Experience Brazil’s Magnificent Mardi Gras Carnival

Brazil is almost synonymous with the idea of carnivals; bright and colourful costumes, upbeat music and incredible floats parading through the streets. Each year, Rio de Janeiro plays host to the largest carnival in the world, with half a million foreign visitors and over two million people taking the streets each day from the Friday before Ash Wednesday, up until the climax of the celebrations on Mardi Gras (known in the UK as Shrove Tuesday)

Neighbourhoods all over Brazil will throw street parties, where local people will enjoy concerts and festivities while dressed in beautiful and elaborate costumes. The highlight of Brazil’s annual carnival is the Sambodromo Parade, where the country’s top samba schools perform in front of an audience of millions to compete for the title of Grand Champion.

A samba school performing for the Rio Carnival

The History of Brazil’s Carnival

Mardi Gras is thought to have originated from a Greek spring festival that was held each year to honour Dionysus, or as he was known by the Romans, Bacchus, the god of wine and good times. The spring festival was later modified by the Roman Catholic Church to become an event that marked the beginning of Lent. The word ‘Carnival’ derives from Carnem-levamen (or levare) which in Latin means ‘to remove the meat’, referring to the act of enjoying one last day of celebration and luxury before the lead-up to Easter Sunday.

The first pre-Lent festivals were held in Italy, where carnival-goers would dress up in costumes and wear Venetian masks to conceal their identities; this meant that the festivals were one of the only times when upper and lower classes would interact and celebrate together. The festivals spread to other European countries. Carnivals in Brazil date back to 1723, when Portuguese immigrants from Açores, Madeira and Cabo Verde brought the festivities of their pre-Lent festival, the Entrudo, with them.

The original Carnivals of Rio de Janeiro were simple affairs, where everyone would gather in the streets for giant water fights. People would throw buckets of water and limes, and anyone and everyone was a potential target. In fact, it was recorded that one woman was even arrested for throwing a lime at Dom Pedro I’s escorts in 1855.

As a result, Carnival began to become a more restrained affair, and Mardi Gras evolved into organised parades where the high society would dress up in extravagant costumes and masks, and dance to music.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, Mardi Gras grew to become a more inclusive, working-class festival where horses would drag floats along the parade, serenaded by musicians with string instruments and flutes. After the abolition of slavery in 1888, Afro-Brazilians introduced the city of Rio to the sensual dance of the samba. This revolutionised Carnival and by the early 1900s, the samba had become an integral part of the Rio Carnival, uniting the people of Brazil regardless of class and status – even if only for a few days a year. 

This led to the forming of Mangueira, the first escolas de samba (samba school) which was established in 1928 and was quickly followed by a number of other samba schools.

Dancers performing in their samba costumes

Sambodromo Parade

Today, the cultural roots of Carnival remain strong, and the samba parade is the highlight of the event. Each of the samba schools will spend the entire year creating their 80-minute performance, planning the routine from the moment the previous Carnival has come to an end. The parade once took place in the city streets until 1984, when the Sambadrome, a massive stadium was built.

Here, each samba school will compete in front of a panel of 40 judges who sit at key points around the stadium and award points based on the schools’ floats, costumes, dancing and music. Some samba schools will spend over $4 million on creating the perfect performance, all in the hopes of winning their school the title of Grand Champion. Points will also determine each school’s place in the parade the following year, with the top 12 samba schools performing over Sunday and Monday.

Samba dancers dressed up in their costumes for the Mardi Gras parade

The parades are incredible with hundreds of dancers dressed in matching costumes that express each year’s theme, and awe-inspiring floats. The costumes and floats all complement the performances in telling a story, and must be made months in advance at the Cidade do Samba, a creative workshop shared by each of the samba schools. Each performance usually features a social commentary, exploring historical, political, social and environmental issues/events. During times of military censorship, the samba schools used irony and sarcasm in their performances to show their anger at the government infringing on their freedom.

Street Carnivals

Across Brazil, Mardi Gras is celebrated with street parties, organised by Blocos – groups of people who undertake the task of planning the street party in their area. Each Bloco will write a song to be sung on the day along with samba music, and trucks fitted with special equipment, speakers and a stage for bands to perform on, bringing live concerts to the street parties. Blocos also arrange parties specifically designed for families, single people and the Pride community. Almost every neighbourhood will have its own Bloco parade, the most popular ones being Copacabana, Leblon, Ipanema, Jardim Botanico and Lagoa. Monobloco is one of Brazil’s oldest Blocos and is so popular that they play concerts throughout the year.

Street Carnivals are a less formal affair, but those attending still dress up in vibrant and impressive costumes.

Visiting Brazil for Mardi Gras

Nothing compares to being a part of Carnival and seeing Brazil’s amazing Margi Gras celebrations for yourself. Travellers planning to attend Rio de Janeiro or Salvador Carnival are advised to book flights and accommodation about 4-6 months in advance. The samba parade is broadcast across the country, meaning that travellers can enjoy watching the stunning floats and performers either in person or while attending one of the countless street parties across the country (there are 587 Bloco parties held in Rio de Janeiro alone!)

Blocos will meet at a specific time and junction before parading down the street, and guests can find them using online maps. Dance, drink and sing along in a brilliant costume and soak in the carnival vibes as you celebrate the last day before the start of Lent, experiencing the unique atmosphere and rich heritage of the biggest festival on Earth.

“I found it really interesting to learn about the origins of Brazil’s Carnival, and love how it has changed over the years to not only bring people together, but also return to the joyous festival of singing, dancing and drinking that it began as. I would love to go to Carnival myself in the near future and would be excited to dress in one of the beautiful costumes!”

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