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Gringo-izing Brazil: An American’s Guide to Carnival in Rio

by Sean Ogle | Last Updated: May 11, 2009

This is the first in a six part series documenting my trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for Carnival in February 2009. In this series, an Americans guide to Carnival in Rio, we will cover everything from expectations, places to see, what to do/not to do, and hopefully share some of the more interesting stories from the trip.

Well, let’s see, where to begin.

Carnival in Rio is the biggest party in the world. We had no idea what to expect when we headed down there, and to say the least we, were not disappointed.

Whether it was dancing in the Sambadromo for the parade, hang gliding over Rio, or visiting Iguassu Falls down south, nothing was as expected, but everything lived up to expectations!

However, with that being said, there are definitely some things to consider before you leave.

In this first post, we will discuss ways you can make your trip better before you even leave the country.

The absolute, most important thing you can do to add the most value to your trip is this:

Meet a Local

Ok, so I know what you are thinking…how do I meet a Brazilian before I even leave.

Well, this is the 21st century. I am sure by now you have been a witness to the immense popularity of sites like Facebook and Myspace.

Why not use them for something really useful?  Do a search for people in Rio de Janeiro that share your interests, and try and make a new friend online!

Another great source for this is Orkut.  This is basically Brazil’s version of Facebook. It definitely helps to speak a little Portuguese, but it is totally not necessary.

The other way to meet someone is to get really lucky. I happened to have a travel buddy who met a girl named Mariana during a short stay in Prague in 2007. After spending three days touring the city, she extended the offer to come down to Rio for Carnival.

Biggest. Mistake. Ever.

Little did she know less than two years later, we would be coming down to Carnival in full force, and taking over her life for two weeks!

Well as much as she may have become sick of playing tour guide by the end of the trip, she is the best thing that happened to us.

We were the envy of our hostel mates after they heard of all of the cool things we had done.  We did all sorts of things that wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for our local friend.

Alright, so now that you are off on your journey to meet a Brazilian, whats next?  Well, you have to get down there.  So Carnival tip #2 for before you leave:

Plan Ahead

The biggest mistake you can make when planning a trip to Carnival is just that, not planning.  We started almost a year ahead of time, and are very glad we did.

The closer you get to the middle of February the more expensive flights, hotels and hostels all get.  If you are hoping to use air miles, as we did, the sooner you can book the ticket the better.

You shouldn’t expect to find much in the way of saver miles to Rio any time near Carnival.  However, there are some airports close by that you can take advantage of.

We used our United Mileage Plus account to fly into Buenos Aires for 55,000 miles.  We then booked a $300 flight from BA to Rio. All in all, the whole thing cost about $340 bucks (our second round trip flight plus a $40 booking fee in our mileage account).

This also gave us a full day to spend in Buenos Aires during a layover, a nice added bonus.

Another thing to consider is what else you want to do besides Carnival.

I am going to assume that most of you aren’t going to fly down to Brazil for nothing but a 4 day binge.  You probably are going to spend at least a few extra days if not weeks in Rio or other parts of South America.

Read more tips on how to plan for your next trip.

So the next thing you should do before you go is to figure out:

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What Else do you Want to See?

In later parts of this series I will go into much more detail about some of the things we did and throw in some recommendations, but if you are planning on doing any other major traveling within the country, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start planning before you leave.

We went down to Iguassu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil. It was about a three hour flight from Rio, and unless you want to spend 20 hours on a bus both ways, you are probably going to be flying. But it was worth it for those types of bucket list items.

NOTE: If your schedule allows, I have heard the bus ride is beautiful and allows you to see some of the countrysides that is definitely missed while flying.

However, with only 2 weeks, we just couldn’t spend 2 days on a bus.

In the week preceding and immediately following Carnival, you can expect there to be a lot of other people heading to some of the outlying areas of the country, so booking in advance will work in your favor.  You should be prepared to look outside the typical travel outlets though.

When we initially checked out Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak and other sites of that sort, the cheapest flight we found was about $600 round trip.

Pretty ridiculous.

This is another way where tip #1 in meeting a local can come in handy. Through a Brazilian travel agent, Mariana booked us round trip flights and hotel for about 800 real (about $325 at the time).

I can’t stress enough how valuable local knowledge can be.

One other thing you may be wondering about before you leave for Brazil is:

What should I bring?

A logical question that is usually at the forefront of anyone’s mind before leaving.

Here, I am going to give the same advice that any hardened traveler would also suggest: LESS IS MORE.

While I didn’t have an exorbitant amount of clothes by any means, what I brought ended up being more than enough.

Let’s say you are going to be down there for about two weeks, and even if you are going to be down there longer, some of these same goals still apply. It is summer; although you might be stuck in the middle of a snowstorm back home, you DO NOT need to pack for every imaginable weather condition.

I was actually in a long sleeve shirt and jeans when I left PDX. By the time I reached Buenos Aires, I couldn’t get my clothes off fast enough.

Here are my recommendations:

Here are some more great items for travelers.

I could go on with the typical travel stuff, like your iPod or a book, etc. But really when it comes down to it, everything you need is readily available in any of the more touristy locations (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, etc).

Bring a few changes of clothes, Immodium, and sunscreen and you will pretty much be all set.  If you have any specific questions on things to bring feel free to comment and I will get back to as soon as I can!

You can look for part two of an Americans guide to Carnival in Rio in a couple of days.  This will be titled Gringo-izing Brazil: What to Expect When you Land.

If you enjoyed this article or found it useful, please comment, or sign up for my mailing list. I would love to hear what you have to say!

Part 2: What to Expect When you Land

Part 3: The Parade

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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