Our home exchange in Brazil ended right before Carnaval. It seemed silly not to stay an extra week and we had to fly through São Paulo anyway. Rio is the ultimate destination for celebrating Carnaval in Brazil, but we’d already spent the New Year there and were eager to check out a different city. We booked a small apartment for a week (unknowingly in a dodgy part of town) and bought tickets for a table at the Sambódromo for one night of the week’s festivities. It seemed like a good idea. At the time. 

As the evening approached, panic set in. Why on earth had I thought it a good idea to take my children to an all-night party? I pictured gangs of drunken youth and scantily clad women. Why not just take them to a strip club?

During the day, my six- and eight-year-old daughters napped. They needed their second wind to survive the night. We left the apartment at 11pm. Did I mention we were in a dodgy part of town? We hailed a cab and made our way to the Sambódromo, mistakenly exiting the vehicle on the wrong side of the stadium. To get to the right entrance, we ended up walking through an area where thousands of performers prepped themselves in costumes of impossible intricacy. 

“Mike,” I called to my husband. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be here.”

“Just go with it,” he said. “Pretend we have a backstage pass.”

After about forty-five minutes of walking, we reached our entrance and located the table we’d reserved. It had rained during the walk so we used our jackets to wipe down the table and chairs. There was no unruly crush of people, no drunken masses, so my panic lessened. Then again, the night was still young. 

We bought the girls hot dogs and Guaraná, which our daughters mistakenly referred to as “apple soda.” We purchased beer for ourselves and settled in as the festivities began around midnight.

The all-night parade was sectioned by the various samba schools. Each school chooses a song and theme and spends an hour dancing along with their floats through the length of the Sambódromo. It is an endless trail of performers and floats of such scale that their construction was incomprehensible.

Depending on the theme of a particular school, floats and costumes could reflect anything you might imagine, from commentary on war, oppression, and colonization, to disco, technology, Rastafarians, Christmas, Francophiles, and an homage to indigenous tribes.

When I think of Carnaval performers, I picture the Muse. This is the impossibly perfect and bronzed woman in five-inch heels and a towering feathered headdress. Her dancing seems supernatural, her clothing barely there. And yes, there were those women. But performers also included obese women, old men, a lady in a wheelchair, and a group of special-needs children. For every Muse at Carnaval, there are hundreds of others, the you and the me and the neighbor down the street. It’s a celebration of culture, of Samba, of joy and the city itself.

A Muse. 
Carnaval is constant motion, so it’s difficult to get photos without blur. 
Samba does not stop for a photo-op.

We returned to our apartment at 6am the next morning. The parade was still going when we left, but I’d had my fill. Most people have a hard time believing this, but the Carnaval experience with children was wonderful and not one that I regret. Of course, to celebrate Carnaval, you don’t have to go to a Sambódromo. You can attend any number of street parties and mini-celebrations happening throughout the week. But if you do have the chance to watch main-stage activities, don’t pass it up on account of the children. 

For more on our Brazilian adventures, check out: