Do you like to party?
Then keep reading!
Carnival is perhaps the most insane fiesta (party) on the planet, occurring simultaneously in hectic outdoor events all around the globe.
But nowhere does Carnival quite like South America.
Wherever you may be on the continent, all night dance-a-thons and bottomless crates of beer are the norm.
I’ve been to several Carnival celebrations throughout South America, and I can confirm each is about as wild as they come.
Read on to learn how to survive this crazy tradition and find the best places to indulge.
Surviving Carnival in South America
What exactly is Carnival?
Carnival, also known as Carnaval, originated as a Greek Orthodox and Western Christian ceremony to mark the beginning of Lent.
During Lent, the devout abstain from sinful pleasures such as alcohol, red meat and sex. As a result, some celebrants aim to get all their sins out of their system in a week-long orgy of debauchery, which has morphed into the modern-day Carnival.
These days, Carnival differs widely around the world. There are a few constants, however, such as lavish costumes and floats as well as infectious music and dance.
Accommodation during Carnival
Finding an affordable place to crash is usually the biggest challenge.
At the largest celebrations, anywhere capable of online reservations will book out several weeks or months before the event. On top of that, expect nightly rates to multiply threefold and require a lengthy minimum stay.
Last-minute travelers desperate for a bed could try contacting a local or international travel agent to inquire about package deals. You might find one of these all-inclusive offerings in the days leading up to the event, albeit at a considerable extra expense.
A risky but much cheaper approach is to seek out accommodation on arrival. Scores of homeowners at all major parades rent their properties out to earn some extra pesos during the event. Just be sure to have your key in hand before forking out money for the week’s rent.
Look for printed notices around bus stations and other tourists sites and arrive a few days early to better your chances.
Staying safe during Carnival
Carnival parades throughout the continent attract a strong contingent of opportunistic thieves who rob tourists to fund their own celebrations.
Each event is different, so seek out specific local safety advice. The following general information applies to virtually all South American Carnival celebrations:
- Always carry everything in an inside pocket to discourage pickpockets. A money belt works well.
- Be wary of accepting food or drink from strangers or new friends. Drink spiking does occur.
- Take a taxi rather than walking home, especially if traveling through deserted streets.
- Party in a group comprised of people you know and trust.
- Have fun but don’t get too drunk.
- Learn the local language.
Learning the lingo
Speaking the local language will enhance your Carnival experience significantly.
As mentioned above, you’ll have a much better chance of staying safe if you can converse in the local language. Thieves and criminals know Carnival attracts hordes of tourists, and the more you come across like an ignorant tourist, the more of a target you become.
If you speak the language, you seem confident and aware. Then criminals can easily move on to one of the other thousands of travelers.
Plus, even with just a rudimentary understanding, you’ll have access to a wide range of new friends and may even be able to woo that cute gal or guy.
If you celebrate Carnival in Brazil, you’ll want to brush up on your Portuguese. If you’re anywhere else in South America, try to become conversational in Spanish.
Check out FluentU and start watching videos to hone your Spanish skills.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized Spanish language learning lessons.
It’s an entertaining method to immerse yourself in Spanish the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.
FluentU is about so much more than videos: You also get access to interactive flashcards and vocab lists, annotated subtitles and personalized quizzes that evolve as you learn.
With FluentU, you’ll quickly learn the necessary vocabulary to get around and throw off criminals. You’ll also pick up phrases related to travel and culture. If you’re a single traveler, be sure to learn a few flirtatious terms, as well! And you’ll learn all this through fun, authentic videos that introduce you to native accents.
Access the full video library for free with a FluentU trial!
When the action takes place
The main Carnival weekend falls on the following dates:
- 2019: March 4-5
- 2020: February 24-25
- 2021: February 15-16
- 2022: February 28-March 1
- 2023: February 20-21
There are usually festivities directly before and after the weekend, as well.
Get Your Fiesta on: Where to Rock Carnival in South America Like a Boss
Click here to join our team!
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro is synonymous with Carnival thanks to a sumptuous display of barely-dressed performers and astonishingly elaborate floats.
However, its international reputation makes this the most crowded and expensive place to party on the continent. Expect to fork out at least 100-300 USD for budget tickets and 50-100 USD per night for a dormitory-style bed in a backpacker hostel.
Yet for many excitable revelers, that’s a sacrifice they’re all too willing to take.
Rio holds the most jaw-dropping displays within the famous Sambadrome, a special strip that’s been purpose-built for boisterous parades. Tickets may be pricey, but the spectacle is undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime event.
After you’re done gawking at the dazzling procession, head to an impromptu street party in the Lapa district to boogie until the break of dawn.
Rio may hog the international limelight, but Salvador’s louco (crazy) celebration is where the real party’s at.
Rather than focusing on the most extravagant outfits and floats, the northern metropolis takes a more hands-on approach.
Strong African influences and all-night street parties prescribe the vibe, creating an upbeat festival where the celebrant is the star of the show.
Instead of sitting back and watching floats pass by, you’ll be following a live band on a truck—known as a bloco—with an ecstatic group of revelers in tow.
Olinda and Recife, Brazil
Another astounding option in Brazil is to hit up the twin coastal cities of Olinda and Recife, which share an exquisite celebration of art, dance, culture and color.
Brazilians in the know proclaim this to be the country’s best parade, with revelers arriving from all over the country to partake. Quaint and colorful colonial buildings set the stage for the mayhem, while a selection of loveable, tall puppets is the unofficial mascot of the event.
Best of all, you’ll be among the only tourists there.
Believe it or not, Bolivia puts on one of the continent’s most brilliant Carnival parades.
At least UNESCO seems to think so, as they’ve declared it a masterpiece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Held in the ramshackle mining town of Oruro, the celebration joyously showcases Bolivia’s colorful song and dance. The most exotic is diablada, a traditional dance in which sacred virgins must slay Tío, the lord of the underworld who lurks in the mines below.
Expect plenty of panpipes and drunken revelry to accompany the show.
In Colombia, the best action takes place in the seldom-visited seaside town of Barranquilla.
Here, African and Caribbean influences combine with highland folkloric traditions to create an eclectic celebration which is among the largest in the world.
Nestled on the Caribbean coast, the climate in Barranquilla is almost as hot as the festivities. Colombians love a good party, so you can be sure this one will be off the hook.
Argentina isn’t huge on Carnival. Except for the central town of Gualeguaychú, that is.
The festivities here are a little different in that they occur every Saturday during January, February and early March. Consequently, you can party here every weekend for months on end.
The primary selling point, however, is that Rio’s best samba schools come to practice with a full dress rehearsal. As a result, you’ll get all the glitz and glamor of Rio at a super cheap and low key event.
A little-known indigenous enclave perched in the Ecuadorian Andes, Riobamba goes from dozy to manic during its raucous Carnival parade.
It may not be South America’s most boisterous celebration, but a massive city-wide water fight and authentic Andean folkloric dance make it an interesting option for those in the region.
Peru observes Carnival right throughout the country, yet nowhere gets as rowdy as Cajamarca. For a whole week, the normally sleepy colonial town puts on one heck of a show, with traditional Andean song and dance taking center stage.
Keep an eye out for an unusual regional custom in which the locals cut down a huge tree decorated in a Christmas style.
Does one meager week of non-stop partying feel like it’s not enough? Then make your way to Uruguay, where the festivities last a liver-punishing 40 consecutive days.
Food fights, poetry recitals, choir performances and satirical comedy troupes accompany the usual street parades. It’s a big deal over there, as up to 90% of the population are thought to get involved.
Rio de Janeiro may well proclaim to throw the greatest party on Earth, but there are plenty of other amazing celebrations held around South America to consider, as well.
Regardless of which you choose, I guarantee you’re in for one heck of a wild week.
So put your dancing shoes on and get ready to party hearty, South American style.
Harry is a South American-based freelance writer who covers travel, the arts and culture, among many other things.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.