By Sarah de Sainte Croix, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – With 2012 well underway and the Rio summer sun turning up the heat on the streets, the countdown to Carnival has begun in earnest. With just five weeks to go, a massive street party in the Praça XV last Sunday marked the unofficial opening of Rio’s Carnival season, giving revelers a sneak preview of the most democratic and hedonistic of Carnival’s traditions – the “bloco”.
Bloco is the term used to describe pageant groups that parade through the streets all over the city at Carnival time, singing, playing samba music and dancing in costume, gathering huge crowds of sometimes tens of thousands of party goers in their wake.
The idea of the bloco was first dreamed up in the late 19th Century in protest against the lavish balls and dances thrown by the upper classes. The tradition has since flourished and the result is proliferation of vast street parties that begin long before the official start of Carnival and stretch on through until the end of February.
Totally free and open to all, Rio’s blocos are not for the faint of heart. Once a party has been sanctioned, virtually anything goes. Streets are blocked off and transport grinds to a halt. Beer and frozen caipirinhas are the order of the day, and fantasy dress is the norm. Roving Lotharios abound – both male and female – which can either be a bonus or a nuisance depending on your standpoint. And despite the city’s best efforts, toilets are often in short supply.
However, for many Cariocas and Rio residents the blocos are the true heart of Carnival, and make up the majority of the celebrations. Debora Aranha, a Carioca living in Jacarepaguá says she usually goes to fifteen each year: “Considering Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as Carnival (five days), we go to three blocos per day.”
Riotur, the Municipal Secretary of Tourism for Rio, received requests for 476 blocos for 2012, eleven more than requested in 2011, of which 424 were approved. From last year’s requests, there was a decrease in acceptance from 173 to 162 in Zona Sul, 48 to 43 in Greater Tijuca, and 44 to 41 in Barra da Tijuca.
The schedule kicks off on Friday at 6PM with Bloco do Tião dos Embaixadores da Folia starting from Rua Gomes Freire and parading through Lapa. Alternatively, from 7-10PM the Bloco Boca Maldita will take to the streets of Copacabana leaving from Praça Demétrio Ribeiro at the Eastern-most end of Rua Barata Ribeiro.
Debora Aranha says her favorite is: “Cordão do Boitatá, in Praça XV. For the selection of music and the good mix of the people that go there to enjoy a good time. Even kids go!”
Of the old favorites, for those in search of a truly authentic bloco experience the legendary Banda de Ipanema (February 4th and 18th, 6PM) and Cordão da Bola Preta (February 10th at 8PM and 18th at 9:30 AM, Centro) are must-sees.
For those looking for novelty value, try Volta, Alice! in Laranjeiras on Monday, February 20th which starts at an eye-watering 9AM and boasts some of Carnival’s most outlandish costumes. Alternatively, try Bloco Virtual (February 17th at 6PM, starting in Leme,) who’s music, themes and colors are all determined by its online community.
A full schedule can be found at Riotur’s website (Rio’s official tourism agency) where you can search by neighborhood or date, or simply plug in the name of the bloco you want to attend. Alternatively, apps are available for both iPhone and android to help keep your bloco schedule at your fingertips.