The Sambódromo parades start at 1900 and last about 12 hrs. Gates open at 1800. There are cadeiras (seats) at ground level, arquibancadas (terraces) and camarotes (boxes). The best boxes are reserved for tourists and VIPs and are very expensive or by invitation only. Seats are closest to the parade, but you may have to fight your way to the front. Sectors 4, 7 and 11 are the best spots (they house the judging points); 6 and 13 are least favoured (being at the end when dancers might be tired) but have more space. The terraces, while uncomfortable, house the most fervent fans and are tightly packed; this is the best place to soak up the atmosphere but it’s too crowded to take pictures. Tickets start at US$40 for arquibancadas and are sold at travel agencies as well as the Maracanã Stadium box office . Tickets should be bought as far as possible in advance; they are usually sold out before Carnaval weekend but touts outside can often sell you tickets at inflated prices. Samba schools have an allocation of tickets which members sometimes sell, if you are offered one of these check the date. Tickets for the champions’ parade on the Sat following Carnaval are much cheaper. Many tour companies offer Rio trips including Carnaval, but tickets are at inflated prices.
Be sure to reserve accommodation well in advance. Virtually all hotels raise their prices during Carnaval, although it is usually possible to find a reasonably priced room. Your property should be safe inside the Sambódromo, but the crowds outside can attract pickpockets; as ever, don’t brandish your camera, and only take the money you need for fares and refreshments (food and drink are sold in the Sambódromo). It gets hot, so wear shorts and a T-shirt.
Most samba schools will accept a number of foreigners and you will be charged upwards of US$125 for your costume as your money helps to fund poorer members of the school. You should be in Rio for at least 2 weeks before Carnaval. It is essential to attend fittings and rehearsals on time, to show respect for your section leaders and to enter into the competitive spirit of the event. For those with the energy and the dedication, it will be an unforgettable experience.
Ensaios are held at the schools’ quadras from Oct onwards and are well worth seeing. It is wise to go by taxi, as most schools are based in poorer districts.
Tour agents sell tickets for glitzy samba shows, which are nothing like the real thing. When buying a Carnaval DVD, make sure the format is compatible (NTSC for USA or most of Europe; PAL for the UK, region 4).
Samba schools hold parties throughout the year, especially at the weekends. These are well worth visiting. See websites for details.
Taxis to the Sambódromo are negotiable and will find your gate, the nearest metrô is Praça Onze and this can be an enjoyable ride in the company of costumed samba school members. You can follow the participants to the concentração, the assembly and formation on Av Presidente Vargas, and mingle with them while they queue to enter the Sambódromo. Ask if you can take photos.
Carnaval week comprises an enormous range of official and unofficial contests and events, which reach a peak on the Tue. Riotur’s guide booklet and website gives concise information on these in English. The entertainment sections of newspapers and magazines such as O Globo, Jornal do Brasil, Manchete and Veja Rio are worth checking. Felipe Ferreira’s guide to the Rio Carnaval, Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba do Rio de Janeiro, http://www.liesa.com.br,
has good explanations of the competition, rules, the schools, a map and other practical details.