Carnaval do Rio de Janeiro

This post was originally featured on Travel Latina

Co-authored by: Cindy Medina and Stacey Julie Lopez

Photography by: Norberto Soto

“Brasil, terra boa e gostosa

Da morena sestrosa

De olhar indiscreto

O Brasil samba que dá

Bamboleio que faz gingar

O Brasil do meu amor

Terra de Nosso Senhor

Brasil pra mim

Pra mim, pra mim!”

The first time I listened to those words, I was standing in the middle of a crowd of what I would say felt like over 100,000 people during o Carnaval do Rio de Janeiro in 2013. The live samba sounds vibrated through all of our bodies making it completely impossible to stay still. People of all ages are out dancing on the ruas of Rio! Every so often beer started to rain from the sky but it was so hot and I was so preoccupied with dancing that I did not mind the beer shower.  I was on the ultimate life high, participating in a cultural event that I had dreamt being a part of for years. There is more to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval than what we are accustomed to seeing from the outside; the extravagant floats and the women dancing samba in beautiful colorful costumes. I had that image so ingrained in my mind that I expected to see the women with those beautiful costumes dancing everywhere. Little did I know that there are many elements that make up this week long celebration. I was completely unprepared to say the least….

History of Carnaval

The history of carnaval extends back to the Portuguese colonization period. By the time the Portuguese arrived to Brazil in 1500, carnaval had become a tradition in different countries throughout Europe. The Roman Catholics began the tradition of carnaval as a special event which leads up to the beginning of Lent. It is told that Brazilians chose to rebel against the Catholic events but eventually adapted them as their own, adding different elements to make it unique to their culture. In the mid 1800’s, carnaval in Brazil began to change and it became the Carnaval of Brazil as we know it today. The most important element of this celebration, samba, was officially incorporated in 1917. Different towns of Rio de Janeiro began making their own carnaval samba songs and dances. From this stems the annual Samba School Competition with the first competition being held in 1932. Every year the creative art form of the competition grew, leading to the Associação das Escolas de Samba da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, which is the main carnaval organizing committee in Rio de Janeiro. It is important to note that different regions of Brazil have unique elements to their carnaval celebrations, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador being the most popular ones.

Blocos

“Is it day? Is it night? What time is it? Today is Friday…? Cadê a minha dignidade?! Cadê as minhas amigas?! (Where did my dignity go? Where are my girlfriends?)” These are just some thoughts that Brazilians and visitors alike wake up to (thats if you sleep at all) during the week of carnaval.

Blocos de carnaval de rua! The part of carnaval that I was not prepared for! Blocos are organized street parties which run from mid January through Ash Wednesday. However, carnaval officially begins on the Friday leading up to Ash Wednesday and has a duration of five days. About 500 blocos take place through out the city. There can be multiple blocos occuring at the same time in different locations and as soon as one ends, another begins. Some blocos can stretch for miles with as many as 400,000 people. It is 120 hours of non-stop samba, caipirinhas, cerveja, dancing and lots of beijos. Most of them have a theme or are well known for the samba band that plays. Some are more notorious than others such as; Monobloco, Bloco da Preta, Cordao do Bola Preta, e Banda de Ipanema. It has been recorded that nearly one million people show up annually to party at the Monobloco and Bloco de Preta block parties! I can only best describe a bloco as a mix between Halloween and New Orlean’s Mardi Gras. It is all too common to see Minnie mouse, a sailor, Where’s Waldo and a priest together on the metro on their way to the bloco in Santa Tereza. Interesting fact about blocos: the Brazilian dictatorship in the 1940’s had prohibited street block parties. As a form of rebellion Cariocas (term used to reference Rio de Janeiro natives) continued to have street block parties and began using costumes in order to avoid being recognized and jailed. O jeitinho Carioca never fails!

Check out these websites to see the 2016 blocos schedule:

Globo

Diario Do Rio

Sambadrome/Sambódromo

The world famous Sambadrome was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and built in 1984. It is the official parade grounds where the samba schools compete. The parade strip stretches for about half a mile, with bleachers on both sides, where thousands of spectators from all over the world witness the competition. I was fortunate enough to attend both the samba school rehearsals and the actual parade. You have four nights to catch the parade, Sunday through Tuesday before the start of Lent. Tickets range from $35 to $400 depending on where in the stands you would like to sit and the night you decide to go. The main event of the parade is Sunday night and it is usually the one that sells out first. But don’t worry you will find many tourist agencies and people outside the Sambadrome reselling tickets if you don’t happen to find tickets on the night you are interested in going to. While some people may think the best seats in the house are too expensive, I believe it is worth the experience.

This is the part of carnaval that we know about from the exterior. To see it all up close was magical! Every samba school has a theme and a parade song for that particular year. The samba school competition is a big deal in Carioca culture. Think about it as the Super Bowl of samba dancing and music. People in the audience are dressed in shirts and colors  supporting their favorite school. The most popular schools being; Beija-Flor, Salgueiro, Mangueira, Vila Isabel, and Grande Rio. Everything about the parade is grand! The floats are each unique and colorful, which leave you in complete awe! If you appreciate the art that samba is, you will love the different choreography. The dancing during the parade is the best of the best! The infamous feather, glitzy, glammed up costumes that samba dancers wear are also quite a sight to see! The parade runs from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. You will be having such a great time that you will not even feel the night go by! At the end of the parade spectators are allowed to parade with the last samba school on the runway. Parading down the Sambadrome runway at six in the morning, with confetti raining from sky, dancing to samba, and beautiful cheerful people all around me, is one of the dearest memories I have from my time in Brazil.

Want to additional information on Carnaval? Check this site out:

Rio Carnival Services

Carioca Culture

There were a few things that caught me by surprise during carnaval. You could read all the tourist guide books in the world and you will still be unprepared for the craziness that takes place. For example the beijo tradition during blocos. There are no limitations to where and when its okay to have someone approach you and ask for a kiss. Brazilian men are known for their slogan “O Brasileiro nunca desisti” (Brazilians never give up) and this is fervently applied to their tactic in attaining a beijo from the girl of their desire. Once a man sets his eyes on you he will ask for “só um beijo” (just one kiss) and whether you chose to decline or accept, his friends will circle around you and yell, “Beijo! Beijo!” No worries you can run away or have your friends rescue you from the beijo trap.

Not all Cariocas  are avid supporters of carnaval. For some, carnaval is a month full of wild partiers running the streets rampant creating chaos and adding to the already severe traffic congestion and waste issues. Brazilians are very prideful of their country, so I would best advise anyone considering participating in any future carnaval festivities to please treat the land as if it is your home. This means, reframe from littering, urinating on the street or in the ocean, etc. Brazilians also appreciate when you take time to have conversations with them, even if your Portuguese is not up to par. Learning the basics will get you through questions, simple convos, and reading directions. Try learning a few words! It is a beautiful language!

Safety Tips

As experienced carnaval goers we would like to provide you with some safety tips. In the midst of all the fun it is also important to be precautious. Amongst the masses, its very easy to turn around and realize you’ve been seperated from your friends. Most likely, your cell phone service won’t work and who checks their phone during carnaval anyways? Always make sure to keep a buddy system. Agree on a strict “we came together, we leave together” policy. It is very easy to get caught up in the festivities but make sure to establish a meeting point in case someone is separated from the group for more than 20 minutes or so.

I vaguely remember one of my Facebook statuses reading something like, “I’m dehydrated, sleep-deprived, malnourished and I’m bruised. #day3 #CarnavalRiodeJaneiro2013”, along with a picture of myself in a cheetah costume. I’ve never been one to skip a meal, but you might be surprised to check the time and realize its 3pm and you haven’t eaten all day. Thankfully, blocos provide street food vendors every 3 yards or so. Make sure to carry enough cash with you to cover transportation (bus fair and taxi rides), snacks, water and drinks. In fact I advise to carry cash only but do not just spend all your money on latrãos de Brahma (beer) and water guns.

I know you will be tempted to Snapchat or Instagram all of the highlight moments to your envious friends back home, but pick pocketing is pretty rampant in Rio and something you should be extremely cautious about. Lets take note of the fact that Brazil sells the most expensive iPhone in the world. An iPhone 6 can easily sell for about 4,000 Reis (about $1,000 US) therefore they are a hot item to steal. Its not a very pleasant feeling to reach into your pocket to take a selfie with "Che Guevara" and realize your phone is gone. Rio is notorious for its assaltos (assaults) but like any other place in the world you may visit, the rule remains the same, be a smart traveler. Do not carry things you do not wish to get stolen, do not wear flashy jewelry, do not walk alone in dark streets, and do not be obnoxious on the streets. You will stand out as the gringo that is bebado (drunk), and be the easy target for an assaltante (thief).

O Final!

With all that said, if you are headed to carnaval this year (or whenever it may be), if we are not there and you are, we envy you. Pero es envidia de la buena! Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro is like no other carnaval in the world. Cariocas are naturally very laid-back, happy people whom are the ones that make the whole experience even better. Enjoy the fresh caipirinhas, the beer, the music vibrations, the dancing, the colors, the complete feeling of being alive in such an amazing cultural event!

Enjoy this video of the popular Monobloco Bloco!

Viajes en el 2015

A few days have passed since we all counted down to 2016. My mind was so jumbled with thoughts and travel plans for 2016 that I did not have time to reflect back on what a great travel year 2015 was! I actually did not expect to go on so many adventures last year but I am so glad everything turned out the way it did. It was an emotionally packed year and with every trip I took I felt more confident in the road that my life was headed in. I can say that I am finally on the road of true emotional healing and I have my family, my friends, and my traveling to thank for that. With a clearer mind and focus, my 2016 looks great. It is smiling at me and I am smiling right back at it :) But now lets reflect back on last year's trips...

February - Costa Rica

Costa Rica! Wow!Una aventura inolvidable! One of my closest friends was living and working in San Jose and he invited us out to visit him. I was hesitant in making the trip at first but then decided to just go for it! Luckily for me I had saved up a lot of money the year before and was able to make it a reality. CR is like no other place I had ever been to before. Por ejemplo, the first major road we took on our way to el caribe was in the middle of the rain forest and every few feet you would see a waterfall! A waterfall on the side of the road! The rain forest, the ocean, the adventure, and the chill out vibe were all great and beautiful to be in! If you are seeking for an adventure packed getaway CR is definitely the place to go!

April - Las Vegas

Vegas!Vegas!Always up to NO GOOD! I had not been to Las Vegas since the first time I went, which was three years ago. One of my best friends came to visit from NYC therefore we decided to do a weekend trip to Vegas! Roadtrip!!! We took Friday off from work and did the four hour drive from Los Angeles. That ride always feels like an eternity but once you see the lights of the strip you can't help but smirk a little! We stayed at a nice little room at Planet Hollywood which is located on the center of the strip. The sun was shining all weekend and the spring break vibe was on! I had never been to Las Vegas during pool party season. It was quite the experience! Although we barely got any sleep, the weekend trip was a success! Who needs sleep in Vegas though right?

One of my favorite parts about going to Vegas is coming up with outfits!

September - Colombia

Visitar Colombia fue un sueño hecho realidad!It was my favorite trip of the year! I knew that I wanted a bit of relaxation and a bit of rumba! So we headed to Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park to relax on its secluded beaches and danced our hearts away to salsa in Cartagena. For this trip I still had some money from my savings I did the year prior and I saved up a little more during the summer. Colombia is an affordable South America destination! And a direct flight is now offered to major cities like Cartagena and Bogota from LAX! I have nothing but wonderful things to say about Colombia and it's people!

October - San Francisco

In April I decided to sign up for my first half marathon in San Francisco! The Nike Women's Half Marathon was one of the hardest things I have ever put my body through! I finished it but I also sustained an injury :( (I'm slowly getting better). Nonetheless I would do it again! My weekend trip to San Francisco was quick but I still had a day to sight see. I had been to SF before but I was very young therefore I did not remember too much of it. I took time to explore The Mission District and the downtown area. I ran the half marathon on a Sunday finishing it in about 3 hours. I plan on beating that time this year! Rumor has it the NWHM will take place in LA this year! A big shout out to my friends Kim and Savanna whom housed me and motivated me through out the race!

December - Vegas PT. 2

Vegas. Again. Not planned. At all. But I am not complaining! My best friend of 20 years is getting married! As her best friend I felt that I needed to give her the best bachelorette experience ever! So I told her LETS DO VEGAS!!! So here I went to Vegas for the second time during the year. The thing about Vegas is every trip is unique depending on the group of friends you go with and the experience you are seeking. It was my amiga's first time in Las Vegas so I knew she had to experience Vegas the right way! I booked two nights at The Venetian (sign up for their newsletter and get 20% off your first stay with them), got tickets to Cirque Du Soleil show "Zarkana", got tickets for Chippendale's (do it!fun! fun! fun!), dinner at Aquanox, drinks at The Chandelier Bar at The Cosmo, and partied the night away at The Marquee! The weekend was everything and more than what I had expected it to be! Shout-out to everyone who helped me make that trip happen for her :) 

If you would of asked me if I had expected all of that to happen at the beginning of 2015 I would of said no way!!! I am happy I was able to make all these trips and memories. I saved a whole year to make most of these trips happen and some charges did go on my credit cards, but not just any credit cards, travel credit cards! There is a method to my travel madness you see! 2016 will have a different rhythm, a little slower, but I will still see myself in the clouds.

Descubriendo Mis Raices/Discovering My Roots

This post was originally featured on Travel Latina on November 8, 2015

It is the summer of 2012. I had just ended my third year of college and was preparing for my first independent trip abroad. When I first told my family that I would be going to El Salvador that summer to study at La Universidad de El Salvador (UES) they were completely against it. They feared for my safety and did not like the idea that I would be getting myself too involved in the country’s political sphere. I could not blame them for having those thoughts though. My parents fled El Salvador’s Civil War in 1984. By that time the country had been at war for five years and with seven more intense years ahead of it. Between 70,000 – 80,000 people lost their lives, 550,000 people were internally displaced, and about 500,000 people sought refuge in different parts of the world. Growing up, my parents did not speak about the country’s history or their experience through the war. Once again, I don’t blame them for this for it was a traumatic experience for them. All I knew about being Salvadoran was pupusas, cumbias, and our blue and white flag. That all changed when I began college at the University of California Santa Barbara and I joined a student organization, La Union Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios (a.k.a. USEU). It was through this organization and other Latin American studies classes that I learned more about El Salvador’s history, politics, and culture. When the summer of 2012 came and we were told the organizing for USEU’s annual study abroad program was beginning I signed up for the trip. I knew this would be a life changing experience. 

I still remember the different emotions that I felt when I landed at Comalapa Airport in San Salvador that summer. I was so excited to be taking this trip with some of my closest friends. I had been to El Salvador a few times as a child but always headed straight to San Miguel where my family is from. This time around my trip would be based in the country’s capital, San Salvador. We stayed at a comfortable hostel which was a walking distance from the university. La Universidad de El Salvador is the country’s oldest university and a very important part of the country’s war history. A lot of student organizing against the war occurred on this campus. Unfortunately because of the strong student resistance, military and police oppression also took place. On July 30, 1975 hundreds of students peacefully marched the streets outside of the university demanding for human rights and their rights to protect the UES from military take over. Hundreds of students died on that day when militant shots were fired when the march was crossing under a bridge.  Having the opportunity to study at a university that has such an important history of student organizing was something surreal for me. I actually recognized different university locations from history book pictures. There are a lot of monuments and art murals pertaining to history, as well as current events, all over campus. Being able to take classes with Salvadoran students was also a beautiful experience. We got to learn about their reality as university students, talk and compare our struggles and lifestyles, and learn about their dreams and goals. They were more than happy to show us around their campus, the city, and share with us important knowledge.

During the weekends we took trips to different tourist locations as well as towns located in rural part of the country. One of the most inspiring trips we took was our visit to the departamento of Chalatenango. Chalate is located on the northern side of the country and borders with Honduras. We took a road up a mountain where we visited the towns of San Antonio Los Ranchos, San Jose de Las Flores, and Guarjila.  At San Antonio Los Ranchos, we visited “El Centro Cultural Jon Cortina.” The community center focuses on different art forms for children and adolescents. The arts classes aim to promote creativity as well as consciousness. In Guarjila, we visited the “Casa Museo Jon Cortina.” Jon Cortina was a Jesuit priest whom dedicated his life to helping Salvadorans during and after the civil war. He founded the organization Pro-Busqueda, which dedicates its efforts to searching for missing children from the civil war. When we got to the center we walked in right as the group of Pro-Busqueda was having a discussion, sharing how their life was before the civil war and remembering their children. We got to hear from a man whom had recently got in touch with his child, whom was taken away from him during the war and given up for adoption to an Italian couple. He said his story with so much joy, tears of happiness were running down his face. In San Jose de Las Flores we visited a town that is 100% community driven. This town was dislocated and forced out of their land during the civil war. When the war ended the people went back to their land and reconstructed their homes from the bottom up. The people of the town work together on different social programs, ranging from agriculture to education, which aid children, adolescents, and adults. The communal vibe was definitely present everywhere around us.

Other trips we took were to Lago Coatepeque, La Puerta del Diablo, El Volcan Izalco, Las Ruinas de San Andres y Las Ruinas de Tazumal, and another personal favorite La Ruta de Las Flores where we visited different indigenous towns. We also had the opportunity to speak to important political activists, political representatives, and visit various FMLN (The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front is the current political party governing El Salvador) community centers whom allowed us to join in on their meetings.


This trip to El Salvador transformed pictures and words read into reality. I learned about my history, my roots, and current events.  While the media only chooses to display the violence of my country I saw a whole other side that involves love, dedication, and community organizing for the better good. I heard stories from war survivors which touched every part of my soul. I learned the importance of preserving our country’s historic memory. I saw the natural beauty that El Salvador has to offer and most importantly I connected and learned from all different types of people. My love and passion for travel was discovered because of this trip. I remember sitting at my tia’s house in El Salvador filling out study abroad application to Brazil and my mother saying, “tu me quieres matar con tus locuras!” It has been a non-stop travel journey from then but I never forget the trip that began it all and I always carry a piece of El Salvador in my heart.