There is no bad time to visit Rio de Janeiro, Brazil´s most beautiful city, but the best time is undoubtedly during carnival. As the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue gazes down from his perch on top of Corcovado Mountain, the city explodes with four days of pageantry, music, and dance. The people of Rio de Janeiro have made this traditional festival uniquely theirs, importing the masquerade balls and parades of Europe and infusing them with the African beat of samba. Luckily for travelers, the city and its people are more than willing to share the experience with outsiders, and the diverse range of events caters for all budgets.
The centerpiece of carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the samba parade. Dubbed `the Greatest Show on Earth´, its colorful floats and beautiful costumed dancers are televised to millions, but seem all the more vivid in person. Despite a frivolous appearance, the parade is actually a serious competition between rival samba schools, community organizations often from Rio de Janeiro´s poorest neighborhoods. A samba school spends the better part of a year crafting its parade, before presenting it before a panel of judges and thousands of cheering, dancing spectators. The samba parade takes place in the specially built Sambadrome, and an average seat will cost you between US$150 – 200, although VIP luxury suites are also available.
An even more exciting option, however, is to dance in the parade yourself! The samba schools are always looking to add dancers to their ranks, and the purchase of a pre-designed costume will allow you to step onto the hallowed runway of the Sambadrome. While this may sound somewhat intimidating, the roles reserved for tourists are not the most strenuous, and nothing more will be expected of you than to jump around enthusiastically. To decide which team deserves your presence, check out the rehearsals of the samba schools, which take place throughout the city in the weeks leading up to the parade.
As the samba schools fine-tune their performances, Rio de Janeiro´s socialites are preparing to be seen at one of carnival´s masquerade balls. The most glamorous by far is the Magic Ball, which takes place on carnival Saturday at Copacabana Palace, South America´s most luxurious hotel. The 2011 theme for this celebrity-studded event is oncinhas, or `little leopards´, so you will need a spotted costume, as well as around US$1000, to mingle with Rio de Janeiro´s beautiful people. Thankfully, most of the city´s balls are not so prohibitively priced, and many do not require that you come in costume, though it is definitely more fun if you do.
Enjoying Rio de Janeiro´s carnival is not the sole domain of paying customers, and there is a plethora of free events happening all across the city. In 2011, over 400 bands will take their music to the streets, often gathering large crowds to parade with them in scenes reminiscent of Salvador´s street-orientated carnival. The most famous of these groups, Banda de Ipanema, is also bizarrely the least musically gifted. Since 1965, the group has gathered eclectically costumed crowds to parade with them as they pretend to play musical instruments, with a real band hidden at the back. For a more traditional musical parade, check out Cordão da Bola Preta, who blast out carnival classics through downtown Rio de Janeiro to crowds of up to one million people.
The official Rio de Janeiro carnival dates for 2011 are 5th – 8th March. With an average of 500,000 foreign tourists flocking to Rio de Janeiro every year, it is important to book your flights and accommodation as soon as possible. Prices increase dramatically during carnival, but you can still keep to a reasonable budget by making the most of Rio de Janeiro´s free attractions, such as Copacabana beach, the world´s most famous stretch of coast, and the climb up Corcovado Mountain, which offers unsurpassed views of the city. Once you get a taste of this spectacular city, and the festival that captures its imagination, you will be forever addicted.
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