Why you need to go to Rio Carnival before you die

When it comes to man-made extravaganzas there are few events on earth to rival Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Held before Lent every year, it’s simply the biggest party in the world, with around 2 million people hitting the streets for five wild days of dancing, parading and generally making merry in Brazil’s most beautiful city.

The main action takes place every night in the Sambadrome [pictured], the Oscar Niemeyer-designed parade area purpose-built for this mind-blowing spectacle of colour and movement. It’s here that Rio’s numerous samba schools all compete. Yes, compete. For while it may look like a frenetic free-for-all, the Carnival is a surprisingly structured and highly orchestrated competition, with a different theme every year, rules to be followed and a massive clock to let the judges – and crowd – know if anyone oversteps the strict time limit. Not that the average tourist would realise all of this: it’s just exhilarating fun on a scale you have to see to believe. Each dance school features up to eight massive, elaborate floats and 5,000 revellers dressed in lavish costumes. And that’s just for one samba school – there are six schools competing on each of the five nights of Carnival. You do the maths.

It’s a swirling, whirling riot of colour, music and dancing, with 90,000 supporters cheering from the stands. But even better than watching the Carnival? Parading in it. For a reasonable fee, gringos (foreigners) can join Cariocas (Rio locals) in all the fabulously feathered fun – you even get to keep your costume afterwards. Arrive at sunset, don’t expect to get home until sunrise the next day (at the very earliest), and be prepared for the most colourful, extraordinary night of your life.

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