoise and purple color scheme of the jellyfish and marine lifescape was beautiful.

Another float had two people “piloting” a life-size pinata-esque hummingbird adorned with iridescent streamers as it moved up and down to mimic the movement of a bird.

Every float was so detailed and unique in its theme: A giant turtle, a science project with dancers in test tubes, an emoji obstacle course, back to school, a grand chariot, what we deemed the “Popemobile,” an Indiana Jones-esque float, Aztecs, cats, a rainforest, an intricate float with waterfalls – just to name a few. 

Some were completely random and unrelated, like Alice in Wonderland girls with White Rabbit backpacks and Queen of Hearts dancers who were all preceding a float with a theme of dinosaurs. Odd.

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Even though we didn’t get to the Sambadrome until 1am and left around 4:30 (the actual parade started at 9pm and probably went all the way up to 7am or sunrise), we still saw a good few hours of floats. If you stay for the entire duration, you watch approximately 13 schools and they each have 70-85 minutes to make their way down the stadium. On average, tourists stay for only 3 or 4 schools (until 1-2am). However, the schools get better as the night goes on, and I was told this by two groups of people who had been before – hence why we didn’t mind going at midnight (but you owe us for waiting for you, Morgan).  

Some people never get to experience this in their lives – and I managed to check off two major bucket list items (Antarctica and Rio Carnaval) within a month. I’m really blessed to be working in the job I’m in.

Thanks to a hefty squad of crew with me, the night was even more memorable. I’ll remember the moments that we all stuck together when walking down dark, dodgy streets while following Google Maps offline and hoping that the sounds we were hearing were fireworks rather than gunshots. I’ll remember our weak and weary “woooo”-s as we safely walked back onto the gangway of the ship at 5:30am and respectively slumped off to our cabins. I’ll remember seeing all the crazy blocos and people watching for the craziest costumes.

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Our friends on ships become our families. In less than a month, nearly all of my best friends onboard will leave and end their contracts. However, I couldn’t have been happier to have spent my first Carnaval with some of the best people I’ve ever met at sea. A night to remember FOR LIFE!

When my wifi doesn’t cost 19 cents/minute, I’ll upload HD videos…. which means they’ll probably never get uploaded since I’m lazy. Check this link for cool footage of the several days of Carnaval floats instead 😉

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