Once New Year’s Celebrations come to a halt, many backpackers in South America set their sights on the next big event…Carnival! The most popular destination to celebrate this iconic Latino event (and for good reason) is Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Many backpackers dream of attending Carnival in Rio, however, many skip it solely due to the expenses that seem to surround this world-class event. And it is true, prices in Rio are inflated at this time and attending Carnival in Rio on a budget can seem impossible – but there are some tricks and tips that can prevent anyone from breaking the bank while having a once in a lifetime experience.
I attended the 2017 Carnival in Rio and it was truly one of the best experiences of my life. A week of partying, dancing, culture, and celebrating all in one of the craziest cities that has ever existed. Literally thousands of block parties are scheduled and there is an entire stadium built solely for the Samba parades. The spectacle which is Rio Carnival is hard to imagine – you just need to go to experience it yourself. Check out our blog on our experience at Carnival in Rio last year here!
While attending Carnival in Rio last year wasn’t exactly a “cheap” event, I managed to stay within my shoestring budget. I was on a yearlong trip so I couldn’t spend all of my money in one place. These are all of my tips for attending Rio Carnival on a budget while having the time of your life!
Choose the “Right” Neighborhood
A common misconception is that in order to get the best experience you must stay in the neighborhoods of Copacabana or Ipanema. These rumors have made hostel prices ridiculous during Carnival (sometimes up to three times the usual price.) I don’t think it is worth paying the extra money to stay in these areas as the block parties are EVERYWHERE throughout the city and you will be exploring anyways.
I suggest staying in a different neighborhood, such as Lapa or Santa Teresa. Lapa is the party area with the best nightlife, so staying in this area is definitely beneficial for anybody you likes to have a few drinks. Santa Teresa is walking distance from Lapa and boasts some of the most lively block parties (it is the locals’ favorite place to come to party.) Staying in these neighborhoods will save you money as the hostels here are always much cheaper. And besides price, I honestly believe the vibe is better in these areas.
Safety Note: Many people fear Santa Teresa and Lapa because of higher crime rates in these areas than the “richer” areas of Ipanema and Copacabana. But during Carnival, no area is ever 100% safe and thieves go anywhere in the city. Violent crimes are less likely this time of year due to high police presence, but do be aware for pick-pockets and only bring out small amounts of cash. Personally, I took my GoPro out with me to all the block parties and had no issues, however, be aware, it is risky!
Stay for at Least a Week
Most hostels will have a rule and only take bookings for a certain number of days (usually 5-7 day booking minimum.) Booking a shorter duration will often incur the same cost as staying for the complete week. Not to mention, there is so much to do and explore in Rio during Carnival, any time less than a week will feel rushed.
Choose Accommodation with a Kitchen and No Bar
Accommodation prices inflate during Carnival, and so do food and drink prices. I strongly recommend staying in a hostel with a kitchen to avoid having to eat out for every meal. Even street food prices were inflated and more than I normally would spend on a meal at restaurant! Cooking meals is a budget saver, especially during Carnival. I can’t stress this enough.
For anybody who likes to drink, I would also recommend booking a hostel which allows you bring your own alcohol. Social gatherings at the hostel will be a regular occurrence before and after parties so avoiding the hostel bar’s drink prices will also be a massive budget saver.
Getting Around the City
Get to Know the Subway System
The underground train system in Rio is quite good and fairly easy to use. This is the absolutely best way to get around the city during Carnival. Roads are always blocked because of the block parties so getting around with a taxi is not only expensive, but also time consuming. The subway system in Rio operates a bit differently than normally as it is not possible to buy tickets at the stations. There are specific places setup around the city for buying subway passes. These booths are located above ground near select subway stations (not all of them.) The lines can be long, so buy a few passes at a time in advance. You don’t want to be stuck without a pass at a station where there is no place to buy passes.
The taxis also inflate their prices during Carnival. It is ridiculous the amount they will try to charge, it isn’t even worth trying to bargain with them as they are so busy they will just tell you “no” if you even attempt to haggle. Uber prices are also inflated due to high demand, but they still remain MUCH cheaper and safer!
Buying Sambadrome Tickets
Carnival in Rio has a special event in which no other city has, the Sambadrome. This stadium was built specifically for the Samba parades. The stadium is long and skinny to suit the parading samba schools who compete during this time of year. Many tourists skip attending one of the Sambadrome parades due to expense and lack of knowledge on what the event entails. My advice: you must attend the Sambadrome at least once, it is a spectacle in which you cannot even begin to imagine until you have been. Truly incredible. However, this ticketed event can get pricey if not planned for correctly.
Buy Tickets in Advance
The best way to ensure you get a good price on tickets is to buy them online before they all sell out. Once all of the tickets are sold out on the website then you must buy from a scalper for an inflated price. The website to buy Sambadrome tickets from is below, however please be aware it can be cheaper to get them from your hostel, but you run the risk of missing out! https://www.carnivalbookers.com/rio-brazil/carnival/tickets/2018/outlet
Go on Friday or Saturday
There are five days of Sambadrome shows/competitions. The “best” samba schools compete on Sunday and Monday, and then again for the championship parade about a week later. The ticket prices for these days are several times more expensive than the Friday and Saturday shows. The reason being is that the samba schools who usually win preform on Sunday and Monday. However, if you are not an expert in Samba (I doubt any tourists are) then the shows on Friday and Saturday will be just as amazing to you. I would compare it to watching professional sports teams in a sport you know nothing about, one professional team compared to the next will all seem just as impressive to an inexperienced viewer.
I went on the Saturday night last year and was blown away by the talent and shows. Mainly Brazilians buy the expensive tickets for the best nights as they all have favorite samba schools they support, similar to having a favorite sports team.
Don’t Worry what Section You’re In
In the Sambadrome there are 12 different sections for general seating. The middle tends to be more expensive, however, the professional dancers keep up the show the whole length of the stadium. So, it is not important where you are! We had tickets for section 11 and still had the same show as everyone else!
Other Important Information
How to Find the Block Parties
Every year the location of all the block parties changes. In the below link you can find the 2018 full list of Pre-Carnival, Carnival and Post Carnival block parties! Yes, you read correctly, the parties start well before the week of carnival (as early as December) and go for weeks after!
What Things Cost
- Beers/Alcohol – During Carnival the government controls the sales of Alcohol and the price with authorized vendors all selling at the same price. Last year, in 2017, 3 beers were R$10 or around 3 USD. Mixers where R$5 each. Don’t worry about supply, there are literally thousands of vendors.
- Food – You can find street food at all the block parties. Hot dogs and burgers went for around R$6 – 10. You also must try the cheese on a stick, it is so tasty!
- Public Transport – A ticket on the train is around R$3 which is cheap for foreigners.
What to Take to the Block Parties
Heading out to the block parties is usually a full day thing, so taking everything you need for the day is handy. Below is a list of things I packed!
- Sunscreen and a hat- During Carnival, Rio’s temperatures can hit the high 30’s with high humidity. All of the parties in the street have little shade, sunscreen/hat will help you avoid heat stroke or serious sunburns.
- Hostel Address – A lot of the block parties march along the streets so getting lost is possible. Taking the address of your hostel will make it easy to ask for help even if you don’t speak Portuguese
- Money – Bringing enough money is essential! However, leave your credit cards at home!
- Camera – Please do so at your own risk but I personally had no issues with a small GoPro. Also be aware you are likely to get wet as people cool down the crowds with hoses so don’t take a camera that can’t handle getting wet!
What I Can and Can’t Do
Carnival pretty much has no rules other than don’t commit serious crimes. Things like urinating in public are extremely common and not a police issue or concern. Drinking on the streets is encouraged and there are no music curfews!
Please note, taking drugs during Rio Carnival is extremely risky as the gangs and police try to make quick money off unsuspecting tourists. Police stitch-ups are also an issue and the police in Rio are not to be trusted!
Carnival in Rio is really an incredible experience. Between block parties, the Samabdrome, amazing music, and the friendliest people it is sure to be a memory for life. If you have any other questions, please comment below!