Rio's Carnival: Why Just Watch, When You Can Join the Parade?

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What is the latest trend at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro? Tourists are no longer just watching the parade. Nowadays, tourists don costumes, join a samba school for the night, and fully participate in the festivities.

Sure, you can watch Rio's Carnival from the Sambódromo, but parading is where the fun is.

The number of foreign tourists participating in Rio's Carnival parade has increased dramatically in the last few years.

"Joining the Carnival parade is definitely one of my top 3 experiences in life!" affirms Casey A. from San Diego, who participated in the 2007 parade in Rio. "Everything is so grandiose and exuberant, and you feel like the center of attention."

"It's like the difference between going to Pamplona and running with the bulls, as opposed to just watching. Obviously, the risk at Carnival is a lot lower," compares Josh M. from Wisconsin, who participated earlier this year.

Tour operators have started sneaking tourists into the middle of the thousands of samba school paraders. This is so they are not identified by the Carnival judges, who often penalize samba schools for marching with participants who are not singing or dancing according to the song. This rule does not discriminate against foreigners, but against anyone who is not fully participating. To make the tourists inconspicuous, tour operators have been forming small groups of a dozen participants and mixing them in with a large group of Brazilians.

"We teach our clients a few tricks to blend in, so they don't look like tourists. First we teach them to wave and throw kisses to the crowd. We give them bubble gum so they appear to be singing, and of course we make sure they learn a few dance moves," reveals Mauricio Bastos of RioCharm Travel Services, one of the tour operators offering Carnival parade packages. "It's amazing how ecstatic everyone gets afterwards."

The Carnival experience starts at the hotel, where participants don the Carnival costume, usually something large and sparkly. Once dressed, members of the group meet at a subway station in Copacabana and head towards the Sambódromo, a mile long stadium in the shape of a corridor, where the Carnival competition is held. There participants meet the rest of their samba school and wait for their turn while sampling caipirinhas and other traditional beverages. Fireworks go off to indicate it's time for the next samba school to go in the Sambódromo. In military style, 4,000 or so participants from one samba school get in line and wait for their turn to enter.

Once inside the Sambódromo, participants are encouraged to have fun, and reminded to not do anything touristy, such taking photos or greeting famous observers in the VIP balconies. Each of the 12 schools has 80 minutes to move their school through the Sambódromo. Once members exit the Sambódromo, they can buy tickets to watch the other schools parade, or they can continue on to Carnival parties happening throughout the city. Participants get to keep their costumes, which many think of as the ultimate Rio souvenir.

"How to actually participate in the Carnival parade is rarely mentioned in travel guidebooks," states Cristiano Nogueira, author of a travel guide to Rio de Janeiro. "We added parade coverage in the second edition of "Rio For Partiers." Now at Carnival time we get a flood of email enquiries from interested travelers."

The dates for the 2009 Rio Carnival are February 21-28. For photos, videos and to learn more about parading in Rio's Carnival, please visit:

Note to Editors: Rio Carnival photos, and interviews with Rio guidebook author Cristiano Nogueira, are available upon request.


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