Rio Carnival is arguably the most famous party in the world, and images of the legendary samba school parades are beamed across the world live from the purpose-built Sambadrome each year. But while the world's eyes are trained on the sexy samba dancers, elaborate costumes and themed floats, much of the real carnival fun is taking place elsewhere in Rio.
Carnival is Rio's big annual festival held in February and/or March; it lasts from the Friday to the Tuesday before Lent. But entrance to the samba school parades (the main attractions), which take place over the four days of Carnival, is an expensive affair, starting at well over R$100 for the "cheap seats" and spiraling into thousands of reais for luxury boxes. As such, the masses have taken their parties to the streets in the form of Carnival blocos (street parties).
Carnival blocos are Rio's biggest party — Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson
These street parties take place the length and breadth of the city, and see baterias (drum-led percussion groups) leading thousands of partiers through the streets of Rio. Blocos have been building in both number and popularity in recent years, and each follows a set route through a given neighborhood of Rio.
In 2013, there were close to 500 official blocos held in Rio, parading along the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, through the sticky streets of Centro and along the winding cobbled paths of Santa Teresa. The oldest, and most popular, is Centro-based Cordao de Bola Preta, which began life in 1918 as a group of local musicians organizing a street party for neighborhood partiers. Today, their bloco attracts literally millions of partiers (In 2012, over two million revelers joines the party.); it's one of the liveliest parties of Carnival.
Blocos generally take a theme or dress code (Cordao do Bola Preta is black and white, for example.) and have a set "anthem" each year, which many partiers will be well acquainted with prior to Carnival, thanks to a series of rehearsals that are open to the public and tend to be very lively affairs.
Fancy dress is part of the street party fun — Photo courtesy of Lucy Bryson
Other hugely popular blocos include Carmelitas in Santa Teresa, which has become so popular that organizers tend to deliberately advertise incorrect timetables for their parades in order to prevent too many people from turning up - keep an eye on social media for last-minute timetable changes.
The good news for partiers is that blocos begin well before the official start of Carnival, and they continue for a few days afterwards. Budget travelers who are priced out of Rio during the four days of Carnival "proper" may still have a chance to join in the party fun.
The blocos may begin at the crack of dawn and run well into the night, making for an exhausting few days for determined partiers. Keep an eye out for vendors selling homemade frozen caipirinhas, which cost just a couple of reais and help keep the party spirit alive when the sun beats down.