The Samba Parade became too big for improvisations. Until the mid-eighties bleachers were assembled and disassembled every year on Ave. Presidente Vargas. Samba Schools longed for and deserved a more professional site to perform.
Governor Leonel Brizola believed in this dream, and in October 1983 he hired no one less than Niemeyer, Brazil's most prominent architect. Niemeyer more than lived up to the challenge of devising and building the Sambodromo within 110 days. "We built the capital Brasilia in four years. We certainly can build the Sambodromo in four months." The master was right.
On March 2, 1984 the Sambodromo was inaugurated. Marques de Sapucaí was the street chosen by Vice-Governor Darcy Ribeiro. It holds historical ties with samba: Praça Onze is recognized as the birthplace of the most famous Brazilian musical style. The structure is officially named Passarela do Samba Darcy Ribeiro, and it is the permanent home of the Samba Parade. Mangueira was the champion in 1984, in case you are wondering.
The Original Sambodromo
The Sambodromo consists of several independent concrete structures along both sides of Ave. Marques de Sapucai The pavement of the street itself is painted white a few days before Carnival, and turned samba runway (or passarela). It ends at the Apotheosis Square, crowned by a large M in concrete, vaguely reminding the symbol of a fast-food chain.
During the school year, parts of this structure are used as classrooms by public schools. The Square is often stage for shows, and major bands have already performed here. When Carnival magic takes over, the Sambodromo is the setting to the greatest show on earth.
The Sambodromo is divided in sectors (see photo map), and each sector has different kinds of seats. Breweries compete to see which one attracts to their boxes the most famous international stars, socialites, soccer players, politicians, opinion makers, and fashion models. Some always misbehave, giving plenty of material for the tabloids and gossip columns to explore.
The Renovated Sambodromo
Oscar Niemeyer’s originally had to be adapted to accommodate the old Brahma Brewery. The city reached an agreement with the owners of the factory, and it was put down to make place for the new and improved version of the Sambodromo. Now the odd and even sides mirror each other.
Acoustics have improved dramatically, and there are more seats than before. The new structure was launched with the presence of Oscar Niemeyer, aged 104! It must have been a very special moment in the life of Brazil’s most celebrated architect. The event happened just a few days before Carnaval. It was followed by the traditional wash of the Samba Runway by Baianas to bring good luck!
There have been many changes. Sector 4, once a recessed ugly duckling, now has been renamed Sector 10, and has a top view to the runway. 12,500 new seats were added altogether. The boxes on the even side have an open balcony that was a big hit. So was the promenade of special chairs on Sector 10.
Sambodromo Map after the Facelift
Liesa, the League of Samba Schools published a very handy map with the new disposition of sectors and how they can be reached by subway. They say that there are a total of 72,518 seats now! We will try to help you understand which is the right one for you. We are not talking prices here, this is discussed in detail a bit later.
Choosing the Best Sector
With the renovations all special sectors are wonderful choices. The lower the number, the closer to the starting point. From Sectors 2 and 3 you also have a partial view to the concentration. This is sort of exciting, and you are also closer to the fireworks that signal the beginning of each parade.
Sectors 5 and 7 and their even counterparts Sectors 4 and 6 are the most centrally located. It may take as long as 15-20 minutes for the first members of the Samba School to reach you. But when they do you, will see a tapestry of moving art. That's an 180 degree view to the parade, something to write home about!
Sector 9 is on a class of its own, because seats are numbered. This is a mixed blessing, and you may be assigned a nosebleed seat. If your vendor knows beforehand they have front row tickets, something may be very wrong. Tickets at this sector are the most expensive, and have the privilege of being close to the percussion band. The only disadvantage is the clueless grumpy tourists may ask you to sit down (see etiquette above).
Sector 11 shares with Sector 9 an area where the percussion band retreats while the school passes by. The name of this niche is Recuo da Bateria. Whenever passistas hear the band from up close their energies are recharged, and they always perform their best. Sectors 8 and 10 also share the benefits. This is a 360 degree show!
If you are on a budget...
Those who cannot afford a ticket may watch the schools line up at the Concentration, instead. As this is an open area, exercise caution - pickpockets sometimes try to take advantage of the crowds. Bring a discreet camera to avoid problems. You can later stretch the night at the Terreirao do Samba with a number of live music shows that are loads of fun.
Provided you actually want to go inside, with the new layout of the Sambodromo there are no bad seats. Right before the entrance, near the Concentration, there's Sector 1, It has much lower-priced tickets, with a face value of about $10. Some are distributed among the communities where samba schools come from. Others are offered for sale a couple of weeks before Carnaval.
Sectors 12 and 13, which are around the dispersion area, also have lower-priced tickets. Spectators enjoy schools leaving the Sambodromo, including the destaques, dancers who stay on the uppermost position of the floats. Beware that we have seen these tickets for sale online for about $100! If you have a local friend willing to wait in line for you, you can get it for face value which is ten times less.
Ground-level Seats - Frisas, Cadeiras de Pista
When you want to be as close as it gets to the Samba Runway, your first choice are the Frisas, ground floor boxes which accommodate six people each. There are chairs for each person, a table, and you have access to a snack bar and rest rooms inside your sector. Although seats within a frisa are numbered, if you are sharing yours with strangers try to make friends. They won't mind making room for you to take that special photo.
There are 4 rows of frisas, and "Row A" is the closet to the runway. The view is great even from row D, though. Don't be too picky - especially if you have access to tickets at face value. An unobtrusive tripod or a monopod come quite handy, as you are dealing with moving images. Just make sure not to bother your frisa-mates.
Cadeiras individuais, or Individual chairs are also at ground level. They are not available at all sectors, but as the name says you have actual chairs to sit on. This is quite a concept, when compared to the bleacher seats described below. There are also sitting areas reserved to spectators with special needs. All Samba Schools have participants on wheelchairs, and your presence is a more than welcome addition.
The only disadvantage of ground-level seats is that some floats are big and high, and there's always someone in a fabulous costume right on top. But then again, when the percussion band and the alas pass - you see individuals. Each one doing their best to cause a impression. These are the seats we suggest to anyone who does not want to face the stairs to reach the other areas. If you are on high heels, or in the company of seniors stay on firm ground.
Catered Mezzanine Boxes - Camarotes
I don't want to shatter your dreams, but these boxes are sold bare with a capacity for 12 guests each. No decor, no catering... There are companies specialized in turning them into a comfortable living room for you to enjoy the party with your friends. Or strangers, wholesalers offer individual tickets.
These modules of 12 seats can be added indefinitely, and sometimes they are, too! But the latest trend among breweries is keeping seats in all denominations, from ground to bleachers, and give guests a more diversified experience. Currently the most coveted seats are to the first floor of odd sectors, where they added an open balcony.
As these boxes are quite close to the runway, they are perfect if you want to see all the details of the samba school from a higher, privileged position. Be ready to pay for it, unless you are Madonna, J. Lo, or something. And keep in mind that mere mortals do not have access to the VIP boxes they're invited to.
About Bleacher Seats - Arquibancadas
We saved the most popular sets for last. Best prices, great elevated view, and a chance to mingle with locals in their favorite turf. Do not be surprised not to find actual chairs at the bleachers. They are more like bleacher stands, really.
There's not much point in arriving very early hoping to get one of the front rows. There are people willing to camp outside to do stay on the front row, and you cannot compete with that... Make friends with your neighbors, as they may save your seat when you go for a break.
Seats are only numbered at Sector 9, reserved for international tourists, and priced higher. Having a numbered seat is a mixed blessing - you cannot choose the row beforehand. But quite frankly, row Z has a wonderful wind blowing, and with a zoom or binoculars you get all the details just like the next guy.
Do not complain if the person in front of you starts waving arms in front of your camera. Let them enjoy the moment, and if you're not happy, find some other seat.
There are snack bars and rest rooms at the bleachers, so you don't have to climb the stairs all the way down when you need something.
Transportation and the Promenade
There are refreshment stands and rest rooms in all sectors. They are kept clean under the constant supervision of janitors. If you are on the odd side, you also have access to a promenade within the Sambodromo, right behind the bleachers. It is lined up with restaurants, ice-cream stands, shops with souvenirs, and more rest rooms They also sell disposable rain jackets when the weather is cloudy. The largest food court behind Sector 11.
Taxis are available inside the Sambodromo between the back of Sectors 9 and 11. They charge a fixed rate to your destination, and you will be advised of the total and receive a ticket to deliver the driver once you board. We do not recommend walking out of the Sambodromo to try to find a cheaper taxi. You will have to compete with more people than if you wait in line within the safety of the gates. You should also call taxis from the authorized companies, as without a special sticker on the window taxis do not have access to the doors.
Tour operators often take their clients in buses, and sometimes they can accommodate extra passengers. They are easy to find, usually holding a flag and a list with names at the promenade. They stop at many hotels along the way including, hopefully, yours. Otherwise you will have to take a taxi from where they drop you off. Ask first.
The subway is the cheapest way to go, and you do not have to buy your pass ahead - but you can. It is not as easy as it sounds to get from the Subway to the Sambodromo, and you will have to do some walking. Hopefully in the right direction. Don't follow people in costumes, chances are they are going to the concentration. If you have a local friend invite him or her to join you (and guide you).
To avoid frauds, the actual tickets are only distributed a week before Carnival. Buy yours from a reliable source to avoid major disappointments. Sometimes scalpers try to sell their last leftover tickets at the door, but there's no guarantee they are legitimate. You may try to haggle, but don't expect miracles. We always get e-mail from travelers who claim they heard from a friend of a friend that after midnight they give discounts, or even let people in for free. Urban legend!
Basic Sambodromo Etiquette and Info
It's very safe inside the Sambodromo You are welcome to bring your camera or camcorder. You may bring along two food items and one drink (can or plastic bottle). There are plenty of refreshment stands inside, though, so don't bother bringing the extra weight. Bring instead extra batteries and media. Wear comfortable clothes that breathe, shoes that actually protect your feet, bring a disposable seat cushion, and you are all set.
Now a special note on your behavior. The Samba Parade is roughly a combination of an opera, and a sing-along. You are not supposed to remain seated as the samba schools pass, The school will get the impression that they are not doing a good job. It's discouraging.
If you must remain seated due to some health problem or something,consider a frisa or a special chair. Otherwise at least don't keep asking other people to sit down while they are having the time of their lives. This is considered to be very rude, and it certainly will not make you the most popular person in your sector. Be a sport. You can always sit down during the intermissions, or when you ride the taxi back to your hotel...