It doesn’t matter if you are going to Rio, Salvador, Recife and Olinda, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo or another brazilian city with carnival dominating the streets, go knowing that you are going to need 99% disposition, sagacity and resistance with that 1% shamelessness to survive and have a great time during the 5 party days – and I say 5 because I’m not counting the pre and post-carnival parties that start in Brazil right after the New Years and end just when everybody is tired of jumping and dancing (which is kinda NEVER). So.
Come ready to have fun, open to talk to strange people, looking forward to overcome your party limits – but also don’t forget to listen to your body, drink loads of water and take a rest by the beach/waterfall/hammock at any needed moment.
The exact dates for carnival vary every year, since it follows the jewish lunar calendar. The official party always starts on a friday night and ends on wednesday morning, according to tradition. Carnival’s tuesday is 40 days before Easter’s sunday, it started as a goodbye party to all sinful acts before lent (does anyone still fasts these days?). So make the maths or google it 😉
Carnival – or, like we say in Brazil, Carnaval – is the celebration of excess, madness, flirting, carnal pleasures, life. It’s time to go over the top, wear costumes, kiss strangers, try new foods, new music, have new experiences, dance until you fall off your heels. But life goes on after carnival. Thankfully! In order to move on from the party with no bad consequences, it’s better to take some precautions, right? Right.
After a few experiences and participant observation in several carnivals, I assembled this little Survival Guide to Carnival and I hope it helps everyone to party hard with no regrets!
Survival Guide to Carnival in Brazil
Go to the streets
Brazil’s most famous carnival parties are the Parades at Rio’s Sambodromo, but, honestly, as much fun as you can have watching the crazy costumes and monumental parade cars or taking part of the parade wearing one of those costumes, this isn’t the best carnival experience you can have in Brazil.
Do you want to live the true, authentic, roots brazilian carnival? Find out where the street blocos (blocos are translated as “blocs” and mean a group of organizers that bring music, that can be played live or not, parading the streets with people following them) and go after them! I personally prefer blocos with live music.
In Salvador, Bahia, the most popular way to participate is buying an abadá (t-shirt sponsored by the bloco, usually a bit expensive) and go dance behind huge sound cars (trio elétrico) – or squeeze yourself behind and around the “VIP area” composed of people with abadás and where you can only drink from the bloco’s sponsors. I think this is kinda of a frustrating experience because… first people tend to wear abadá instead of cool costumes, second because it creates a separation between people, something that is kinda against carnival’s spirit, and thirds because it tends to be much less safe and very hard to find a place without hordes of people going crazy. This is why I don’t recommend Salvador’s Carnival to first goers. It’s not that hard to find the afro blocos that aren’t broadcasted and have fun in alternative street blocos with less people, less chaos, more liberty and more fun in Salvador. You’ll have to ask locals to find them, but it’s possible – so go somewhere else for carnival, make friends with people from Bahia and then go there 😉
The offer of parties and street blocos in each city is enormous and erratic. There are blocos with color themes (like pink and green, red and blue, golden and pink, yellow and black), others have specific themes like superheroes, pop divas, mud, forest magic creatures, Luis XV’s court, and there are also blocos that have only a funny name that came from a riddle or an inside joke and don’t have any specific dress suggestion.
In Belo Horizonte there is a group of friends that go to all the blocos with (kinda) the same costume, their own beer cooler and flag, it’s a pop-up bloco that only follows the other well organized blocos, haha. You can assemble your own moving bloco with your friends if you want!
The blocos can play a variety of rythms, like samba, axé, frevo, maracatu, marchinhas, samba-enredo, and also non-traditional music, like bossa nova, afoxé, jazz, reggae, carimbó, calipso, clube da esquina, rock… anything, REALLY!
My parents chose a small quieter bloco during the morning to party with moderation <3
Blocos – or bloquinhos, in the diminutive – go out to the streets at several hours of the day. Some cities have better blocos coming out at night, while in others the party is bigger during the day (even starting early morning, like my favorite bloco in Belo Horizonte, Bloco do Manjericão, that starts at 4h20AM). To plan, you need to find out in advance about the blocos that will happen: the hour, the day, preferably the place as well, although some blocos only publish their itinerary with one day in advance on their facebook page.
Search for the official schedule from the city you are going, but also try to find alternative and unofficial blocos. To find them, the best way is using personal contacts and internet: look for the city’s carnival groups and events on facebook, ask friends that are from there or went there recently, talk to people at the city’s CouchSurfing group and ask for directions. During the party you will probably change plans several times, but it’s good to know what neighborhood to go when the day starts to avoid decisions while sleepy and/or hangover.
If you don’t plan you might end up only in main blocos, extremely full of people, distorted music coming from big speakers or no music at all because you’ll be too far away from the band. The bigger (and worse, in my opinion) blocos also tend to have more sexist men trying to hit on women in very unpleasant ways. This is not uncommon in Brazil and it’s usually easy to get away from if you know where to go, but in very hetero-normative blocos harassment tends to be way worse. Do you wanna relax and have a great party with no worries about having to turn down drunk people with no notion of boundaries? Then get away from those huge and popular blocos.
In Belo Horizonte, my home city, I love the blocos that leave early in the morning (9h AM). I usually wake up, have a great and nutritious breakfast, put on my costume and hit the streets until I feel like I’m over the day’s carnival.
Parting in carnival with no costume is like going to the Oscars wearing jeans and t-shirt. And whats the fun of going to a costume party with no costume? You don’t need to do anything fancy, but the bigger the effort you put on it, more fun you’ll have. Belive me. Carnival starts the moment you buy your first glittery accessory.
Since you have a rough plan for each carnival day already (ideally), you can use the blocos’ themes to inspire your costumes! I usually choose one costume to wear on each day, so I don’t have to go back home to change in the middle of carnival or carry extras with me. I decide which bloco has the coolest theme and wear accordingly. Another option is to wear a costume that matches the first bloco each day, to make sure I’ll have it intact at least in the beginning – later, the hair will look strange, I’m gonna be sweaty and I’ll probably loose a few feathers and props after a few hours partying.
Only take to carnival what can stay in carnival
Once you had your costumes ideas, time to make them come true! Don’t go wearing your grandma jewels or that indian silk scarf you adore. The costume will probably be ruined by the end of the day, since many things can happen to it: it can get wet, lost, dirty, stained with catuçaí and other adversities. It’s preferable to wear objects that can be discarded, like plastic, EVA and paper props, cheap clothes, stokings, hats… nothing fancy. Feel lucky if something resists in the end (and save it for the next year).
My old costumes’ box (I’ll reuse some of them and lend others to friends).
Wear light clothes
Forget about Halloween or carnival in the northern hemisphere: this is BRAZIL IN FEBRUARY. Don’t even think about velvet, plush, long pants made with heavy fabric or dark colors – unless you think it’s worth to wear it under the heat the whole day.
I already eliminate any costume that demands black as a main color from my list of possibilities. If you insist, opt for light fabrics. I also prefer to stay away from wigs and plastic masks, because they are WARM, I’ll want to take them off in the middle of the day and my goal is to be characterized as long as possible.
Another factor is water: rain, sweat, water hoses and buckets WILL DEFINITELY FIND YOU, one day or another, probably every carnival day. It’s gonna happen. Don’t fight it and have this in mind when you think about your costumes.
Fabulous and comfy!
Wear comfortable shoes that can get wet
Do you have any pair of shoes that you can wear for 12h of dancing and jumping? This is the pair you wanna take to carnival parties.
It doesn’t matter if they don’t match your clothes. Take care of your feet and you’ll last longer in the streets. And most people will see you from your knee up anyway..!
If you really wanna wear those high heels one day, then take an extra pair of comfortable shoes with you – and now you have an extra weight to carry around… think about the logistics before going to carnival parties, because there, at the heat of the moment, you won’t want to worry about this sort of thing.
We were all taking care of your belongings – and still looking FAB
Keep your precious belongings hidden in a money bag
We are in Brazil – and street violence is a fact. Protect yourself from being stolen taking only the essentials in a money bag inside your clothes. This is also why I prefer to wear costumes with two pieces instead of dresses: so I can access my money bag inside my skirts or shorts easlly.
Only keep things you can lose in your pockets or outer parts of a backpack, like petty money to buy drinks and that phone number you just got from a hottie in the middle of the bloco – NEVER your cellphone, taxi money and identity card (this should be kept in your money bag, the ones we use to take passports when travelling) – NEVER TAKE YOUR PASSPORT! Make a colored copy of yours, if you think it’s necessary.
Use a plastic bag to protect your things
Like I said before, getting wet will happen to you during carnival – and it will be unpredictable and unavoidable. This is why you should store your belongings inside a good plastic bag and then inside your money bag, that will be kept under your clothes. Once your precious things are safe, you can relax and party hard with close to zero risk.
When it starts raining/you see a water hose coming you way/you feel an uncontrollable urge to jump in the ocean, just make sure your plastic bag is well in place and go for it!
Take special care of your cellphone – or don’t even bring one
Because of common thefts, unexpected baths and other unpredictable issues. If you have an extra phone, bring it and leave your main one at home. If you don’t, weight the pros and cons of leaving it home or prepare yourself to maybe finish partying carnival without it…
It’s time for carnival!
Before leaving home, apply sunscreen carefully and don’t forget your ears, feet, lips and the back of your hands.
If possible, take sunscreen with you (you can find small sized bottles in drugstores) and reapply after lunch – specially the areas that are more exposed to the sun. Don’t forget to do it also in cloudy days, they also burn.
We are in a tropical country and it’s summer after all… avoid burns and the shame of having a weird burn mark in your skin for a few weeks, like this guy did:
Imagine this sir’s weird striped burns later…
You are gonna jump, dance, sing, use the drugs of your choice, jump more, dance more… you can’t do that without lots of water! Hydrate yourself every time you remember it.
Choose your drink of preference and stick to it – and drink water
Mixing drinks is a sure hangover. Know your body and take care of it – the party will last for 5 days! I recommend distilled drinks because you won’t want to go to the toilet so often. You know what happens when you drink beer…
Belo Horizonte’s main carnival drink is catuçaí, a mixture of açaí and catuaba. The so-called “love drink” will keep you awake and feed you thanks to açaí (the brazilian superberry that is a world trend now) and will drive you crazy thanks to catuaba. And it’s cheap: a glass full of freezing catuçaí costs 5 reais!
Açaí is a superfruit from the Amazon that contains many antioxidants, a lot of energy and it’s cream is also prepared with guaraná, another amazonian fruit full of caffeine. Catuaba is an infusion of the barks of a number of trees native to Brazil, a “brazilian wine” that has nothing to do with wine and will get you drunk and energetic. Yes, it’s a bomb. And it’s delicious.
Catuçaí! Danger, danger…
Eat! (and drink water)
You can’t just drink beer or catuçaí, carnival party goers need energy! Food! Eat nutritiously and abundantly in the morning before leaving, make stops to eat during the day and enjoy brazilian hangover food after you come back home. And, of course, drink water!
Watch out for dangerous drugs – and drink water
Always, right? Alcohol, weed, cocaine, lsd, ecstasy, poppers, anything. Take it easy, don’t ruin yourself at the coolest party of your life.
I’m not here to tell you what is good or bad for you… if you wanna use anything, use it, but take care with who you buy it from and how much you use. Know yourself and your limits and remember you are in a foreign country with different people and different drugs from the ones you are used to.
Have pee ethics – and drink more water
It’s forbidden to pee in the streets in Brazil and police can really get you if they want to. But it’s inevitable in some moments, so watch out. Men don’t need many peeing lessons, but I ask you guys not to pee in the streets when you have toilets available – use the resource as an emergency measure.
To women: go pee with a group, so you can keep company in the long lines for the available toilets or help each other find a good place to hide and squat.
A strategy that works: if you are wearing a skirt, ask your friends around you to squat together, you squat on top of a storm drain and pee straight into it. You can all squat slowly, dancing to the music playing at the moment, so it seems like a flash mob instead of a pee stop.
Wash your hands afterwards 😉
Panties can fly – but only if the girls let them
Respect women, gays, trans, everyone
Carnival is the largest flirting festival in the world. It’s a moment of sexual freedom! BUT the fun ends the moment it’s not consensual anymore. Don’t touch anyone without consent, don’t ignore when she says no, even if you interpret differently based on her clothes or behavior with others. No means no, thank you very much.
If you kissed someone and you see them kissing someone else later, be sorry for yourself in silence – or go find someone else to fall in love with.
If you see any sexist, transfobic, homofobic or other acts that have nothing to do with the festive and free carnival spirit, be there for the person that is the subject of aggression! Either with words or actions, don’t hide yourself from the violence that is happening near you. Ask the person if everything is ok, if they need anything and listen not only with words, but also watch their body language. But take care to not pick fights also..!
I hope none of my readers need this moral lesson, but there. I said it.
Don’t drive. And drink water
Why would you drive?! You can even promise you won’t use anything that will affect your judgement, but… what if it happens? Besides the fact that there’ll be people driving under influence in the streets – leave it for the professionals on duty.
Happy bus during carnival in Belo Horizonte
Separate your taxi/bus/metro money in a different spot
If you are taking a taxi, bus or metro back home, store the money to pay for it in a protected place, separated from the rest of your money. Actually, only leave your home/hotel with the exact money that you plan to spend that day – and the money to go back in a protected place in your money bag. This way, if you are robbed/go crazy and forget it somewhere, you won’t lose much.
Drink water when you arrive home!
Kissing is great, fucking is awesome, protecting yourself is ESSENTIAL! Always!
Agree on a meeting point with your friends after the bloco
Losing your friends in the crowd is another thing that will happen during carnival – one day or the other, maybe everyday. Don’t panic! Agree on a meeting point close to the place the bloco ends (find out the itinerary with someone from the organization) and be chill about it. Make new friends. Share moments with total strangers. Don’t worry about your missing friends because they’ll probably be having fun too!
Tip: decide on a quiet meeting point, preferably where you can sit down, drink water and rest before you hit the streets partying again. And drink water
Go for it
I’m already anxious to start partying at carnival! I hope this small survival guide to carnival helps you spend a wonderful time! Thanks for reading until the end 🙂
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Bloco do Manjericão, the last bloco at Belo Horizonte’s carnival, on wednesday afternoon