The elaborate costumes and spectacle make Rio's Carnival an international destination.

© ROBIN UTRECHT FOTOGRAFIE/HillCreek Pictures/Corbis

Where there is music and dancing, there's a party. Where there is music and dancing, plus drag queens, masquerade balls, parades and gorgeous women on fire-breathing floats wearing glitter and a smile, there's Carnival.

The Carnival celebration precedes Lent, the Catholic, pre-Easter period of abstinence, and it happens all over the globe. People around the world call it by different names, though, some familiar, others less so. In New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras; in Denmark, Fastelavn; in Greece, Apokriés; in Venice, Carnevale; and in one tiny part of India, Intruz. There's one party, though, that tends to outshine all others: Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Every February (or thereabouts), Rio's Carnaval grabs the attention of the world.

No matter where they are, Carnival festivities are all about local flavor, and in Rio, that means samba. The uniquely Brazilian song and dance infuses Carnaval from start to finish, for four whole days and nights, revealing the deep cultural significance attached to the celebration. Carnaval, first and foremost, is about Rio.

It is nonsensical revelry, abandon and over-the-top extravagance, and it's a big, big deal. Millions go to party in the Sambadrome, a stadium built specifically to hold the Samba School Parade, Carnaval's main event, where beautiful women in gasp-inducing costumes are telecast around the world.

The festival wasn't always quite so grand, though. While details of Carnaval's earliest roots are a bit sketchy, it was, by all accounts, a more humble affair than it is today.