Three million revelers crowd the beach, sand in their toes… Fireworks light up the sultry night air… The seductive sounds of samba engulf you… This is Réveillon—what Brazilians call their New Year’s Eve celebration.
Sure the whole world will be watching Rio de Janeiro in 2014 for the FIFA World Cup and again in 2016 for the Olympic Games, but A Cidade Maravilhosa (“The Marvelous City”) also hosts an annual celebration on December 31st that’s a spectacle beyond words. But unlike the notorious pre-Lenten festival Carnaval however, Réveillon seems to be unknown to North Americans.
During Réveillon, throngs of people fill world-famous Copacabana Beach to celebrate the coming of Ano Novo, the New Year. Multiple bandstands are set up along the 2½-mile long, crescent-shaped beach and giant video screens display the festivities for all to see. It’s customary for cariocas (the people from Rio) to dress all in white, which is said to bring good luck and peace in the coming year. Many people wear colored underwear too; red signifies love and yellow, money. As part of the New Year’s tradition, candles, flowers, and small trinkets are laid in the sand as gifts to Iemenjá, the African goddess of the ocean. The offerings can even be be put in little boats and then set adrift. It’s believed that if your offerings are taken out to sea, you will be granted prosperity in the coming year.
People promenade along the famous, wavy-lined, cobblestone pathway lining Copacabana Beach and stake out patches of sand with their friends and family members. At the stroke of midnight, the night sky is illuminated with a spectacular display of light and color, casting shadows on iconic Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance. Launched from barges anchored just off-shore, the fireworks last for about twenty minutes. Réveillon is an all-night party—people young and old will be dancing, drinking champagne and reveling until well past dawn.
Hotels book up months in advance (as early as May) but most begin selling packages in July. It’s very common for hotels to have five-night minimums, with much higher prices than the rest of the year. A note about safety: Rio de Janeiro has a reputation of being dangerous, but I found it to be very safe. Just take precautions like you would when traveling in any big city—wear a money belt, don’t wear flashy jewelry and stick to the tourist areas.
As 2011 draws to a close, I’m reminded of the best New Year’s Eve celebration that I’ve been part of. I’m really looking forward to December 31st this year, when I’ll be in Miami Beach, but I doubt anything will ever top the year I spent celebrating in Rio de Janeiro.
How To Get There: Rio de Janeiro is an international city, with direct and non-stop flights from the U.S. and Europe. If you’re departing from London, be sure to take advantage of pre-paid, hassle-free Heathrow car parking. Or if you’re traveling from the northern U.K., check out the affordable options for parking at Manchester Airport too.
Where To Stay: If you want to be closest to the action, get a hotel in Copacabana. However, Ipanema is more upscale and not too far away to walk (or take a taxi). Hotels are at their second-highest rates during Réveillon (after Carnaval), but the spectacle is definitely worth it.
Don’t forget: U.S. citizens need a visa to enter Brazil, so allow about 6 weeks to obtain one. The cost is $165 but it’s valid for five years. Proof of round-trip airfare is required. Contact your local embassy or consulate for more details. U.K. passport holders do not require a visa to enter Brazil for stays up to ninety days.
Michael Figueiredo is a freelance travel writer based in Los Angeles, California. When he’s not gallivanting around the world, he’s enjoying the laid-back lifestyle and perfect weather of Southern California. So far he’s visited forty countries and territories on five continents. His goal is to see at least one new country every year! . Read more from this author