Brazil, Rio de Janiero: Behind the scenes of Rio's famous Carnival

Dressed in towering silver platform heels, a sequined leotard and flaming red feather headdress, the Brazilian diva shimmies into the room with all the force of a category 1 hurricane. Standing around in sensible walking shoes and beige parkas, members of the tour group I'm travelling with stare in amazement at this exotic, bedazzling creature.

One by one, she grabs our hands and drags us into the centre of the circle we have formed, urging us to follow her lead in the saucy steps of the Brazilian samba. The results are mixed, to say the least.

"Jus' let go and feel the music," says Alex, our Brazilian guide.

A former Hollywood stuntman, he's got the music in him. He has brought us to an enormous warehouse in the northern suburbs of Rio de Janeiro to peek behind the curtain of Carnival, one of the biggest parties in the world.

The annual festival is a dizzying Bacchanalia that culminates in spectacular parades through the streets and promises to be the most memorable night you'll never remember.

During Carnival, Rio's top samba schools compete at the Sambadrome for top honours. In displays of lavish excess, they put on the razzle dazzle with extraordinary floats, thousands of dancers and elaborate costumes.

Carnival might last only six days, but the preparations continue all through the year. There are close to 100 samba schools in Rio and of those, more than a dozen are in the special, elite league. They spend months preparing for the two-hour parade, which is watched live by thousands at the Sambadrome and televised to an audience of millions around the world.

Putting on a show like that costs a lot of reals and one way to raise funds is to create a behind-the-scenes tour that offers a glimpse into the creation of the shows and a brief history lesson on the evolution of samba.

The Carnaval Experience is organised by the Pimpolhos of Grande Rio, a non-profit samba school for youth. As part of our tour, we are shown a short film about the influence of Afro-Brazilian culture on the genre of music known as samba. Born in Rio more than 400 years ago, samba is now one of Brazil's most famous exports.

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We walk through cavernous rooms filled with costumes in every form of feathery, fruity, fabulousness you can imagine. Then we are plunged into the thick of it as . smiling young assistants take us backstage to be dressed up, lightning-fast, in authentic Carnival costumes of their choosing. We have no say in the matter.

A retired military man from Pennsylvania emerges dressed as a pineapple, while his wife wonders aloud what her former students would make of her Aladdin get-up. The oldest member of our tour group, a 90-year-old father of five, is resplendent in a shiny red-and-gold frock that might have come from Liberace's dress-up box.

Alex watches over the colourful scene with a satisfied grin. He has two pro tips for us. First, plan your Rio visit for the week after Carnival, when the very best samba school floats, known as the champions parade, take over the Sambadrome. It's cheaper and less crowded than the week before. Second, when in doubt, jus' let it go.

TRIP NOTES

Kristie Kellahan travelled to Brazil as a guest of Collette.

MORE

traveller.com.au/brazil

riodejaneiro.com

FLY

LATAM Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Rio de Janeiro. See latam.com

STAY

Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel & Resort in the upsclale Rio neighbourhood of Leblon is right on the beach. See marriott.com.

TOUR

Carnival Experience can organise tours, workshops and shows. See carnavalexperience.com.br

Collette's nine-day Highlights of South America tour includes three nights in Rio de Janeiro. See gocollette.com.au

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