Five things to know about Carnival from a Brazilian insider

Fabiane Best April 4, 2021

It took me 33 years to attend a Carnaval — or Carnival — parade in my native Brazil. Prior to that, the holiday meant a long weekend relaxing at the beach. But when my American husband told me that watching the biggest and most important parade in Brazil was in his bucket list, I knew I had to make that happen! If you’ve never experienced the Carnival parades in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, you simply don’t know what you’re missing.

Check out these five must-knows and learn what to expect at Carnival on Heart of Brazil & the Amazon: Manaus to Rio de Janeiro:

1. Carnival rings in the new year
For Brazilians, the new year only really starts after Carnival, sometime between February and March. Last year, its first day (out of four) was February 21, the same day we landed in São Paulo. So, “What do Brazilians do between January 1 and Carnival?” you ask. We get ready for Carnival!

2. Each parade performer is a “samba school”
A samba school is a club whose members work hard the whole year to perform at Carnival. Brazilians have their favorite samba schools like Americans have their favorite football teams, with similar allegiance guidelines: You pick your school because it symbolizes the neighborhood where you live, because you grew up watching your family root for it, or because it represents your treasured soccer team.

3. Behind the fun lies a fierce competition
Carnival is a harsh competition with samba schools in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro sweating to deliver culture, history, and the best samba year after year. Several rules apply, with crucial points taken from the schools that don’t follow them. For instance, schools need to have around 3,500 participants, at least five floats, an original theme, an original song that must be sung by all participants, and they must finish their parade in 65 to 75 minutes.

At the end of day four, the samba jurors sit down and compare notes, from drummers to costumes and everything in between, which leads to a final result that’s showcased nationally — and the whole country stops to watch it, exactly like it would if Brazil had been playing for the championship at the World Cup.

4. Samba is infectious; it will catch you, too!
During a Carnival parade, your brain might tell your body to stop moving. . . but you won’t be able to. Once samba reaches you, it runs through your veins and you start moving almost immediately, even if you don’t know how to dance. Take it from a Brazilian: Everybody will be doing the same! So, relax, enjoy, and have fun! Please make sure that you eat before and drink lots of water during the parade to keep up with the nonstop dancing.

5. Foods you must try at Carnival
If you have the chance, escape from the cold and snow and vacation in Brazil during summer (North American wintertime). Wherever you go, my country will grab you by the hips and enchant you with its contagious rhythm, warm people, rich culture, fascinating history, and mouthwatering food. On that note, make sure you try:

•  Feijoada (our national dish!), a flavorsome bean stew with beef and pork served with jasmine rice, collard greens, and orange slices
•  Moqueca, a luscious fish stew slowly cooked in a terra-cotta casserole
•  Pão de queijo, heavenly-made cheese balls that melt in your mouth
•  Caipirinha (our national cocktail!), made with cachaça, sugar, and lime

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