The biggest party of the year is about to start! Whether you call it Carnival, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday or anything else, the celebration of celebrations happens around the world in the days and weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and the somber period of Lent.
The biggest and best known celebrations are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and New Orleans. However, you can find yourself in the midst of Carnival in any corner of Brazil and many other countries in the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday, which is Feb. 13 this year. Mardi Gras lasts for weeks in Louisiana, Alabama and other corners of the globe. The first parades in New Orleans roll on January 19 (though there will be a break in the action around the Super Bowl this year).
There are many local customs for any of the celebrations but to make the most of the revelry and pageantry, there are some common ways to prepare yourself for an experience like no other. Start by bringing these essentials:
No matter where you celebrate, the clothes are part of the fun. The parades are teeming with costumes and so are the streets. In New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day, in particular, everyone dresses up in full costumes, so plan ahead and/or stop by the French Market for some added accessories. At the very least, make sure to bring purple, gold and green – the colors of Mardi Gras. For Rio, pack a bathing suit for the beach that you can wear under your outfit.
The party is 24 hours long, so wardrobe changes are in order. While Rio is probably one of the most beach-casual cities in the world, it’s a festive (maybe the most festive) time of year so people get trendy at night – and by night we mean beginning at 1:00 a.m. In New Orleans, if you are lucky enough to get invited to a ball, you will even need formal wear and a mask or head dress. Mardi Gras night is still costume craziness at its best in the Big Easy. Most nights, though, the rule is fun (and daringly revealing if you’d like) but nothing you’d cry over if it gets spilled on or ruined.
Sunscreen and rain gear
With Carnival at the height of summer in South America, sunscreen is essential. And, fair warning, it is very expensive in Brazil (i.e. $25 for a tube), so best to bring it from home. For Mardi Gras celebrations, weather can run the gamut so sunscreen matters there too but so do layers, for days that start chilly and end steamy, and rain gear. Lightning is about the only thing that will stop the show.
You will be walking, dancing and standing nonstop for days. There will be crowds, sticky floors, uneven surfaces and, perhaps, uneven walking. You will want shoes that will stay on your feet and that you want to keep on your feet through it all. Better to bring a few pairs (and mix it up for comfort) of well-loved shoes on their final trip than to bust out a new shoe wardrobe. No one will be looking at your feet anyhow.
A schedule (and tickets)
There are multiple events each day and getting to them takes planning. Some of the best Rio events require tickets, so book in advance. For Mardi Gras parades, map out the routes of the parades you want to see. They happen in various neighborhoods. Then decide where you want to watch and how you are going to get there. An ideal spot is one where the parade doubles back nearby and you can catch it (and more throws!) when it comes by again a few blocks away. (Side note: Have a meeting place determined in advance if your group gets separated in the crowd.)
Tissues and hand sanitizer or wipes
Unless you know someone who lives nearby, one of the trickiest issues with these all-day celebrations is finding a bathroom. Your best bet for a free option is a porta-potty but expect a line. Otherwise, you may want to become a paying guest at a close-by restaurant or bar. Regardless, expect a toilet paper shortage. And be prepared to take care of your own hand washing, at bathroom time or in the event of spilled drinks or the grime of the day.
Where there are crowds and chaos, there are pickpockets, con artists and criminals. Don’t flash a lot of cash, keep track of your wallet (or skip it for a money belt) and cell phone and pay attention to what you are drinking. Speaking of drinking and cell phones, you might want to wait until you get home before you decide what to “share” via social media.
Tolerance for crowds (and waits)
Leave the claustrophobia at home. The city (and, in Brazil, the beaches) will be packed. Plan to go early for whatever you want to do. If it’s beach time, go in the morning to get your spot. If it’s a parade, park yourself a few hours in advance if you want to see anything. The locals will be out there bright and early, with ladders and chairs, to claim their usual spots. When the parades are rolling, so is the chaos. Don’t bend over to pick up anything or you might find yourself with trampled fingers. Just step on your prize and grab it when the confusion clears.
These celebrations are feasts of sounds and sights, but food and drink are just as important. This may not be the trip to plan for a restaurant tour of the city as you don’t want to be away from the action that long. (And neither do the restaurant owners and staff, which is why many more formal places are shuttered for the final days of the festivities.) Nonetheless, in Rio you can get your fill of fresh tropical fruit, grilled meats and more from fabulous street vendors. In New Orleans, make a beignet run to start the day and grab a po’ boy or muffuletta to go. Mix in gumbo, Bloody Marys and some king cake, and what’s not to love? Just remember that, unless you are at a full sit down meal, you will most likely need to pay with cash.
An open mind
You will see drag, cultural dances, (very!) revealing dress and a loss of inhibitions. Go with it. Just remember that, in New Orleans, outside the French Quarter, Mardi Gras is a family event. Keep your risqué behavior (and outfits) to the Vieux Carré or you may run into trouble with the law.
Main image by Shreveport-Bossier