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Almost globally accepted as the biggest party of the year, the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro is a week-long affair with some of the most vibrant pageantry and soul stirring music in the world. As soon as one year’s celebrations are over planning is begun for the following year. Many artists and craftsmen make a living solely on the income from the annual event and carnival art has become a genre unto itself. The festivities in Rio de Janeiro are a celebration and exploration of how spirited and dynamic human culture can be. This event is definitely bucket list material.

A Celebration of the Ages

The first celebrations in Rio de Janeiro begun around 1723, but the carnivals of the world, Mardi Gras included, have their roots in pagan fertility and harvest celebrations. These celebrations were then adopted and transformed into carnival by the Roman Catholic Church. The church turned the festival into one last outpouring of decadence and consumption before the ritual fasting of lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The traditions of carnival were later brought to the new world where they would mix and evolve with African and Native American influences, creating the rich dynamic of aesthetics we see today.

Over the course of the 20th century various additions were made to the festivities in Rio de Janeiro as new influences arose. In the 19th century the aristocracy of Brazil added their own masked parade, they named it Grandes Sociedades. The advent of motor vehicles brought about the colourful floats that are a highlight of the main parade. The birth of Samba, a distinctly Afro-Latin percussion based dance music, gave Brazil’s versions of carnival a distinct rhythm that has been its trademark sound ever since.

The Party that Keeps on Growing

By far the biggest change to Rio’s carnival has been the massive amount of people who flock to the Brazilian city each year. It’s estimated that about a half million foreign tourists travel to Rio for the event each year. It has become a big business and economy within itself for Brazil. Sponsors abound throughout the streets and on carnival souvenirs, and it is because of this sponsorship that the city’s administration can keep the festivities organized and offer an infrastructure that can support the massive amount of people. Likewise, the size of the party has grown exponentially to accommodate and entertain the masses. Expect this year to be the largest, but also the most action packed.

What to Expect

The Sambodromo is the stretch of road where the main parades takes place. It is in these parades where the Samba Schools, collaborative groups of sponsored artists, put on the most colorful and creative themed performances. These performances have grown to be incredibly elaborate and imaginative as they have been graded in competition for decades now. The world’s leading designers and choreographers go all out in the Sambodromo. There is a parade each day and they are all opened by the year’s assigned King Momo, the king of the carnival.

Once you’re done with the main show head over to one of the dozens of blocos which will dominate the better part of Rio de Janeiro. Blocos are less organized parties and parades where everyone is welcomed to join. These are categorized by energetic jam sessions wherein local musicians provide a heart pumping soundtrack while the crowds revel in the dance, food and drink culture of Brazil.

Expect the streets to be packed with around two million each day. Elbows will be bumping, but probably because you’re dancing. Music and dance are the foundations of carnival. Bring comfortable shoes because you will do plenty of walking. Also be mindful of what you carry with you as with the crowds come the inevitable pick-pockets. Brazilian hospitality is globally renowned so expect a warm welcome, but book your pousada (guesthouse) early because nobody wants to miss this epic celebration.

Written by Luke Duggan — February 17, 2015

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