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.
Author's Note: How Carnival Works
Doubtless one of the most entertaining topics to research, Carnival was also one of the toughest when it came to historical accuracy, and in several accounts of the festival's early years I came across the debunking of a pretty common tale about the famous Copacabana.
"They" often say Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced their very first dance together at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro while filming "Flying Down to Rio" (1933). Some even say they met there. In fact, according to Turner Movie Classics, Fred and Ginger danced on set in California, not in Rio, and had probably danced together before, considering they'd previously dated in real life.
The movie did feature on-location background shots, though. So Rio is in the picture. (Could be helpful in a game of Trivial Pursuit!)
- Brazil Carnival. "Carnival History." (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.brazilcarnival.com/aboutus/carnival-history.html
- Brazilian Travel Centre (BTC). "Salvador and Micareta (Carnaval throughout the year)." (Jan. 8, 2013) http://www.braziliantravelcentre.com.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=180&Itemid=290
- Ipanema. "All About Carnival in Rio." (Jan. 5, 2013) http://www.ipanema.com/carnival/allaboutcarnival.htm
- Leah Travels. "A Gringa's Guide to Rio's Carnival Parades." Feb. 25, 2012. (Jan. 8, 2013) http://leahtravels.com/site/places/a-gringas-guide-to-rios-carnival-parades
- Rio. "Rio Carnival." (Jan. 5, 2013) http://www.rio.com/rio-carnival
- Rio Carnival. "2013 Rio Carnival." (Jan. 5, 2013) http://www.rio-carnival.net/
- Rio Carnival. "Rio Carnival Balls." (Jan. 8, 2013) http://www.rio-carnival.net/rio_carnival/rio-carnival-balls.php
- Rosenfield, Karissa. "Rio Carnival 2012 Kicks Off In Newly Renovated Sambadrome "The Huffington Post. Feb. 21, 2012. (Jan. 11, 2013) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/rio-carnival-2012-sambradrome_n_1291980.html