Rio Carnival 101

When I booked my Rio Carnival 2020 holiday in late 2018, it was somewhat a spur of the moment thing. I was working on a Rio Carnival creative piece at work and my friend and then colleague, Kim, was getting excited for her own upcoming trip to Brazil. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with my local independent travel agent, securing a space on a tour that I hadn’t done any research on!

Now, if you’re a friend of mine you’ll know that I’m typically an avid planner. Having worked in the travel industry for a number of years, I know how to research and plan a trip, and I know how to do it well. Saying this, I just didn’t have the motivation or urge to want to research much ahead of this particular trip. In retrospect, I think it was because I was part of a small group tour and knew that I’d have the help on the ground if I needed it.

Being a solo female traveller, I always knew I wanted the security of a group while experiencing Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and Carnival. I had travelled with G Adventures previously and had had a wonderful time, and so it just made sense that I book my Carnival experience with them.

Fast forward 12 months. A new job, a new home and a new relationship meant that I was no longer a solo female traveller. During our first date, my boyfriend and I discovered that we were both travelling to Brazil in 2020 for Carnival. We were both departing from London on the same day, at the same time, on the SAME FLIGHT! (I mean what are the chances?) We joked that it would be an awkward flight if things didn’t work out, but luckily for me (and I like to think for him too), they did. We decided that as I was already confirmed on a tour, he would simply add himself on and we’d experience Carnival together with G Adventures.

Fast forward to March 2020, and we’re home from what was an incredible trip. Carnival really is everything that everyone says it is – and so much more. I don’t think there are enough words to describe just how phenomenal the experience was. It’s something that I think everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.


As we were part of a small group tour, the stress of purchasing Carnival tickets and organising other elements was taken away. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot and wanted to share my experiences with you so that whether you’re travelling independently or as part of a small group tour, you get the best out of Carnival! 

The Main Event
Did you know that the main Carnival parades actually form part of a ticketed event? Prior to finding this out, I believed that floats passed through the streets of Rio de Janeiro while bystanders cheered them on from the sidewalk – somewhat like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. But that’s not actually the case. It’s held in the Sambadrome, located on the outskirts of the city centre. Each year, on the Sunday and Monday before Ash Wednesday, the top 12 Rio de Janeiro samba schools compete in front of 90,000 spectators in a taught competition for the Carnival title. Each school picks a theme, which is expressed through their performance and elaborate costumes, and between 200 and 400 drummers help by beating a quick, hypnotic rhythm that draws the crowd into the school’s compelling scene. The whole thing is honestly just magical!

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Sambadrome Seating
The Sambadrome is divided into various sections, numbered from one to 13, and are located on both sides of the Samba runway. We were seated in section 11 and honestly, it was perfect! We were directly across from the judges, where each school pauses to give the judges time to, well judge. With this in mind, consider looking at tickets in sections 10 (behind the judges) or 11 (across from the judges). If you’re purchasing tickets in the grandstands, seating is in the form of concrete bleachers and so isn’t comfortable. You will find vendors selling foam pads however, you can bring in your own cushion/pillow. Seating is on a first come first serve basis and as you can imagine, everyone tries to sit at the front of their section. So, if you want the best seat, it’s advised that you arrive early to claim your spot (the Sambadrome opens at 18:00 while the first parade states at 21:00).


The first samba school begins their procession at 21:00 – or thereabouts. Each school has approximately 85 minutes to complete their entire procession (points are actually deducted from a samba school’s overall score if the procession runs shorter or goes longer than the allotted time). With six schools performing per night, at 85 minutes each, it’s a long night. The last samba school begins their procession at approximately 04:30, finishing around 06:00!


Carnival is known for its over the top costumes however, dressing up is not obligatory. Whether you decide to wear a swimsuit, accessorised with glitter and sequins, or shorts and a t-shirt, you won’t look out of place in the Sambadrome. You will be hot and sweaty though, so keep that in mind when choosing what to wear and be sure to wear comfortable shoes! Depending on the weather forecast, you may want to incorporate a raincoat into your costume. The Sambadrome is an open-air venue and so if it rains – you’re getting wet! 

Note: If you arrive in Rio and want to spice up your original outfit, or find a whole new one, there are plenty of shops selling costume accessories. If you plan on wearing a headpiece – be mindful of those behind you as they’ll want to be able to see the parade.


Photography and Video
I took my iPhone, Canon and GoPro with me into the sambadrome and had no concerns over safety. I positioned myself right at the front of our section and got some fabulous footage of the floats/dancers as they passed by. I’ve read from multiple sources that the Sambadrome is considered one of the safest places during Carnival and I couldn’t agree more. I never felt unsafe or that my belongings were at risk of being stolen.


Food and Drink
You’re allowed to bring two 500ml plastic bottles of water and two items of food per person into the Sambadrome, but like any event, you’ll find plenty of fast food trucks. There were also men circling the stands selling water, alcohol and ice cream so you never need to miss out on any of the action! Note: be sure to take plenty of cash as the cash machines are known to run out.

There are toilets located in the Sambadrome however, be aware that there are 90,000 other spectators. It’s known that toilet paper runs out by the end of the performances; therefore, it is advisable to bring an extra roll from your hotel with you just in case…

As a part of our small group tour, we had round trip transport included. We were picked up from our accommodation and dropped off right outside the entrance to the Sambadrome – it was seamless and made the experience stress free! If you’re travelling independently, I would recommend pre-booking a return shuttle from your hotel. Bear in mind that there will be street parties happening with tens of thousands of people in attendance, so factor in major traffic delays. If you’re happy using public transport, take the metro to Praça Onze and walk for around 15 minutes from here. It’s well signposted – and you can enjoy some of the street celebrations along the way.


And finally, Blocos
Blocos are the street parties of Rio Carnival. They’re much more casual than the parades in the Sambadrome however they’re considered the heart and soul of Rio Carnival. Each bloco writes a theme song and has a live band to play the music – typically from the top of a moving bus! There are numerous blocos located around the city of Rio de Janeiro in the days leading up to Carnival, but also during the days after. Blocos can be as small as a couple of hundred people or as large as 400,000 people, so it’s best to plan which bloco you wish to attend ahead of time. The best way to get to a bloco is by using the subway. A one-way ticket costs R$4.30 (£0.64GBP/$0.83USD) and you’ll find that there is typically a subway station within a block or two from a bloco. Blocos are a pickpockets dream, so ensure you’re carrying the bare minimum – I always wore a bum bag (fanny pack) and had no issues! Once you’ve decided on your blocos, planned your costume and your transport route – be prepared to party into the small hours of the morning. Blocos last all day and night!


Regardless of whether you’re attending Carnival independently or as part of a small group tour, you’re guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime. To try and put into words the quality of the costumes, the elaborateness of the floats and the atmosphere of the Sambadrome is close to impossible! If you’re heading to Rio Carnival in 2021, let me know in the comments below and keep your eyes peeled for my next blog: The City of God.

Notes: I experienced Rio Carnival as part of a small group adventure tour with G Adventures. Rio Carnival: Sequins & the Sambadrome is a limited edition, six-day guided tour with a maximum group size of 16 however, there are ‘multiple departures’ and so you’ll be exploring Rio with a bigger group. Prices start from £899 excluding flights. This is not a sponsored post. All thoughts and images are my own.


The elusive diva of the north

In March 2018, National Geographic Traveller asked their readers to submit a great piece of travel writing in a bid to discover the very best untapped talent. The prize, a two-week Thailand Hike, Bike and Kayak Adventure courtesy of G Adventures. They, of course, received hundreds of entries, however, had to whittle these down to just three compelling tales that would be published in the October issue of the magazine. The winning piece; Uganda: Songs for Elephants by Dom Tulett was a compelling read and left a lasting impression with its reader. Of course, I was a little enervated at not being published; nonetheless I have decided to post my entry here:

We have spent the past five days traversing northern Norway; wolf encounters in Narvik, reindeer spotting on the North Cape and husky sledging through Alta. Each night we’ve waited patiently to catch a glimpse of what the locals call the ‘diva of the north’; however she has yet to make an appearance and so tonight, our last night, is our last chance.

Wolf Encounter at Polar Park, Narvik

We were due to be flying further north to Spitsbergen, the crown of Arctic Norway. However, the vast blanket of white that is engulfing the city, swallowing distant objects, means our plane has been grounded, and we’re going nowhere. Although disheartened at the missed opportunity of scouring the horizons of Svalbard for polar bears, we are determined to make the most of our extra night in Tromsø, the gateway to the Arctic.

As dusk falls over the city, we wander the historic centre, delighting in the traditional architecture, imagining what stories live within the chestnut red and burnt yellow walls. I look out across the steel grey Tromsøysundet strait, and admire the iconic Arctic Cathedral, built in the 1960’s the triangular structure stretches skyward, imitating the hulking snow-capped mountains behind.

We cross over the Tromsø Bridge, toward the mainland and take a cable car to the top of Mount Storsteinen where we are rewarded with a sweeping view of the city. Beneath the canopy of the night sky, Tromsø appears almost as though it’s been dusted with glitter; for the city is alive with lights. Our guide, a professor at the city’s university, draws our attention to the emerging constellations from the palette of stars above; the Little Dipper, the Northern Cross and a lone orbiting satellite.

Tromsø from Mount Storsteinen, 421 metres above sea level.

Inside, I take a bite of my reindeer burger and listen intently as the professor tells me of his encounters with the ‘diva of the north’. He recounts the variety of forms, colours and intensities that she can take on. Suddenly, as though she knows she’s being spoken about, she teases the sky with the first hint of her approach and the excitable buzz of chatter in the restaurant increases in volume. I find the nearest exit, hoping this is it; the moment I’ve been waiting for.

I look up at the night sky. At first, it appears indistinct, a light smudge behind a bank of clouds. The smudge starts to glow and gather into tormented twists of ethereal green. It is indisputable now, the elusive diva of the north as arrived. The Northern Lights dance across the sky in a sequence that only Mother Nature could choreograph. I gasp as a halo of vibrating violet light explodes almost directly above my head. I am speechless, awestruck. Bursts of white, green and purple continue to splash themselves against the canvas of the sky, as though being formed by the brushstrokes of a haphazard hand. There is nothing inexpert about this artist, though; every touch is calculated, every motion nuances the breathtaking final masterpiece.

Aurora Borealis from Storsteinen

And then, as swiftly as it began, the spectacle above me dissolves into nothing, and I’m sure the natural phenomena has departed. But then, instantaneously she forms on another horizon, dancing onwards, swirling streams of colour amid the craggy peaks. She continues late into the night, the diva of the north, the sensation of the sky, has given us the performance of a lifetime.

Bula Bula

As we drive away from the airport towards my accommodation in Wailoaloa Bay, my first impression of Fiji is not what I expected it to be. The skies are filled with angry clouds, the land is lush emerald green, and the ocean looks unforgiving; not quite the idyllic blue skies and azure waters I have seen plastered online.

Viti Levu, the largest of the Fijian Islands, is home to three-quarters of the population and is the hub of the entire Fijian archipelago. Nadi, (pronounced NAN – DEE) located on the west side of the island is where I’ll be basing myself for the short time that I have in this pacific paradise.

Once I’ve dumped my luggage in my dorm room I head to the beach where I witness some tourists and locals playing rugby – Fiji’s national sport. The sun is starting to set, and although the grey clouds are still lingering and it’s raining, it’s a sight to behold. The setting sun paints the horizon hues of orange and shades of burnt red.

Locals & tourists playing rugby on the beach.
Wailoaloa Bay Sunset

I spend my first full day exploring Wailoaloa Bay and the town of Nadi; the local bus offers an easy and convenient way of exploring the main island with fares starting at $0.70. There wasn’t much to the centre of Nadi, only some shops, restaurants, cafes a small handicraft market as well as a produce market. However, at the base of Main Street, I stumbled across the Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple. The Hindu temple offered an insight into the traditional Dravidian architecture and is one of only a handful of traditional temples outside of India. The colourful exterior pops against the clearing skies.

Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple
Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple
The detail on the sari I purchased to enter the temple.
Selfie inside the Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple

It’s late afternoon by the time I make it back to the hostel, the rain has since passed, and the temperature has risen. I walk down to the beach and make a conscious decision to explore. I head in both directions, taking in the rugged coastline and for a while, I just sit, watching a seaplane land and not long after, take off again.

Seaplane landing in Wailoaloa Bay
Wailoalioa Bay
Rugby on the beach at sunset

For my second and third days, I’ve booked myself onto two different sailing tours. One that focuses on exploring some of the various islands while the latter is all about discovering the regions marine life. I take the local bus to Denarau Island where all boats trips/island cruises depart.

Not long after we pick up anchor, I see a break in the clouds ahead – the sun is attempting to make an appearance. As soon as we sail through the threshold, there is nothing but clear blue skies ahead. THIS is the Fiji I came to see.

After sailing for around an hour and a half, we drop anchor just off the coast of Modriki. Modriki is an uninhabited island, part of the Atolls islands and was the scene for Tom Hanks ‘Castaway.’ Castaway is an epic survival drama starring Tom Hanks; a FedEx employee marooned on an uninhabited island after his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. He attempts to survive on the island using remnants of his plane’s cargo and after visiting the island and experiencing its remoteness, it’s no wonder Tom Hanks’ character turned to Wilson for company. We leave Modriki behind and sail north-east towards Yanuya, where we are welcomed by the local community with a Kava Ceremony, an important aspect when visiting any village. We receive a short tour of the island, the local homes and school and meet some of the local children who bear some of the happiest smiles I have ever come across!

Atoll Islands
Sailing the Atoll Islands
Modriki Island
Modriki Island
Yanuya Island
Yanuya Island
Yanuya Island Locals
Yanuya Island Locals
The most happiest, friendliest souls!
Sailing back to Port Denarau

Day three included another early morning departure from Port Denarau; this time we were headed towards the magical islands of Malolo Lailai , Tavarua, Namotu and out to the outer reefs. After sailing for a while, we drop anchor at a sand quay close to the Malolo Barrier Reef, where the calm, clear waters make it easy to spot the elaborate reef structures and masses of marine life. I place numerous linckia laevigata (cobalt blue starfish), crescent wrasse, parrotfish and scissortail. After a generous amount of time snorkelling, we climb back on board and make our way towards Malolo Lailai Island where a sumptuous Fijian BBQ has been laid out. Freshly grilled fish, various meats, salads and fresh fruit. After filling up on the delicious spread, I swam in the Likuliku Lagoon and just appreciated the beauty that surrounded me before we made our way back to Viti Levu.

The ocean floor was covered in these cobalt blue starfish. (I of course had to dive down and borrow one for a selfie before gently placing it back.)
Diving with the scissor-tail sergeant
Coral Cats Catamaran anchored at Malolo Lailai Island.

If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that there are two sides to Fiji, a green side and a blue side. Do your research before you go, plan what you want to see, what it is you want to get from your time here and plan your base accordingly.

Sitting on the plane back to Melbourne, I felt that actually, Nadi was a great base for myself to be able to explore the variety that this country has to offer. If you find yourself wanting to base yourself on one of the smaller islands, I get it. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to calm clear waters each morning? But don’t confine yourself to one island, because Fiji is so much more!

Departing Nadi International Airport, bound for Melbourne.