I made a 6 month trip around South and Central America which included a month in Brazil. There, I attended the infamous Carnival. This is the story of my wild adventure.
What is the Carnival in Brazil?
Contrary to popular belief, Carnval (pronounced Carnivow) is celebrated all over Brazil, not just in Rio de Janiero. Each city has its own carnival, with its own special flavour, which may or may not include a street parade. Also, contrary to the popularly held view, the elaborate and famous parade of the Rio Carnival does not take place in the streets, but rather in a stadium, for which you have to purchase tickets. The rest of the Carnival is a huge street party consisting of a number of block parties all over the city.
Note, that if you want to visit Rio during the carnival, be prepared to pay extortionate prices. Brazil is generally a much more expensive country to travel in than neighbouring South American countries and prices skyrocket during the carnival. Expect to pay €120+ per night for just a bed in a hostel dorm! If you want to know more about the original of the Carnival, read about it here.
I was not in Rio for the Carnival, but was there shortly before and there were a lot of people on the streets at night in the Lapa district, drinking the famous alcoholic drink from Brazil, caipirihna, from small streets stalls. Lapa is generally safe at night, because there are a lot of people on the street, but best avoided during the day time, because you stick out and are a target for muggers. Even at night, it is best to leave all valuables at home. I met 2 Spanish guys who got pickpocketed. They were standing around and suddenly 2 big mamas starting bumping and grinding with them in a sandwich formation. Suddenly they were gone and the 2 dudes were left dazed and confused, and missing their mobile phones, which the 2 ladies had discreetly pocketed!
Carnival in Florianopolis
Florianopolis is an island off the South East Coast of Brazil and is one of the top tourist spots in the country. It is not really an island, but a peninsula. And, it’s not the name of the island either. That would be Santa Catarina. But’s let’s not get too hung up on details. Florianopolis is actually a large city of half a million people, which straddles the mainland and the island. The city is part of the state of Brazil, called Santa Catarina. Confused? Don’t be – just concentrate on learning how to pronounce Florianopolis, which is the name everyone uses to describe the island.
Just like everywhere else in Brazil, carnival is celebrated on the island in February. The year I was there, the local parade (which, like in Rio takes place in a sports stadium) had been cancelled due to lack of funds. Instead, there were parties all round the island (and the mainland) over a period of 4 days. But more on that later.
Finding a place to stay
As mentioned earlier, Brazil is not the cheapest country to travel in. Prices are comparable with Europe and become extortionate during carnvial time. I arrived in Florianopolis and booked into a hostel. This was about a week before then carnival. I hadn’t really researched this in advance, which in hindsight proved to be a bit foolish. I had booked a hostel in advance for 5 days or so, thinking I could just find something after that when I got there. This proved to be a big mistake, as the staff at the hostel told me I was in big trouble if I had not booked in advance for the actual carnival period. I started to panic and got online immediately to see if I could book something and sure enough, the entire island was booked out.
I thought, well that’s a shame, I’ll find some cheaper resort down the coast somewhere with more of a hippy vibe. Absolutely nothing available. F**k, what do I do? Luckily, I had a buddy on the island, whom I had met a couple of years previously at Montanita in Ecuador. It’s a very big island with limited public transport. Luckily, he had a car and drove me round the island in the hope we might randomly find a place. We were on a road less travelled where the bus didn’t go. Suddenly we find this old dilapidated place and stopped to make enquiries. It was pretty run down and seemed to be abandonned. Many of the windows were broken and there was no-one living there. Certainly, it wasn’t on Airbnb or Booking.com.
Out the back, there were some houses and there appeared to be people living there as there were a few cars and motorbikes around. My buddy called out and a few dudes came out. They were obviously severely stoned. My buddy chatted to them for a bit and it turned out, it was indeed an old hostel and they were planning to clean it up a bit and open in time for Carnival. We had a look around – it certainly wasn’t in livable condition, but they offered me a room (small with outside bathroom) for $50. I had to take it. There was no way I was going to find anything else. Even a room in a dorm was going for $100 a night!
As already mentioned, Florianopolis is a big island. It is super popular with rich people from Sao Paolo. These people tend to hang out more in the north part of the island, which is considered to be the French Riviera of Brazil. Brazilians are very image conscious and expect to see loads of silicone boobs and butts, and roided up muscleheads. The center of the island is a bit more laid back. There is a surf-scene there, but it’s also quite posey and if you’re looking for a hippie vibe, best to avoid the place.
The hostel where I stayed was by the lake. There is a large lake in the center of the island. It’s a good location as it’s central and there is a good bus service for getting round, if you don’t have your own transport. This was a bit of a party hostel and I did feel a bit old. They had a party bus, which is not really my thing, but proved to be quite handy when getting to and from parties due to the large distances.
I joined this bus one night to go and see Fat Boy Slim play at Pasha, a branch of the famous Ibiza club. There was also a Space, part of the Ibiza franchise, further up the coast. As you can imagine, with the kind of people that the club Pasha attracts, there was a horrible vibe. The warm up DJ was dreadful and played for about 4 hours before Fat Boy Slim came on. It was horrible EDM. No mixing. Then Fat Boy Slim came on and played more of the same rubbish. Aside, when he played in Berlin, he played minimal techno. He gives the crowd what they want. Drinks were horrendously expensive. There was only one type of beer, Pasha beer. It cost $10 for one can. The can was so small, you needed tweezers to open it. No-one smiled or talked to me. I was invisible. This was in total contrast to a rave I had been to the year earlier in Peru, called the Inti Fest, a beach party where everyone wanted to be my friend and an endless stream of hot women wanted to dance with me. Not an auspicious start.
My buddy wanted me to come with him to the city to participate in this annual day-drinking pissup, where the men dress up in high heels and woman’s clothing. My best chance to laid apparently. I passed on his most generous offer.
My crazy Carnival adventure
By this time, I had moved into my new digs. The stoners had done a lot of work to get it cleaned up and repair the broken windows and it was now open. The only other guests were a bunch of young European guys, whose friend lived on the island and an Argentinian family, who had all just driven along the same road and found the place randomly like I had.
I did some research and found that there was a decent club with some decent international DJs playing a series of parties over the carnival period. It is called the Warung Beach club. Ritchie Hawtin and a bunch of other top European and American DJs were playing over 4 nights. I paid $120 for a ticket just for one party. But hey, I wanted to have at least one decent party for Carnival.
The only problem was, the club was in the next city up the coast, in Itajai, a good 1 1/2 hour drive to Florianopolis. So, I had to make a plan: take a bus from the lake to the main bus station in Florianopolis; Catch the intercity bus to Itajai, then; get a taxi to the club. Easy! Well, not exactly.
Motorcycle ride from hell!
There were 2 factors I had not anticipated. Firstly, everyone comes to Florianopolis by car and the roads around the lake were completely blocked with cars in every direction. Secondly, there is a lot of civil disobedience and random acts of vandalism in Brazil and some people had just decided to set all the buses on fire. So, I was fucked. I told the stoners and one of them offered to take me on the back of his motorbike. I really didn’t want to get on the back of a motorbike and ride along the highway, especially with a stoned dude at the controls. These days, I absolutely refuse to get on the back of a motorbike, – so many times I have risked my life over the years. We sped out onto a multilane highway, swerving and weaving our way through traffic, taking gaps that weren’t there. I just had to shut my eyes and accept my fate. I am still here to tell the tale, so by now you must know I survived this white-knuckle hell trip.
Dazed and confused, I got to the bus station and just managed to catch the last intercity bus of the day. Now I can relax and enjoy the 90 minute bus ride. No more crazy motorcycle rides for me. Not so fast. When I got to Itajai bus station, there was no-one there. Everything was shut. No taxis. Nothing. Shit. What do I do now? Well, the only taxis that were operating that night were…. you guesses it! Motorcycle taxis. I had to walk to find one of their depots, wait half and hour or so until one finally turned up. This guy also drove like a madman and decided to take shortcut over some sand dunes in the pitch black. I had not idea where he was taking me. Finally, we arrived at the club in one piece.
Finally, I had found a decent party. The crowd were cooler and much friendlier than at Pasha. The club itself was nothing special. It’s done out in an Indonesian style (yeah, in Brazil ??) and has a nice location on the beach. Ironically, one of the DJ crews playing that night was from Germany. Some guys there told me it was the best club in Brazil, kind of apologetically.
In the early hours, the party was over and I had to find my way back. I had to take another motorcycle taxi back to the train station, then back on the intercity bus and then local bus back to the lake. The round trip had taken about 12 hours. I risked my life to get there. The whole night had probably cost me around $250.
Is Carnival a once in a lifetime experience or a total ripoff? Probably a bit of both. You had to weigh it up for yourself and decide if it is worth it. Already high prices go through the roof. Safety is a big problem in Brazil, especially during Carnival. You need to book well in advance. If crowds aren’t your thing, best to stay away. On the other hand, the Rio Carnival is the biggest and most famous street party in the world. If I did it again, I would research more and choose one of the more authentic and local Carnivals where the people are friendlier, it’s safer and more authentic.