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Image of the common ‘Mais Amor Por Favor’ and ‘Escuta Seu Coracao’ posters in Rio by Julia Georgallis. First published in Spring 2018 for The Bread Companion.
It is important to escape now and again, whether it is for a couple of minutes inside your own head, or for a few months to the other side of the world. 'Brazil' and 'escape' go hand in hand, not just because thousands of tourists escape there each year in search of the beaches, retreats, surf havens and hippy communes that are dotted around the country, but because Brazilians themselves understand the power of escapism. Brazil is a difficult place and people lead difficult lives. Perhaps this is why the culture of carnaval is so prevalent — it is a brief moment in the year that is a departure from normality, a few weeks of feeling that you are absolutely free. I am over the moon to have two of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnivals under my belt, both very different experiences, both equally as mind-boggling, both equally as liberating.
I originally wrote this post in 2018, before Bolsonaro became the President of Brazil and before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Both these events have drastically changed Brazil’s carnival culture, the former because of the President’s deep hatred for anything subversive, the latter which has caused the street parades to be cancelled for two years in a row. I for one, as well as Brazilians around the world, hope for a return to a free carnival soon. And when it does return, this post is a traveller’s food directory for how to survive, feast and thrive at one of the glitteriest, sweatiest, maddest street parties in the world, o carneval do Rio de Janeiro.
1. Is it Carnival yet?
Ahhh, the eternal question. Brazil slides into carnival season some time after NYE, when Samba practice, brass-band practice and parade practice starts all over the country. Between December - February is an excellent time to visit, with the vibe in many cities being one of joyful anticipation. But I suppose the official answer for when actual carnival starts would be the Wednesday before Ash Wednesday, with Ash Wednesday being the last official day. Once it is all done, however, there is usually still stuff happening in Rio for another couple of weekends.
2. What exactly do you do at Carnival?
Rio carnival is one massive, never-ending street party. The soul of carnival is in the (free) blocos, which are street parades organised by various groups and organisations. They vary in form and size and take place in different locations in the city at different times of the day, some as early as 4 am, some as late as midnight. To find out about what’s going on you can either search schedules online or, even better, ask people on the streets or in your hostel/hotel what’s going on. Some blocos are huge and stationary, like Sargento Pimenta (where the Beatle’s Seargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club classics are rearranged as Samba songs). Some are much smaller, intimate and move around a particular area, like many of the Santa Theresa blocos, (check out the Carmelitas Bloco, held at the beginning of Carnival or the Marijuana Bloco, held at the end). Some are themed, some are secret, others are totally unplanned. There are often brass bands, street performers or ear shattering sound-systems. It is overwhelming just how many things are happening at any one time and sometimes blocos are impossible to locate, but if you don’t make it to one, head to a bloqinho instead – smaller guerrilla sound-systems, food stalls and street bars which litter the centre of Rio, particularly around Lapa. I would also thoroughly recommend forking out some dollar and spending a night at the Sambodromo (Samba Drome) – a kilometre long procession by all the main Samba Schools. It is an awe inspiring spectacle and although it is very different to the more casual blocos, it is definitely still a huge part of Rio’s carnival and should not be missed.
3. What do I drink?
Cachaça - Made from fermented sugarcane, cachaça is the most popular drink in Brazil. Available in various flavours, my favourite is a ‘Gabriela’ which is a cinnamon cachaça. Because it is so full of sugar, it is responsible for possibly the worst hangovers known to man.
Caipis - Caipi-whatevers are fabulous – Caiprinhas are cachaça mixed with lime and sugar, caipifrutas are cachaça and fruit, caipiroska are vodka, lime and sugar.
Catuaba - Catuaba is a natural remedy made from a Brazilian rainforest tree. There are several drink brands, such as Catuaba Selvagem, that use catuaba as a main ingredient adding it to red wine, fermented apple juice, guarana and marapuama. Catuaba supposedly increases libido, which is particularly important during carneval.
4. No seriously though, I need to eat something.
This is total sacrilege to me, but eating comes second during Carnival. If you do insist on eating however, then the best way to do this is through street food or eating on the beaches. Try these things...
Meat on a stick - Sorry, veggies, these are everywhere. Usually covered with farofa (tossed cassava) and are handy for soaking up alcohol.
Salgados - Fried balls of joy, these are savoury snacks, the most common are chicken and potato dumplings (coxinha), beef croquettes covered in bulgar (kibe) or cheese balls (pão de queijo).
Head to the beach - To cure the hangover, head to the beach, find a good spot and wait for the food to come to you. Freshly grilled halloumi-style cheese, doughnuts and churros, acai na tigela, and other homemade delicacies from all over Brazil are making their rounds throughout the day.
Por-Kilo restaurants - a good, cheap way to fill up fast on filling food. There are many all over the city – find one, take a plate, fill it up with what you want and pay by the weight.
Feijoao – a Brazilian staple. Rice, protein and beans.
Sucos naturales – Freshly squeezed juices, find them everywhere!
Acai – The darling of Brazil. Grab an acai na tigela (acai bowl) at the beach. Acai is a small purple fruit which is frozen, mixed with agave sugar and then served with granola, condensed milk, milk powder, and fruit like bananas and strawberries – good for breakfast.
5. Where should I stay?
If you want to be in the heart of the party and don’t mind streets smelling like piss or danger, stay in Lapa. If you want to be in the heart of the party but want things to be a bit quieter and don’t mind having to walk up five bijillion steps, stay in Santa Teresa. If you want easy access to the beach and don’t mind taking taxis (which increase in price during Carnival) then stay in Leme or Ipanema.
6. What do I do when Carnival is dead and I am also dead?
If you don’t have much time, a nice option is to stay somewhere a bit quieter in Rio (Lagoa or Jardim Botanico are good options) and do some touristy things that were probably closed, too busy or covered in debauchery to see properly during the madness of carnival. But if you do have time, I would urge you to leave the city and head to one of the quieter beach towns (which to be fair are not so quiet after Carnival as everyone has had the same idea) like Floripa, Ubatuba, or ANYWHERE up North!
Other things to note:
People will try and kiss you. This is totally normal. Because? Kissing is a competitive sport during carnival. Play along if you feel comfortable. Set firm boundaries if you don’t.
Don’t take your shit out with you. Honestly. Don’t. Keep your phone and cash stuffed down you bra or in your knickers if you must bring it with you. I cannot stress this enough. Theft is rife in Rio. Don’t risk it.
Don’t worry if you don’t go to everything. Fight the FOMO and just know that there is another equally as fun thing just around the corner. This is also probably a good lesson for life.
Take naps. They will save your life.