RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - For such a big event, Rio’s world famous carnival occupies very little space. For those who think that every street of this vibrant, colorful city is jammed with people watching Rio's world-famous Carnival parade, think again.
The whole glorious spectacle, which draws hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to Rio, is actually played out on a 700-metre stretch of pavement in the city's downtown core called Sambadromo.
“People think the whole city participates in the parade and that probably is the way it looks on television," a city guide named Eduardo told me.
"But in fact, only 120,000 people get to see the parade live and most of Rio watches it on television, just like the rest of the world."
There are plenty of other parties held in Rio during Carnival, with each of the city's diverse neighborhoods holding their own street bashes and every one of the city's 23 beaches are crammed with partygoers.
However, it's the Carnival parade that is the event most coveted by the 10 million citizens of this city. The 120,000 people Eduardo referred to are the lucky ones who get tickets for the Sambadromo, the narrow street stadium that is located in one of the city's most undesirable areas. The Sambadromo was specifically built to hold the Carnival, which lasts five exciting and sleepless days.
The Sambadromo also offers private boxes where the corporate elite get to see the colorful goings on up close in air-conditioned comfort.
"There was great opposition to the Sambadromo when it was first discussed because before that the parade (the highlight of the Catholic festival) was held on Rio's main boulevard, Ave. Presedente Vargas, but organizers wanted to have more control of the event so they built the stadium," said Eduardo.
Left: Floats used in the carnival parade come in all shapes and sizes. Right: Rio even has a carnival costumes at museum.
The opposition calmed down when it was revealed that the Sambadromo would house some of the city's most famous samba schools. The samba is to Brazil what the tango is to Argentina and while not quite as popular as soccer in this country, it ranks a close second.
Eduardo said most of the 120,000 seats in the Sambadromo are filled with tourists, many of whom arrive here on cruise ships.
"There are sometimes as many as seven cruise ships in port for the Carnival," said Eduardo, "including the new Queen Mary 2."
Tickets for the parade are actually quite reasonable when purchased well in advance from the city's tourist office, according to Eduardo.
"A ticket will cost about $40 U.S. if it is bought a year in advance," he said. "However, the event spurs a great black market trade and the costs can soar to as much as $300 U.S. a ticket.
"Each Brazilian family is allowed to purchase only four tickets by law, but black marketers get people to hand them over and they push up the prices," said Eduardo
The performers who participate in the parade come from the local samba clubs, but only the top seven clubs get to perform in the main parade. Seven other clubs participate in other parades leading up to the main event.
The clubs, which consist of about 4,000 members each, are split into divisions - a premier and second division - much like soccer clubs.
Clubs which do not turn in satisfactory results during the parade - as determined by a panel of judges - are demoted to the second division.
Above: Competition among local clubs to perform at the carnival stadium is fierce.
The 28,000 performers that participate in the main parade are the cream of the crop of samba dancers. Their schools spend as much as 1 million reals (about $300,000 U.S.) on their clubs' lavish floats and colorful costumes. The preparations for this year's Carnival and the festivities that surround it are almost complete and work on next year's parade is already well under way.
"The parade is an industry," said Eduardo. "As soon as one is finished, the next one has to be organized. There are thousands of people working on this project and many people now owe their livelihoods to the Carnival parade."
Each of the samba clubs parade under a different theme - some political while others deal with local issues.
"Some samba clubs support local unions and some celebrate the country's love of soccer."
You can visit the carnival site prior to the big event. There is a small museum set up under the stands at the Sambadromo and people can actually try on some of the costumes used in the spectacular event. It's Rio fun.