In February this year, I travelled the furthest I’d ever been from home and headed to Rio De Janeiro for Carnaval.
I was lucky enough to be travelling with a group and a close friend who had stayed in Brazil for University, so they took on the task of educating us before we went and setting out an itinerary.
This is somewhere I would never have even thought of visiting if it wasn’t for my friend's recommendation. I honestly didn’t know what to expect before I arrived and didn’t research too much before going, putting total trust in my friend’s experiences there.
In a nutshell, it’s one of the most amazing places I’ve had the privilege of visiting.
The city is a bustling urban jungle with sights to be seen in every direction and Brazilians are some of the most fantastic people I have met. Cariocas (those who stay in Rio) are incredibly proud of their country and love to show what the city has to offer.
When reading blogs online upon my return, there is a lot of negativity regarding safety when visiting Brazil. And although I agree that you should take extra care and be streetwise and sensible, like not bringing out loads of money, wearing a money belt and trying to blend in, that goes for anywhere else.
I find it a shame the bad stories are the first thing you see. I didn’t at any point feel unsafe on my journey there.
One thing I did try and research before my trip was what I could find out about Carnaval, as a spectator at the Sambadrone and as a member of the public at the street parties.
I struggled to find good information about this and so struggled with what to pack before I set off.
So when I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect when comparing it with outdoor events in the UK. But found it was much cheaper, much hotter and much cleaner. You can take your own drink onto free street parties and also buy drinks during the parade which are priced cheaper than in bars/restaurants and supermarkets (unlike festivals in the UK where this usually doubles in price).
Advice that I would have liked to have got before going there - It is going to be hot hot hot so dressing in little clothing is preferred.
For packing beforehand, bring a couple of basic shorts, bikini tops and maybe some fun party tops to wear but ultimately, a lot of street parties have themes so buying something while you are there is the best way to go.
This goes for buying fun accessories (think Hawaiian skirts, tutus, headbands, glitter, gems and hats!) which you can buy in shops and off people selling on the street. Wear some comfy trainers that you don't mind getting a bit messy as you’ll be walking for a while, sometimes in packed streets at 2mph.
There is an app you can download closer to Carnaval called ‘Blocos De Rua’ which tells you all of the street parties happening, when, where and what the theme is! There is a big mixture of Blocos that are free to join and others you need to pay for.
All in all, Carnaval was a massive highlight of my trip and it was great to see the transition of the city from the build up the week before to the main week where most celebrations took place.
I spent two weeks doing so many things around the city but the top three highlights for me were visiting Santa Teresa, seeing a football match at the Maracanã and hiking up Two Brothers.
I couldn’t recommend going to Santa Teresa more! This is a gorgeous part of Rio set on a steep hill that is accessible by tram which adds to the excitement of the whole trip.
It’s filled with colour, beautiful shops stocked with art and clothing and architecture straight out of a fairytale book. The walls are covered in bright paint and murals and the bars and restaurants are bustling.
This is a spot best to go in the late afternoon/evening where more people are about and more things are open. You can also visit the Selaron Steps here where there are tiles from across the world (we found 2 from Scotland!)
Again online, there are people who say not to visit Santa Teresa due to it being unsafe. But I want to add to the voices of those that had a great time there, and believe it shouldn’t be missed out on peoples visit.
You won’t experience anything like a Brazilian football crowd so I would say try to see a football game if you can at the Maracanã!
There are lots of Brazilians who run tours, which is what we did. The one that we went to in particular sorted out your transport there and back which was a bonus but you can also reach the stadium by metro which is a good way to get about the city if not by Uber.
This is not for the faint hearted as Brazilians are so passionate about their football but you will also never see anything quite like it. The crowd WAS electric. You’ll be sure to see an interesting game of football also, expect lots of bookings and dramatic reactions from everyone - it makes for a highly entertaining 90 minutes.
My favourite view of the city was from the top of the Two Brothers Hill. We did this with a guide that was booked as an activity through Air BnB.
They took us up at 7am to beat the crowds and to get the best photo ops possible at the peak. Our activity included jumping on a motorbike to take us to the top of the favela which was quite a wake up call to get you started for your walk. The rocky but moderate climb is worth it for the stunning view at the top.
One big thing I took away from my trip is that if you’re researching before you go, it’s important to look for current and recent information as things can change very quickly.
A good piece of advice we received from our hiking guide was that current information online was correct and that the favela we passed through was currently peaceful. But…this can change really quickly and if the information online says this it’s peaceful and is outdated, it could be unsafe for you.
Rio is great for accepting cards almost everywhere (even on the beach) but I would recommend taking some currency with you. We did use card payment a lot but took precaution after our friend telling us they had their card cloned a couple times on a previous visit.
Using Monzo like we did, we found it was a hit or miss for working the first couple of days until meeting another couple who told us you need to choose ‘credit’ instead of ‘debit’ when paying with this and we had no issues after that. We carried everything in a money belt and tried to get as many smaller notes as possible as a lot of people might not accept bigger notes, even 50’s, due to not having the change.
It helps to know some basic Portuguese (or travelling with someone who does, which was the case in my situation). I believe locals really appreciate when you at least try to speak their language. It isn’t common for everyone to speak English so this really helps. When going to restaurants, get onto the Wi-Fi there (if it has a password, ask an employee to help you) and once you are on, you can take photos of the menu on the google translate app to help you out when making your food and drinks choices!
Make time to spend a full day at the beach and head down early to get a good spot to set up. It is super cheap to rent chairs and umbrellas for the day and depending on what barraca you are situated in (who is looking after you, who has provided you with chair etc) they will bring you drinks and let you pay for everything at the end.
Like I mentioned, don’t bring any valuables to the beach (you don’t want them getting sandy anyway) and don’t leave your stuff unattended. Beware when going in the sea cause those waves are wild!
When visiting monuments such as Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf mountain, try to check the weather as this can make or break your experience. The weather can be quite unpredictable during Carnaval season too so it best to be keeping a close eye on it. Our 8am trip to Christ the Redeemer brought clear skies and our 7pm trip to Sugarloaf encountered thunderstorms that left us stuck at the top of the mountain for an hour.
These give you quite similar views over the city to the trip to Sugarloaf didn’t disappoint too much and still brought a good extraordinary story for us Scots.
When researching online, Brazil can get a bit of bad rep but I stumbled on a subreddit which I felt was perfect for people to take in along with their research.
I find that sort of chat from people just like you is really invaluable.
Brazil was unlike anything I could have imagined and I would love to encourage more people to think of it as an option.
Rio and Rio Carnaval in particular is for everyone; people of all ages, race, gender and nationality and truly a vibrant destination in all aspects.
So make it your plan to be on the iconic walkway of Copacabana beach for Carnaval 2024!