There’s no party in the world quite like Carnaval in Brazil. As a matter of fact, it was the driving force of our idea for a year-long party. While everyone is familiar with the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, the party actually goes on all over this massive country. We decided to go big and celebrate Carnaval in Brazil in three different cities. From the traditional festivities in Olinda to the insane parade in Recife, to the epic blocos of Rio, read on for more about the 2nd stop on our year-long party.
Carnaval in Pernambuco
Thanks to a bit of clever travel hacking, we had enough airline points to fly round-trip from Santiago all the way up to the northeast state of Pernambuco in Brazil. The Carnaval celebrations here are legendary, so we figured it would be a good place to start. While Rio gets all the press, Carnaval in Pernambuco is super traditional and a ton of fun. It’s known as more of a Carnaval for the people, as even the big events are free for all to join.
We flew into the capital city of Recife, where we were greeted with free caipirinhas at the baggage claim. It was clear from the get-go that Carnaval in Brazil was going to be a damn good time. Here’s a little recap of our Carnaval experience in both Olinda and Recife.
Carnaval in Olinda
Olinda is just a few kilometers down the road from Recife, making it very easy to visit both on a short trip. The historic center of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its traditional architecture and colorful houses. We didn’t visit Olinda to check out some churches, though – we came to rage.
Since we arrived in Olinda the Monday before Carnaval officially kicked off, we figured it would be pretty chill. We were wrong.
On our first night in town, we went out to get some street food for dinner and figured we’d have a quiet night. Next thing we knew we were in the middle of a huge crowd, beers in hand, dancing to frevo music. We followed the crowd through the cobblestone streets for a few hours to soak up the Carnaval atmosphere.
Olinda Carnaval Traditions
Carnaval in Olinda is famous for the bonecos gigantes – giant puppets that are used in parades throughout the week. Some of them represent real people, such as politicians and actors, while others are just for fun. There are a few workshops in town where you can pay a few reals to see them up close and take some photos.
In Olinda everyone parties together; parents, children, and even grandma and grandpa are out in their costumes having a grand ole’ time in the street. The pre-Carnaval celebrations begin in January and continue all the way up until the official start of the festival. There is a differently themed bloco every night of the week ranging from “Night of the Silent Drums” to “Bloco de Saudade” where they celebrate past ways of having fun.
It was nice being in Olinda a few days before the madness started, as we were free to explore the cobblestone streets devoid of the huge crowds that invade once Carnaval starts. It’s a very photogenic town, so be sure to bring your camera and a couple extra batteries if you visit.
Just check out that awesome shot of the giant puppets hanging out on top of a sushi restaurant!
Since the price of accommodation skyrockets in Olinda at the official start of Carnaval, we decided to split our time in the area and move to a hostel in Recife. Everyone says that it’s best to come to Olinda during the day and then party in Recife at night, so we did just that. When we came back to town on Saturday, it transformed from a quiet little tonw into a raging party.
This, my friends, is what Carnaval in Brazil is all about.
On the actual weekend of Carnaval, there’s a stage set up in the center of Olinda with dance and music performances throughout the day. There are also tons of vendors selling street food, beers, cocktails, masks – you name it. Carnaval in Olinda was an absolute blast and we’d go again in a heartbeat.
Now let’s see how the celebrations were in the big city.
Carnaval in Recife
Recife is the capital of Pernambuco and is considered one of the best places to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil. It’s also a beautiful city right on the coast with a nice stretch of beach.
While the ocean looks quite enticing on a hot afternoon in Brazil, you may be surprised to find almost no one swimming. This is because the city is also famous for shark attacks. Needless to stay, we watched the ocean from a distance.
Galo da Madrugada
Recife is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the biggest Carnaval parade in the world. On Carnaval Saturday, the Galo da Madrugada (Rooster of Early Hours) parade sees over 2 million people lining the streets. It’s an absolute free for all with people everywhere singing, dancing, and boozing.
While it was a good time, we would definitely spring for one of the private viewing parties (camarotes) next time. Just look at that massive crowd! We definitely started to feel a bit claustrophobic. Getting out of the crowd to even find a bathroom proved to be difficult.
Partying in Marco Zero
Once the sun goes down, the party shifts to Recife Antigo (Old Recife) in the Marco Zero Square. There are different parades moving through the streets all night and you’re always welcome to join.
You’ll never go thirsty or hungry here, as vendors line the streets with delicious kebabs and ice cold beers. The street vendors here even take credit cards. What a country!
You can’t come to Carnaval in Brazil and not dress up. We didn’t bring any costumes with us, but thankfully our hostel had a nice stash of silly hats, butterfly wings, and awesome star-shaped sunglasses that we could borrow. I’d say we did pretty well. What do you think?
In addition to the various parades going up and down the streets, there are several stages with live music. The main stage brought in some big names in Brazilian music and big crowds to match. While we can’t understand a lick of Portuguese, it was tons of fun watching a few shows on the main stage. You just can’t match the infectious energy that’s all around during Carnaval in Brazil.
Check out some highlights of our time celebrating Carnaval in Olinda and Recife in this short video:
Carnaval in Rio
Of course, we just had to get to Rio for the last couple days of Carnaval in Brazil. It is known as the biggest party in the world, after all. We booked a sweet place on Airbnb up in the Santa Teresa neighborhood and spent four days partaking in the Carnaval festivities.
For our first night in Rio, we simply headed down to Centro to wander around and find a party. We didn’t have to look far. As soon as we got off the bus, there were crowds of people in their best Carnaval attire drinking and dancing in the street.
Despite all the bad press Rio gets when it comes to safety, we encountered zero issues during our stay. They definitely up the police presence during Carnaval to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible.
So Many Blocos, So Little Time
It’s hard deciding what to do during Carnaval in Rio, as there are more blocos (block parties) than you can count. We had our eyes set on one in particular, though. Sargento Pimenta is a famous bloco where a huge band plays samba versions of Beatles songs. The crowd is estimated at over 180,000 – bigger than any music festival in the US!
It was hot and crowded but a damn good time.
One day we were just lounging around our place getting ready to go out when we heard what sounded like a marching band outside. We opened the door and lo and behold, there was a bloco right on our street! Naturally, we tossed our silly costumes on, grabbed a beer, and joined the fun.
Rio de Janeiro Samba Parade
While the blocos were tons of fun, the main reason we came to Rio was to go to the Sambadrome parade. Various samba schools spend the entire year preparing for this, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Each school gets an hour to perform and a winner is awarded at the end of Carnaval. It was the most colorful, energetic, and downright amazing thing we’ve been a part of.
The parade goes all night, from 9PM to about 5 in the morning. While we were dragging ass by the end, there were Brazilian grannies around us still dancing with the energy of a child. It’s amazing what effect that samba music has on people here! Tickets for the Sambadrome don’t come cheap, but trust me when I say it’s worth every penny. Thanks to the help of a Brazilian friend, we were able to get our tickets at the local price. Score!
Winding Down Carnaval
The blocos don’t stop even when the official Carnaval festival is finished. They continue to go on for weeks afterward, except at that point they’re called hangover blocos!
Unfortunately for us, we weren’t able to attend the hangover blocos as our journey had to keep on moving. We did, however, have some time in the country to decompress from the madness and do a bit of sightseeing; something that wasn’t possible during the chaos of the festival. We’ll have a recap soon of some really awesome things to do in Brazil besides rage at Carnaval. Keep an eye on the blog!
Carnaval in Brazil was on our travel bucket lists for years, so it felt great to finally cross it off. The whole thing flew by in a blur of strong caipirinhas and thumping frevo beats. It truly is the biggest party in the world and like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. Thankfully now we have 10-year visas for Brazil, because we’ll definitely be back sooner than later. If Carnaval in Brazil is something you’ve been on the fence about, trust us and just go next year. It’ll be the most fun you’ve ever had!