02 . 04 . 18
A Backpacker’s Food Directory – Cachaca and Carnage at Rio Carnival
From the top: Stealing Sambodromo outfits, the man himself (Jesus Christ), limes for caipirinhas and a poster encouraging Brazilians to love more please and listen to their hearts (which they do, anyway). Words and images by Julia Georgallis.
Sometimes in life it is important to escape, whether it is for a couple of minutes inside your own brain, or for a few months to the other side of the world. The idea of escape and Brazil seem to go hand in hand – I heard many stories of great escapes, whether by immigrant families who made their way to Brazil to leave whatever it was they felt they had to leave, or by current day Brazilians escaping wherever it is they are from for something better, away from the giant cities to the beaches, the hippy communes, the retreats and the surf havens. Is this why Brazil has such a massive Carnival culture? After all, carnival’s celebration equates to the utter departure from normality, the feeling that you are absolutely free. I am over the moon to have two of Rio de Janeiro’s under my belt – both very different experiences, both equally as mind-boggling, both equally as liberating. This post is a Backpacker’s guide for how to survive and thrive at one of the glitteriest, sweatiest, maddest street parties in the world…
1. Is it Carnival yet?
Brazil slides into Carnival some time after NYE, when Samba practice, brass band practice and parade practice starts all over the country – it is a brilliant time to visit, with the vibe in many of the cities being one of joyful anticipation of the fun that is about to rain down. But I suppose the official answer for when actual Carnival starts would be the Wednesday before Ash Wednesday, Ash Wednesday being the last official day, and the main party being in the weekend between. Once this is over, if you are still alive, there are usually blocos still happening in Rio for another couple of weekends.
2. What exactly do you do at Carnival?
Rio carnival is one free, never-ending street party. The soul of Carnival is in the blocos, (street parades). These vary in form and size and take place around the city at different times, some as early as 4 am, some as late as midnight. To find out about what’s going on, you can either search schedules online or, even better, ask people on the streets or in your hostel. Some blocos are huge and stationary – like Sargento Pimenta (where Beatle’s classics are reappropriated into Samba). Some are much smaller and move around – like many of the Santa Theresa blocos, which are my favourites (check out the Carmelitas bloco, held at the beginning of Carnival or the Marijuana bloco, held at the end). Some are themed, some are secret, others are totally unplanned with brass bands, street performers and ear shattering sound-systems. It is overwhelming just how many things are happening at any one time and sometimes blocos are impossible to locate. If you miss a bloco, head to a bloqinho instead – smaller sound-systems, food stalls and street bars which litter the centre of Rio, particularly around Lapa. I would also thoroughly recommend forking out some dollah and spending a few hours at the Sambodromo – a kilometre long procession by all the main Samba Schools. It is an awe inspiring spectacle and though different to the rough-around-the-edges blocos, is a huge part of Rio’s Carnival,
3. What do I drink?
Drinking is a 24-hour-a-day job during Carnival. Buy your alcohol on the street, from vendors selling cold beers and Skol Beats (an energy drink), to garage-like shops packed full of liquor and blaring out Brazilian funki music at all times of day. Here are some other things to try:
– Cachaça – Brazil’s most popular liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice which inspires the worst hangovers known to man (fact). Either served in caipirinha, a cocktail made from cachaça, lime, ice and sugar or in caipifruta, which is a caipirinha plus fruit. Or, drink as a shot. There are a number of flavoured cachaças, my favourite (and simultaneously my nemesis) being the cinnamon flavoured Gabriela from Bahia. If you don’t fancy drinking caipirinhas, you can also try capiroskas, made instead with vodka, lime, sugar and ice.
– Catuaba – A curious drink, this is a liquor made from red wine and the catuaba plant. For Native Brazilians (the Guarani) the catuaba bark was used for sexual potency (not sure whether help with this is necessary during Carnival, evident in the fact that the birth rate spikes 9 months after, but oh well). It tastes like something between sparkling red wine and cider. The label very often involves a very handsome young gentleman, buy a bottle of this and offer a swig to your fellow Carnivalgoers – it will usually make you some friends.
4. No seriously though, I need to eat something…
This is total sacrilege to me, but eating comes second during Carnival. If you do insist on eating however, then the best way to do quickly is via street food, ‘por-kilo’ restaurants or the beach. Here’s the things to consume:
– Meat on a stick – Sorry veggies, these are everywhere. Skewers of meat, usually served with farofa, which is a kind of cassava bread crumb that you dip the meat into. Handy for soaking up all that catuaba.
– Salgados – Literally meaning ‘salty’ snacks. The most common are chicken and potato dumplings (coxinha), beef croquettes covered in bulgar (kibe) or cheese balls (pão de queijo)
– The Beach – If you’re hungry, head to the beach, find a good spot and wait for the food to come to you. Freshly grilled halloumi style cheese, brigadeiros (chocolate snacks), churros, açaí na tigela (acai bowl) and other homemade delicacies from all over Brazil are making their rounds throughout the day.
– Por-kilo restaurants – A good, cheap way to fill up fast on wholesome food. There are many all over the city – find one, take a plate, fill it up with what you want and pay by the weight.
– Sucos naturales – Freshly squeezed juices. Brazil has some amazing tropical fruit. You can usually find abacaxi (pineapple), maracuja (passionfruit), manga (mango) and guarana sucos but if you do spot acerola (sour cherry which has the 2nd highest vitamin C levels of any fruit in the world) or mangaba (its flavour is somewhere in the middle of a mango and a lime with the texture of a banana), then try them!
– Açaí na tigela – Açaí is a small purple fruit which is very, very good for you which is then frozen and mixed with agave sugar and served with granola, condensed milk, milk powder, and fruit like bananas and strawberries – good for breakfast and hangovers, but vary in quality. The best quality açaí is usually not too sweet, not too icey and a bit earthy.
5. Where should I stay?
If you want to be in the heart of the party and don’t mind about the streets being covered in wee, stay in Lapa. If you want to be in the heart of the party but want to sleep and don’t mind having to walk up five bijillion steps to get home, stay in Santa Teresa. If you want easy access to the beach and don’t mind getting ubers or taxis everywhere (which increase in price during Carnival) then stay in Copacabana, Leme or Ipanema.
6. What do I do when Carnival is dead and I am also dead?
– Option a) Get on a bus to Ubatuba (this is my favourite option) – Many flock to the beaches post Carnival; Paraty, Ilha Grande, Arrail do Cabo, Ilha Bela, Trinidade are all amazing, but get very busy. Instead, take a bus to the lesserknown Ubatuba. This is a relatively untouched miniature rainforest area with mountains, turtles, 5% of the world’s species of birds and over 100 beaches, most of which are relatively empty. Spend your days doing water sports, hiking, or just lying on the beach in a vegetative state, but please, please stay at Green Haven Hostel, a happy place in the middle of Ubatuba which offers both chilled out beach time, churrascos twice a week and some excellent parties if you feel like you are having Carnival withdrawal symptoms. They are partnered with eco tour company, Let’s Go Ubatuba which offer guests hikes, stand up paddle boarding (with beers) each day, surf lessons, boat trips and guided tours through the waterfalls and to tropical beaches…
– Option b) Fly to Floripa – If you have the cash, take a cheap flight and head down south to Santa Catalina’s Florianopolis, affectionately called Floripa – also known as the magic island, due to its history of medicine women and connections to Native Brazilian culture. Beautiful beaches, beautiful people, amazing walks and trails and, again should you not have had enough of it, a great party. Post Carnival, I would recommend staying at hostel Rosemary Dream. It’s like staying in a hug – this hostel doubles as an empowerment centre and offers amazing activities throughout the day like yoga, trails and mindfulness workshops and serves a delicious vegan menu. You’re not allowed to bring sugar, alcohol, meat or dairy products into the hostel, but it’s also not super strict about what you do outside so it’s a nice balance of relaxation, thoughtfulness, being in nature and, should you so desire it, a party. Stay there to have a bit of a think and a detox.
Option c) Stay in Rio – If you don’t have much time, a nice option is to stay somewhere a bit quieter in Rio (Lagoa or Jardim Botanico are good options) and do some touristy things that were probably closed, too busy or covered in debauchery to see properly during the madness.
Other things to note about Carnival:
– People will try and kiss you. Leave your European sensibilities at the door and don’t be afraid, this is totally normal. Because? Brazilians. And also, the competitive kissing competition that many have for how many people they can kiss during Carnival.
– Don’t take your shit out with you. Honestly. Don’t. Keep your phone in your pants if you must bring it out with you and your money in your bra.
– Don’t worry if you don’t go to everything. Fight the FOMO and just know that there is another equally as fun thing just around the corner.
– Take naps. They will save your life.