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February 3, 1997
(CNN) -- It's wild, wacky, frivolous, and most say, quite enjoyable. Carnaval is celebrated everywhere in Brazil, but in Rio de Janeiro, the celebration becomes a fantastic spectacle during the country's summer months.
Passionate, exuberant Rio comes alive when Carnaval begins. As the temperature heats up, so do days of seemingly endless parades, balls and parties in Cidade Maravilhosa, or the "Marvelous City," as Rio is sometimes called.
"It has to do with the people, the color, with the music, with the spirit of the Brazilian people," said travel agent Daniel Taramona. "The whole country stops for four days."
Carnaval changes dates every year, but it's usually held sometime in February and has an official duration of four days, from Saturday to Tuesday. To fully experience the celebration, travelers should arrive at least a few days in advance. The festive atmosphere, and the crowds, arrive early as well.
The 1997 party starts on Saturday, February 8th, and ends on Tuesday the 11th, the day before the Brazilian and religious holiday Ash Wednesday. Carnaval is essentially a time of feasting before the fasting of the Lenten season starts in this mostly Catholic country.
Seeing the Parades
While Carnaval is celebrated all over Brazil, tourists flock to Rio to witness the biggest rituals. The Sambodrome is the site of Rio's most famous parade. Each year, more than a dozen of the top samba schools compete via costumes, choreography and percussion to become the pride of Rio and Brazil. Tickets are required for the event and for an extra $200-300 (U.S.), tourists can actually join the pulsating parades.
If the tickets exceed your travel budget, a cheaper option is to venture into nearby neighborhoods which often host their own street fairs and parades. In Ipanema, for example, locals and visitors line up behind what are called marching "bandas" and move to the beat of popular Carnaval tunes.
In and Around Rio
While Carnaval may be the highlight of your Brazilian travels, other must-see sights await in and around Rio, away from the prime party scene.
With its wonderful climate, Rio de Janeiro is a city that lives in, and for, the sun. The Copacabana, memorialized in Barry Manilow's song of the same name, is the most popular beach in the area. The famous curved sand strip is also the center of the city's tourism industry; most of Rio's hotels, restaurants, shops and bars are around the luscious beach.
Nearby, Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) is one of Rio's most valued natural attractions. This 500 million year-old rock helps form the city's majestic landscape, and the view from its peak is breathtaking.
Adventurous travelers have the option of climbing Sugar Loaf on one of 32 established routes, but most tourists simply choose to ride. Two cable cars depart every 30 minutes from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. and cost $8 (U.S.). The most advantageous time to make the trek is right before sunset on a clear day.
The spectacular Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue on top of Corcovado (Hunchback Mountain) beckons tourists and religious pilgrims alike. At more than 2,400 feet above sea level, the statue and its welcoming, outstretched arms can be seen from any point in the city. The best option for reaching the summit is the Corcovado train, which runs from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and costs $11 (U.S.) round trip.
"It is the image of the Savior embracing Rio de Janeiro," said Luciano da Rochar, the director of Corcovado train. "With open arms, he embraces the tourists who arrive in Rio."
It's the city officials and locals alike who actually embrace the Carnaval season, for the lavish festival helps pump needed money into a starving economy.
Getting last-minute hotel reservations may be a little tough, but travel agents say rooms can often be found down to the wire.
A word of advice: Tourists planning to visit for Carnaval are advised to leave their valuables at home, because robberies are fairly common.
In 1998, the first official day of Carnaval is February 21. In 1999, Carnaval starts on February 13, and if you really like to plan ahead, it begins on March 4 in the year 2000.
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