A Gringa’s Guide to Rio’s Carnival Parades

The Rio Samba Parade isn’t your run-of-the-mill Carnival celebration. Although, it did begin as a festival with people singing and dancing through the streets. Despite Carnival’s humble roots, these parades morphed into a spectacular, over-the-top competition between samba schools, which are social clubs within neighborhoods.

Carnaval 2012 – Escola Unidos de Vila Isabel - Foto AF Rodrigues|Riotur

Originally held in downtown Rio, the parades were moved in 1984 to the Sambodromo, a giant, 700 meter long stadium specifically built to hold  70,000+ spectators for Carnival. For two glorious nights, thirteen samba schools bring the Sambordromo alive with their elaborate, grand pageantry. From sundown to sunup during this nationally-televised event, dancing and music consume all in attendance. A champion is announced on Ash Wednesday, and the six best schools are chosen to perform the following Saturday.

Carnaval 2012 – Escola Unidos de Vila Isabel - Foto Alexandre Macieira |Riotur

Beyond being a celebration prior to Lent, Rio’s Carnival is also a fierce competition. Schools are judged in ten different categories: allegories and decorations, percussion, opening presentation, overall performance, theme, parade flow, costumes, overall harmony, the performance of the flag bearer and master of ceremony, and the samba song. There are four judges for each category, making forty judges in all. Scores are awarded on a scale of five to ten with ten being the best. Points are deducted if a parade doesn’t last at least 65 minutes or runs over 82 minutes. Samba school themes vary tremendously and are carefully chosen since all the costumes and floats must personify each particular theme.

Carnaval 2012 - Escola Portela- Foto Elisangela Leite|Riotur

Preparations by the samba schools begin almost immediately after Carnival ends. For each school, a theme is chosen, costumes and floats are designed and produced, and an official song is chosen. Rehearsals start in December, and each samba school’s song is released for radio play and sold in music stores.

Carnaval 2012 – Escola Unidos de Vila Isabe l- Foto Raphael David|Riotur

Parades are choreographed and timed to perfection. Even though there are 3,000 to 5,000 paraders in each school, every person is important and has a specific job. For instance, the Flag Carrying Couple dance while presenting the school’s flag. They are elegant and the most elaborately dressed in the parade. Whirling Ladies (Baianas) are a group of at least 80 older women that spin throughout the parade. They’re dressed in full skirts that reflect Bahia roots.

Carnaval 2012 – Escola Unidos da Tijuca- Foto Raphael David|Riotur

Sections and wings are the bulk of each samba school. Within a section there are several wings. A single wing is made up of 25-100 people wearing the same costume dancing together, and there are at least twenty wings spread out amongst each parade. The Vanguard Group is the opening wing of a parade. This group of at least a dozen dancers serves as an introduction to the school. Another small wing is the Samba Dancers. This is a prestigious group of the best samba dancers in the school. The Percussion Band is comprised of about 300 drummers and is arguably the heart and soul of the school. The gorgeous Queen of the Drummers dances in front of the Percussion Band, introduces the band to the crowd, and inspires the drummers with her beauty.

Carnaval 2012 - Escola Imperatriz Leopoldinense - Foto Rafael Moraes |Riotur

Separating the parade sections are five to eight giant floats that can reach three stories in height. The majority are pushed by men from the school, but some are motorized and often have moving parts. These elaborate floats carry special guests and beautiful samba dancers in extravagant costumes.

Carnaval 2012 - Escola Unidos do Porto da Pedra - Foto Nelson Perez|Riotur

All of the paraders’ costumes are elaborate, outlandish, colorful, and original. Feathers, sequins, mirrors, crystals, and metallic materials are used in the hand-made costumes. A year’s worth of hard work and dedication go into making the most beautiful things imaginable. Sometimes the most outstanding costumes are nothing but paint and glitter. Each samba school has their own official colors that represent their community. These colors are used throughout the parade in both the costumes and the floats. The fanciest and most elaborate costumes are worn by the people riding on the floats, which is a place of honor.

Carnaval 2012 – Escola Unidos da Tijuca- Foto Raphael David|Riotur

As expected, music is a huge part of the samba parade. Each school selects an original song by way of a contest. The song’s lyrics and beat must represent the theme chosen by the school. For the entirety of the parade, the school’s song is piped in through speakers and sung by paraders and spectators alike. The music is on a loop and played over and over, until the school has completed their parade.

Carnaval 2012 - Escola Renascer de Jacarepaguá- Foto Raphael David|Riotur

Although there are a large number of tourists attending Carnival, locals make up the majority in attendance. Despite the expensive tickets, Cariocas are willing to pay for the privilege of cheering on their favorite school. The stands are a festive place. Attendees dress in in their favorite school’s colors and wave their flags. Dancing and singing are commonplace, as are looks of elation and joy. Vendors roam the stands bringing Carnival-goers beer, Cokes, water, ice cream, hot dogs, and hamburgers. Nourishment is definitely needed for the nine hour, non-stop dancefest.

Carnaval 2012 - Escola Acadêmicos do Grande Rio- Foto Thiago Maia |Riotur

Sitting in the stands is not the only option for visitors. Samba schools also offer the opportunity to participate in the parade. A wing costume can be had for $300 to $1,000 USD, and a float costume can cost as much as $6,000 USD. Don’t worry about not knowing how to samba or even having to practice; being energetic, having fun, and following along are the only requirements. Having the experience of participating in the samba parade is an exhilarating one, but it doesn’t give full access to watch the rest of the parades. After paraders are finished, they must leave the Sambordromo unless they’ve purchased a ticket.

As an observer, it’s easy to get lost in the extravagance and exuberance of Rio’s Carnival parades. They’re over-the-top, flamboyant, and outrageous. But for the communities who pour countless amounts of time, energy, and money into this pre-Lenten celebration, it’s a tremendous source of pride. And for a few days each year, thirteen samba schools capture the attention and ignite the imagination of the world.

Carnaval 2012 - Escola Imperatriz Leopoldinense - Foto Rafael Moraes |Riotur

I attended Carnival on Monday, February 20, 2012. On this night, six samba schools performed: Sao Clemente, Uniao da Ilha, Salgueiro, Mangueira, Unidos da Tijuca, and Grande Rio.

All of these photos were taken at the 2012 Carnival by Ascom Riotur.

This gorgeous video by Jarbas Agnelli and Keith Loutit shows not only the beauty of Rio, but also the opulence of Carnival.


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  • Jody
    February 26, 2012

    WOW! SPECTACULAR! UNBELIEVABLE! INCREDIBLE! AMAZING! VIBRANT! COLORFUL! Thank you so much Leah for my vacation to Rio, I loved every second of it.

    • Leah Travels
      February 26, 2012

      Trip’s not over yet, Jody. I’ve got lots more posts about beautiful Brazil. Stay tuned. 😉

  • Sarah Bond via Facebook
    February 26, 2012

    Amazing Leah, love your work, I read every word and the video at the end is incredible! SB

  • Leah Travels via Facebook
    February 26, 2012

    Thank you so much, ma’am! It’s such a fascinating process and event. It’s even more amazing that the working class from the favelas are the ones who are the heart and soul of it all. I’ll have the breakdown of each of the parades I saw over the next few weeks. I felt that this post was necessary to truly appreciate what Rio’s Carnival is all about.

  • Sabrina
    February 26, 2012

    Did you take all of the pictures? They are beautiful!! That tiger is incredible. What a crazy festival. Does it all happen over two days?

    • Leah Travels
      February 26, 2012

      I wish I took these photos. They’re from the Official Rio Tourism Board. Click on a picture or the link at the bottom of the post to see their photo stream on Flickr. These are all photos from 2012 and are of the seven schools that I did not see. Seven of the thirteen schools performed on Sunday night, and I watched the remaining six schools on Monday night. The winner is announced on Ash Wednesday. The best six schools are invited back to perform on the following Saturday. So, technically, these parades go on for three nights. It’s exhilarating and exhausting at the same time.

  • Shauna
    February 26, 2012

    LEAH! The colours! The costumes! The sparkle! It all looks absolutely amazing. And your photography just keeps getting better and better. We would have a hae-day here, thanks for sharing, we will go one day!

    • Leah Travels
      February 26, 2012

      I wish I could take credit for these particular photos. They are from the Official Rio Tourism Board. You’ll find the link to their Flickr page at the bottom of the post where I give credit. The upcoming posts will all have my photos, and will NOT be as good as these, but they’re still pretty good given my equipment and location. I wanted to sneak onto the avenue and get really close photos with the press corp, but I didn’t think a Brazilian jail would be a good place for me to be. Yes, y’all must go. The images you both could capture would be astonishing. I’d love to go back myself.

  • Jeremy Branham
    February 27, 2012

    Those are some crazy costumes for Carnival!! I am not sure which required more work – the costumes themselves or the bodies wearing the costumes! 🙂

    • Leah Travels
      February 27, 2012

      It’s for sure a toss up. I’ll tell you, paraders pass out from dehydration and exhaustion. They are dripping with sweat by the time their parade is over. Luckily the weather was nice and not nearly as hot as it can be that time of the year. I can only imagine how bad it would be if the temperatures were much higher.

  • Mrsoaroundtheworld
    February 27, 2012

    Wow! It must have been amazing to witness this show from so close – a lifetime experience for sure! Thank you for sharing

    • Leah Travels
      February 27, 2012

      Thanks! It is a spectacle to be seen, that’s for sure. It’s such an amazing event. My photos aren’t nearly as beautiful as these, but I did have a great vantage point too. There’s really not a bad seat in the house.

  • Suzy
    March 4, 2012

    Wow! It’s so amazing how much work goes into a single event. The costumes and colors almost seem to require sunglasses they are so bright!

    • Leah Travels
      March 4, 2012

      It is an unbelievable undertaking for sure. There are opportunities to go watch practices on top of being able to parade. The costumes come from such an imaginative place. I’m still astonished.

  • Amanda
    March 8, 2012

    Nice job explaining Carnival! It looks/sounds like such an awesome experience!

    • Leah Travels
      March 9, 2012

      Thank you, Amanda. There’s even more that I haven’t talked about regarding the Carnival experience. It’s just something one must experience to fully understand.

  • last minute egypte aanbiedingen
    April 2, 2012

    This is a topic that’s near to my heart… Best wishes! Where are your contact details though?

    • Leah Travels
      April 2, 2012

      It’s a wonderful event that I’m so grateful to have attended. It was just spectacular! If you look in the upper-right hand corner just below the banner logo, you’ll find my contact form under the heading “Contact”

  • Arianwen
    June 6, 2012

    Wow, it really does look amazing! I was starting to wonder if I might skip the parade and just lose myself in the carnival atmosphere, but this looks just too good!

    • Leah Travels
      June 6, 2012

      I think it’s well worth the money. When one thinks of Carnival in Brazil, this is what they think. While I enjoyed the revelry in the streets and the blaco parties, I wouldn’t have miss the Samba Parade for anything. I’d go back, too.

  • Michelle K.
    November 27, 2015


    I love your posts and stories. I happen to be traveling to Brazil for 2016 carnival and this post inspired me to see the show at Sambodromo! Would you say that paying 3 times more is worth it, to be in the open front boxes versus grandstands? There is a party of us girls going to carnival for a very elaborate bachelorette party. Are there other Carnival events with good value that you recommend for us posh-yet-adventurous girls? Cheers,

    • Leah Walker
      December 2, 2015

      Well, the prices are very expensive, but it’s a grand show. I think the open boxes have waiters. I could be wrong. Most other Carnival events are free, unless you’re going to something like the ball at the Copacabana Hotel. If you’re going to splurge, I’d say that the better seats are worth it not to have to deal with the masses.


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