Samba!

Carnaval is samba-driven, but you don't have to know the dance to participate. If you've got the right costume, you can walk in the parade doing the funky chicken. But if you do want to learn while you're there, just drop by a rehearsal at a nearby samba school, and emulate.

Planning a Carnival Experience

In Rio, be guided by your heart's desires; four months before Rio, be buying tickets.

With half a million out-of-towners in the city, the most desirable hotels book up fast. Travel agents recommend two main areas in southern Rio: On the high-price side, the Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods offer the nicest amenities [source: Rio Carnival]. A bit northeast, areas like Flamengo and Botafogo are more affordable options [source: Rio Carnival]. Because the subways run 24 hours a day during Carnaval, getting to the festivities from most locales in Rio is pretty simple.

The Samba School Parade and the balls are ticketed events, and the parade, a Carnaval must, sells out quickly. Ticket prices go up the later you buy. Ideally, you'll get them at face value from the samba league, LIESA. Otherwise, compare prices, because less-reputable sellers will overcharge [source: Rio Carnival].

Advanced purchase of tickets for the most popular balls, especially the Rio Scala balls (and of those, especially the Gay Gala), is also a good idea.

Bandas and blocos are free street parades, and some start in the afternoon, so these can be a good option for family activities [source: Ipanema]. If you must choose only one, choose Banda de Ipanema.

Keep in mind, there's no need to do it all –- unless, of course, that's your thing. For most visitors, a couple of bandas and blocos, a costume ball and, if possible, the Samba School Parade at the Sambadrome are plenty to get a full Carnaval experience -- or at least as full as possible for a non-local.

Most important is the spirit of those 96 hours: Wear what you want, dance how you want, drink what you want and sing like you're in the shower. Just don't heed the call of nature in the street. Even Carnaval has its limits.