Rio  isn’t the only Brazilian city to host Carnaval, but the signature parades, balls, and escolas de sambas (samba schools), combined with the non-stop merrymaking have made Rio’s Carnaval  one of the most spectacular festivals in the world.
What visitors often don’t know is that there are many ways to celebrate Carnaval aside from showing up at the Sambódromo. Private or public, tony or tacky, traditional or vanguard, diurnal, nocturnal, or 24 hours nonstop, there are Carnaval-esque festivities to suit every whim and budget.
The most famous Carnaval event consists of the desfiles (parades) of the top escolas de samba (known as the Grupo Especial, or Special Group). These take place in a massive concrete stadium called the Sambódromo. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, it can seat 90,000 people. Desfiles are held on the Sunday and Monday nights of Carnaval (from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and involve 14 escolas de samba that compete against each other.
On each night, the escolas have between 85 and 95 minutes to strut their stuff for a table of judges who award points for various aspects of their performances, among them choreography, costumes, floats, decorations, samba de enredo (theme song), and percussion. The final results are absolutely spectacular, a kaleidoscope of whirling and twirling sequins and feathers and gaudy, flamboyant color.
If you miss the competition itself, on the following Saturday you can catch the eight top schools perform in the championship parade, which also takes place at the Sambódromo. In fact, tickets to this “best of” compilation event are much cheaper than those for the desfiles.
If you’re not content merely being a spectator, you can join the parade as a full-fledged member of the escola de samba. Most samba schools allow foreigners to purchase their fantasias (costumes)—either via their websites or upon arrival—and join in the fun.
Getting inexpensive tickets to the Sambódromo is a tricky affair since most of them are sold long before the event itself (they usually go on sale in January). Lineups are enormous and savvy scalpers and travel agents often snatch up the best seats. Two good sources of information about Carnaval in general and ticket outlets are the Rio Carnival Guide (www.rio-carnival.net ) and Riotur (www.riodejaneiro-turismo.com.br ), the municipal tourist secretariat. The latter sells (expensive) tickets (R$500) in private boxes for tourists, which are much more comfortable than the regular bleachers. Tickets for other sections range R$10–290. Try to sit in the central sections, which offer the best views and the most animation.
You can also purchase tickets online at www.rio-carnival.net , or in person at Rio travel agencies (which usually charge a commission). If you find yourself without tickets at the last minute, head straight for the Sambódromo and look around for scalpers (they’ll be looking around for you). If you’re willing to miss the first couple of schools and arrive fashionably late (like most Cariocas), you can usually get some good bargains.
Although you can get to the Sambódromo by bus, these are usually packed, rowdy, and full of pickpockets. You’re much better off taking a taxi or the Metrô (which runs 24 hours during Carnaval) to Praça Onze (if you’re seated in an even-numbered sector) or Central (for an odd-numbered sector).
In recent years there has been a revival of the many neighborhood and resident association blocos and bandas that traditionally took to the streets and let loose in an explosion of music and merrymaking. Although bloco costumes aren’t as ornate as those of the escolas de samba, some are highly inventive and downright hilarious. Many men—both gay and straight—dress in drag.
If you want to join in the fun, all you have to do is appear at the blocos headquarters on the day and time of their parades. Check to see if you’re expected to don the bloco’s traditional colors or to purchase a T-shirt (sold on the spot). Festivities usually kick off in the afternoon and last far into the night.
Centro  is home to some of the city’s most traditional blocos. Among the most popular are Bafo de Onça; Bloco Cacique de Ramos, and Cordão do Bola Preta. Santa Teresa  features the Carmelitas de Santa Teresa; Glória  has the Banda da Glória; and Botafogo features Barbas, Bloco de Segunda, and Dois Pra Lá, Dois Prá Cá. Copacabana and Leme ’s most famous bloco is Bip Bip , many of whose members are professional musicians, while Ipanema  has some of the most wildly alternative groups, among them Símpatia É Quase Amor, Banda de Ipanema, and the highly popular Banda Carmen Miranda.
The City of Rio  also organizes outdoor shows and festivities. Rio Folia takes place around the Arcos da Lapa and features an eclectic alternative mixture of various Brazilian musical tendencies. Bailes de Cinelândia’s outdoor bailes make an effort to revive Rio’s traditional Carnaval balls of yore with a roster of top singers and samba bands animating crowds that often exceed 50,000.
Meanwhile, those who don’t actually make it in to the Sambódromo needn’t feel excluded, since right outside is a recently inaugurated open-air space known as Terreirão do Samba (or “Samba Land”) where nightly samba performances are held, starting the weekend before Carnaval and continuing every night during the festivities. It’s also here that the mega-festa on the Saturday following Carnaval is held, coinciding with the Parade of Champions in which the victorious samba schools do a repeat performance.
The extravagant Carnaval balls of yesteryear are alive and well at Rio ’s clubs and hotels. Live samba bands supply the rhythms, and costumes are de rigueur. The most famous and fabulous event (costumes or formal wear required) is the Magic Ball held at the Copacabana Palace  on Saturday night, which attracts an international throng of rich and gorgeous people, for whom R$1,500 (the average price of a ticket) is chump change.
Tickets to most other balls, however, are in a much more affordable range of R$30–50. Those held at the Scala club (Av. Afrânio de Melo Franco 292, Leblon, tel. 21/2239-4448) on every night during Carnaval are some of the wildest and most spectacular, culminating on the last night with the immensely popular Gala Gay. Many other clubs also organize bailes in which men can go all-out with their cross-dressing fantasies. Among the most legendary are those held nightly at Copacabana’s famous gay club Le Boy (Rua Raul Pompéia 102, Copacabana, tel. 21/2513-4993).
Since the one thing Cariocas don’t take lightly is Carnaval, no matter where you go, you’ll be expected to show up in a seriously extravagant costume.
For up-to-date information about Carnaval, check out Riotur’s website, www.riodejaneiro-turismo.com.br , and the Rio Carnaval Guide website, www.rio-carnival.net , both of which have complete and updated information in English.