I looked at the sky. It was light blue, sunny without a single cloud. There were people around me dancing, running, and drinking. The music was blasting from all directions. It was also hot—scorchingly hot. My friend, who invited me out to join him, was now making out with a cute Brazilian girl on the street. Did I also mention that it was really, really hot?
It was mid-February—the peak of Brazilian summer—and I was in downtown Rio de Janeiro attending the world famous Carnival. I remember sweating, dancing and then looking for my friend, who by that point, was nowhere to be seen.
The next thing I remember is waking up back at my Ipanema apartment. I must’ve been pretty exhausted because my “afternoon nap” lasted well into the evening. That would be the first and last Carnival that I would ever attend.
I get tons of emails from readers asking me if it’s worth going to Brazil for Carnival. My answer is usually mixed. It’s not a strong “hell yes” and it’s also not a strong “no.” It’s a maybe. Making the decision requires you to analyze a bunch of factors.
First, it's brutally hot. Really hot. Rio de Janeiro's Carnival takes place in mid-February, when it's not uncommon to experience 110 F+ days (40C+) days with nothing but blistering sun. If you’re a guy who can’t stand very hot weather, you’ll be reeling from the heat.
I’m one of those guys. Rio de Janeiro's summers are blistering hot, but it's one thing when you’re sitting at the beach, under the umbrella, enjoying a nice breeze and taking a dip in the water every now and then. But it’s an entirely different story when you’re in some crowded area, drinking beers, dancing (or even just standing). I’d rather be in an air-conditioned club.
The second issue with visiting Brazil during Carnival is that, due to the high influx of tourists, prices for everything skyrocket. A hostel that typically charges $10 for a dorm bed, will have no qualms charging four or five times that. Same for apartments and hotels.
And when you have such a huge influx of tourists, guess who else would be in attendance? The answer: thieves. I've known people who had all their belongings liberated, mostly by clever pick-pocketers that were so discreet that these people only realized their wallet and/or mobile phone were gone when they got home. It's also important to mention that fights break out every now and then.
One huge orgy it is not
Most foreigners think that during Carnival, Brazilian cities turn into one huge orgy, like a scene out of some “girls gone wild” video. But that doesn’t reflect reality. Brazilians are friendly and easy-going people and use any opportunity as a celebration and party. Unlike say a frigid country like Sweden or Finland that's covered in ice for most of the year, Brazilians don't really need to go crazy once a year.
For instance, in Rio de Janeiro, there’s a street party every single weekend night in a downtown neighborhood called Lapa. It’s always packed to the brim with people drinking, hanging out and generally enjoying themselves.
During my two year sojourn in Rio, that’s pretty much where you’d find me almost every Friday night. I’d either be near the arches, sipping a cheap R$1 beer or a R$3 caipirinha, or in the other part of Lapa that’s replete with nice Samba bars.
I mostly spent my time socializing with friends, while trying to figure which girl to approach next. Another nice thing about these street parties is that they take place at night when the air temperature is much cooler, making it more enjoyable to pass the time and relax.
Moreover, unlike Carnival, attending a regular Rio de Janeiro street night party means that there’s less tourists, and correspondingly, less chance of crime, although a risk always persists.
Rio's Times Square
While Carnival is definitely a fun and unique activity, I don’t believe it’s worth structuring your trip to the promised land around. Most likely, you’ll have a much more stress-free activity when you come to Brazil on pretty much any other time period (visiting Brazil during New Year's can be expensive too, although New Year's celebrations are fun in their unique way). Brazil being Brazil, you can throw a dart on a calendar, and visiting on the day will guarantee you an excellent time.
Of course, if you’re already living in Brazil (like I was), then, of course, it’s worth going to one of those blocos and seeing what the fuss is all about. Just leave all your belongings at home.
Coming to Brazil for Carnival is like visiting a famous landmark such as Times Square in New York or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It’s something that you do once before you die. In addition, it also gives you the all-important bragging rights when talking to your friends back home. That's the first question your clueless friends will ask you anyway once they learn that you're considering visiting the tropical country.