Carnival is celebrated in Catholic countries all around the world, from the Friday to Shrove or Fat Tuesday, immediately before the start of Lent. The biggest and most famous of all the carnivals is the one in Rio de Janeiro, which brings in around half a million foreign visitors each year alone. There are parades, parties and events in streets and squares, and in clubs and bars all over the city, but the place where the main competition parades are held is the Sambódromo, or Sambadrome.
This is a purpose built venue, with a central parading avenue, some 700m (or half mile) long, with a number of concrete grandstands running the full length down each side. The Sambódromo holds around 72,000 spectators in these grandstands, which are given sector numbers. Different sectors are priced differently depending on the type of seating and the view, for example Sector 9 is the only one with allocated numbered seats, and is primarily for foreign visitors.
There are Samba Schools all over the city, and they compete each year to be judged the best at carnival. The very best Samba Schools compete in the Sambódromo on the Sunday and Monday nights, with more junior Schools competing on the Friday and Saturday nights.
One of the main selling features of this South American cruise was that it was going to be in Rio de Janeiro for two nights at carnival time, and that shore tours would be put on for passengers to be able to view the main carnival parades in the Sambódromo.
Several months ago I was sent a form inviting me to book one of these shore tours to see the carnival parades:
You will see that the form has been changed by hand, such that the nights available of selection were Saturday and Sunday, rather than Sunday and Monday. At this stage I was not aware of the difference in standards on different nights, but fortunately my curiosity was raised by this hand alteration, and it only took a couple of minutes online to find out the distinctions. To me it looked highly suspicious that the Tours department had only found out late on that the Itinerary Planners had not put the ship in port on the best two nights of the carnival competition, if true then one really has to ask why?
Although the price of the tour was eye-wateringly high, it seemed daft to be in the city at carnival time, and not take up the chance to attend what is said to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Having decided to go, there then remained the choice of which night. I now knew Sunday was the best schools, but I also know that the ship was then due to sail during that night, which would limit how much we could view. I elected to book the Sunday anyway. I have already discussed in Island = I don’t land how the sailing time was changed to the following day to allow all the parades to be viewed – which made as it turned out my choice of Sunday the right one.
So my final tour in Rio was to be an epic one – viewing the carnival parades in the Sambódromo on the Sunday night!
If getting about the city was difficult by day at carnival time, it’s nigh on impossible at night. Those going on the Saturday night were told a few days before that they had been upgraded from Sector 9 to a V.I.P. Sector which had a hospitality area including free drinks. This was just as well, as the drivers of their minibuses got completely lost, and took three hours to reach the Sambódromo, and got lost again on the return journey to the ship needing a police guide to get them there!
On Sunday night we were travelling in ordinary coaches, and although our route took us in a large circle around the city due to lots of road closures and diversions, we arrived in time to see the first Samba School parade past us. It was only when I sat down on my allocated segment of concrete step and looked around that I appreciated the size and scale of the Sambódromo. The noise of the crowds, and particularly the extremely loud and rhythmic beat of the Samba music also took some getting used to.
Although I had seen pictures from the Rio Carnival on television and on the Internet, I had just not appreciated how vast each School team was, or the size and complexity of the floats. There are 3,000 to 5,000 people in a School team, most divided up into ‘wings’ of around 100 all wearing identical costumes, with the remainder on or around the 8 or so huge floats that are interspersed throughout the wings. Each School has 90 minutes to traverse the parade avenue, and it took around 55 minutes for each one to pass my sector. Immediately behind each School came a big team of road sweepers, first with brushes, then with mechanical cleaners, so each team had a clean clear avenue to parade along:
There was then a pause of around 15 minutes before the next School set off. There were 6 Schools competing that night, but by the time the 5th team had passed me around 4:30am I was too tired to stay any longer, knowing there was a long drive back to the ship ahead of me before I got to my bed.
I only took my compact camera to the Sambódromo for security reasons, and as I was sat right at the back/top of the grandstand, the combination of the distances and the floodlit conditions meant it struggled to get good focus some of the time – so it is as well I literally took hundreds and hundreds of photographs, as many will be discarded. I also took a few short video clips of some of the more spectacular floats.
For now I will post a few representative shots of each of the School parades I saw, and at a later date I will work out how to share more of them, and the video clips – probably once I am back at home with a decent Internet connection speed.
In order, the School teams I saw were:
1. Estácio De Sá
2. União Da Ilha
4. Grande Rio
There were a local family of several generations sat beside and in front of me, who were all fanatically supporting their Samba School, Grande Rio. Whether it was a coincidence, or the extra atmosphere they generated I am not sure, but this was the School that I thought was best on the night. The family were really friendly, and starting with the common language of football, they were soon talking to me and other passengers nearby, and before long were offering us some of their food and drink. While in South America we have constantly heard warnings about not carrying valuables and the threat from some locals, so it was lovely to experience the opposite by the way of their warmth and generosity. As we went to leave, they warmly shook our hands and bid us farewell.
Once I had made my way back down to ground level and out of the grandstand, I got a bit lost in the crowds also leaving at this time while I was trying to find the right coach to take me back to the port. A guide spotted my plight, and led me personally to the door of the correct coach, which I thought was excellent service. However this coach was completely boxed in by other coaches, so we went nowhere for quite some time. Eventually they decanted us into a different coach which was free of the others, and we were able to set off for the port.
This late at night the coach was able to make good speed, in fact it’s brakes squealed horribly as we rounded the many of the corners. There were still many roadblocks and diversions in place though, so it was around 6:15am before I had made it back to the port, walked though the port terminal building, and caught a port shuttle bus to the ship. By then I was feeling hungry as well as tired, so I elected to stay up until 7am and have an early breakfast before retiring to my bed. Even as my head touched my pillow, the rhythms of the Samba music still seemed to be in my ears as I reflected on all the stunning sights and sounds I had experienced that night.
The phrase once-in-a-lifetime is perhaps often overused, but in this case I really think it is justified, so if you should ever have the chance to experience the Sambódromo at carnival time in person then do grab it – the memories will stay with you always.
Postscript: Coming up is the busiest part of the cruise – we have 5 consecutive days ashore in 4 different ports in 3 different countries – and on tours I will be travelling by planes, train, boat and numerous coaches. Consequently it may be a few days before the next post appears, but by then we will be sailing north again on our way back to the UK, with lots of sea days in which I can catch up on the blog posts.