Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival is an extravaganza of colour, music, dance, costume and self expression. The city moves to a samba rhythm. Parties scatter the city for days in the lead up to the main event, The Sambadrome!
What is The Sambadrome?
Located just West of Centro and North of Santa Teresa, in an area called Ciadad Nova, sits a giant concrete structure. It is over half a kilometre long and just 12 metres wide. Tiered seating flanks both sides looking down upon the central aisle. This is where, four nights a year, you will find up to 90,000 spectators watching thousands of performers take to their stage.
The Sambadromo Marques de Sapucai was purpose built, along a stretch of road with the same name, to house the main parade of the Rio Carnival. This tells you just how important the event is. More than 70 samba schools compete, over four nights, with up to 3000 performers in each. The groups have 1 hour and 15 minutes to parade through the Sambadrome and it all kicks off at 8pm. It goes all night. It is a BIG affair!
What is a samba school?
Samba schools are not, as the name may suggest, a place to go for organised samba lessons. They are in fact huge neighbourhood clubs where people could go to dance and socialise, and they are amazing! It’s origins lie in an African dance that was performed at religious ceremonies. Brazil’s Catholic roots kept these dances underground and they evolved into the samba we know today.
Each samba school spends the whole year putting together their carnival performance, ready to outdo the competition. The whole neighbourhood can join in during the run up to the Sambadrome evenings by attending a rehearsal. This is actually a club night run by the school, a bit like a pep rally. Each school will have one particular song that they use during the parade and these are blasted out at every opportunity so that the audience will know it and sing along. The members of the parade need to know it too, they can lose points for sloppy singing along.
What should I expect to see?
Feathers, glitter and bright colours fill the stadium. Huge illuminated floats rumble through and performers dance themselves into a frenzy, headdresses bobbing and smiles flashing white. 75 minutes is a long slot to fill and the judges will be looking for certain aspects to gain maximum points.
The main float must tell the story of the school’s theme. We saw glowing UFOs, huge spinning Japanese drums and a monstrous grasshopper. The mammoth floats are all propelled by hand and some can be up 60 metres long. The performers that are moving along the parade route must stay in time and the costumes must reflect the theme. Each group must have it’s flag carriers, sporting the symbol of the school for all to see. You may have seen similar costumes on the kings and queens in other Caribbean carnivals.
Further back, comes the samba drumming section, something that most of us will be familiar with from other parades around the world. The famous scantily clad ladies, bedecked in sparkles and large feather headdresses, who are not part of the larger dance groups, are highly respected women in their communities. They can interact with other members of their school and work the crowd up. Although it may seem their movement is freer, they still have to abide by choreographic rules.
The rules of the parade are strict in the extreme.Forexample, move out of time or drop your costume and the judges will notice. The main performers are under particular scrutiny and from all of the schools, only 12 will be picked to compete in the special parade, the final. That is why they practise all year. All together, it is a truly exciting spectacle!
What should I expect to do?
Sing along, dance along, have a drink and get ready to stay up way past your bedtime.
Items to bring:
- Two drinks in plastic bottles (you are only allowed two and no glass can come into the area)
- Two snacks (its a long night but you can only have two, however, food and drink is available to buy)
- A light rain cover (umbrellas aren’t allowed)
- A camera or five
- Toilet roll (its always a good plan when you are sharing toilets)
- A cushion or similar (the concrete can get rather hard after six hours)
- A sense of wonder (it really is an amazing night)
OK, you have convinced me, how do I get tickets?
We were lucky enough to get cheap tickets through our hostel, but this was a complete fluke. I had looked at home but I couldn’t see any tickets that weren’t part of a package or massively overpriced. Happily, there is now a great website to help.
Here you find the whole range of ticket price categories and a heap of information about Carnivale. The tickets
are only released a week before the parades to stop resales. The most expensive seats are in the boxes around the judge’s area. These seats go for over £2000 a head. These will probably be full of the great and good of Brazil society but you never know, you might snag one. The parade reaches fever pitch at this point as every single dancer is working their hardest to wow the judges. The cheapest seats (that we had) are at the end of the route and set back a bit. The performers have been dancing for over 500 metres by this point and so they are a little tired but, trust me, it is still a spectacular show!
I’ve already spent a fortune on my flights, hotel and I had too much fun drinking cocktails last night, can I afford to go and see it?
You are in luck my friend, as there is an alternative that is entirely FREE! Walking towards the entrance to the Sambadrome from the metro station, you will cross a sludge-filled canal. It’s not all that pleasant but get used to the slight whiff and you’re in for a treat. Running alongside the waterway on one side are wooden bleachers that are free to sit in and directly opposite is the staging area for the parade.
You will see all the costumes, all the floats and the dancers are building up their samba rhythms so you’ll see them all dancing too. They are in full swing by the time they turn the corner into the Sambadrome structure. All the fun, none of the cost!
Plus, there’s fireworks, and you can’t say fairer than that.
If you can’t handle a late night or, like me, you are instant mosquito bait and don’t fancy the chicken pox look (there is a profusion of bugs in the river and around the seating), the other way to join in, is to join a Bloco. These street parties have become really popular again due to the price of the tickets to see the finalist samba schools on Monday and Tuesday nights. These are free, fabulous and are happening all over the city. Read more about partying at a bloco here.
All in all, the Sambadrome is home to one of the best parties in the world. It was a real bucket list moment for us and we hope you’ll consider making the trip to see it one day too.
I know that most of these photos are really blurry, what can I say, I must have been jiggling away to the music.