I was on the front row of an impossibly sold out show in the Sambadrome of Rio de Janiero. Confetti was flying everywhere, samba music overpowered conversation, and scantily-clad, beautiful people danced to the music on the most amazing floats in the world. This party went on and on, past the bedtimes of even the most jaded rabble rousers.
It was Carnival, it was Rio, and it was one of the biggest celebrations in the world. I was there.
Most people have heard of this famous party yet many do not know that Carnival is celebrated all over the Catholic-influenced world. Other countries in South and North America have their renditions, as well as in the Caribbean and Europe. The most famous versions beside Rio, are in Venice, Trinidad, and New Orleans. In 2015, Carnival falls right in the middle of February.
Which one should you go to? All of them would be my suggestion, but it’s impossible to really do more than one a year. They’re all very different from each other. Decisions. Decisions.
Rio is, of course, the Carnival by which all others are judged. There’s lots of parties throughout the city and make no mistake, Rio is a beautiful city. In spite of the millions of tourists who visit every year, somehow the beaches still look pristine and the backdrop of Sugar loaf makes the shores of Ipanema and Copacabana even more beautiful.
The big event is the parade that takes place in the Sambadrome. The venue is like a giant stadium open at both ends. The samba schools in the area prepare the entire year creating costumes, original music for their team and building a beautiful float. It is possible to buy a costume and actually be in the parade, but most tourists opt to get a seat where they can watch the action and maybe grab a souvenir costume piece or novelty thrown into the audience. It’s a parade like no other and once you’ve seen it, your hometown parade will never be nearly as exciting as you thought you remembered it.
The downside of the city is that it can be dangerous. Tourists are definitely targets and you don’t want to walk around dark streets at night or flash expensive jewelry. Exercising caution, taking taxis and not carrying a lot of valuables on you will usually solve most potential problems.
Venice is an amazing city regardless of when you go. Since it’s on the other side of the equator from Rio, you won’t be celebrating summer days during Carnivale. It’s cold in February, the sun goes down earlier and sometimes there’s a mist that hangs over this group of islands giving it an otherworldly appearance. You won’t hear samba music or see throngs of dancers. It’s more of a fashion show, really.
There’s balls and parties to attend if you have some connections, but you might feel like you’re in the film Casanova more than in the 21st century. The costumes are exquisite, made from the finest brocaded fabrics with lots of gold. The best masks are handmade by skilled craftsmen who have been doing them for generations. There’s not a lot of drinking going on. Liquor doesn’t flow in Venice like it does in Rio. Even though the Bellini was invented there, expect to pay at least $20 for a small glass of this elixir. You’re more likely to see the fashionable crowd sipping tea or coffee at the historical Caffe Florian in St. Mark’s Square.
Should you go? It’s expensive, crowded, and almost impossible to get a hotel. Yes. You should go. There’s always a reasonably priced hotel somewhere, perhaps neighboring Mestre. The pictures you take will be amazing. The combination of beautiful costumes in one of the most photogenic squares in the world is breathtaking.
New Orleans has its own brand of Carnival and it’s the infamous Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” which is the apex and last day of the previous two weeks of parades and parties. Fat Tuesday is an official public holiday in Louisiana and thousands of partygoers dress in costume and hit the French Quarter. Imagine being in the world’s largest nightclub on Halloween; it goes all day and night. You can buy drinks on the street, bring your own, wear want you want, take off your clothes, dance around like no one’s watching. No one really cares. It is the biggest party in the world and at midnight, everything stops.
Mardi Gras is the day before Lent and according to the Catholic religion, Ash Wednesday is the day that followers give up excesses and deny themselves a thing or things that they would normally do/eat/drink/smoke to be pious for a while. So, Mardi Gras is like a big bachelor party. Eat drink and be merry because tomorrow, it stops. The parades are not to the scale of Rio, but NOLA produces some beautiful floats and their enthusiastic krewes throw out tons of colorful beads, masks, and trinkets to the spectators lining the streets.
Unfortunately parking is a nightmare, room prices skyrocket, and the best restaurants get overwhelmed during this time of year. If you plan ahead and/or know someone who lives in New Orleans, you can find some deals. Many savvy travelers will book an expensive room in the center or everything and fill it to capacity with friends to split the bill. After all, who’s really going to be sleeping anyway?
Trinidad has the most famous celebration in the Caribbean. The island is famous for its invention and perfection of the steel drums. Groups of steel drum players can be heard throughout the island and there’s no instrument that sums up tropical paradise like a steel drum. Go to Trinidad any other time and you’ll be hard pressed to see anyone playing, but the music is everywhere during the big celebration.
Stilt walkers called Jumbies wear colorful costumes and the city of Port of Spain is filled with lively dancers and the party never seems to stop. Hotels are sold out months before the party begins. The solution? A website like AirBnB that gives you access to private room rentals or even entire homes.
If you haven’t visited any of these places during this magical time, I highly recommend putting them on your bucket list and going to one this year. Although they are all vastly different experiences, they all embody the spirit of Carnival. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Bill Wiatrak is an avid international traveler and renowned local entertainer. To see more of his worldly adventures, tune into Wanderlust for his weekly contributions or check out his personal blog, www.thetravelingwizard.com.