Sometimes we travel to escape the world. Sometimes we travel to put ourselves bang in the centre of it. This week, all eyes were on Rio de Janeiro, as the Brazilian city threw another spectacular bash, a week-long, citywide barrage of balls, samba parades and street parties.
The carnival itself dates back to 1723, but since 1924, proceedings have been kicked off by the Saturday night ball at the Copacabana Palace. I pride myself on being a party girl, and have danced my way through the muddy fields of Glastonbury, sneaked into a secretive Viking fire festival in Shetland, been drenched in a citywide street fight as part of the Laos New Year festivities in Luang Prabang, and snorted glitter at San Francisco Pride.
But it’s safe to say I never expected to find myself at the ball at the Belmond Copacabana Palace, rubbing sequinned shoulders (God, the friction) with Brazilian fashion designers and their muses, South American diplomats, international celebrities – Gerard Butler, Sir Ian McKellen and Christian Louboutin are recent revellers – as well as Brazil’s high society.
Tickets to the ball start at £420 and reach £1,200 for serviced tables in the Golden Room or a VIP box. During carnival, hotel prices in Rio soar, as some two million revellers take to the streets every day. So the city of Rio itself already feels like a VIP area, an exclusive haven for the most committed partygoers on the planet. Within Rio, the Belmond Copacabana Palace is easily the most glamorous spot in town, the ball the hottest ticket.
So when I found myself swigging free-poured Chivas Regal in my beloved new Rixo dress and chatting to the charming Belmond staff and hotshot Brazilian entrepreneurs in the velvet-roped VIP area at the ball – essentially a VIP area within a VIP area within a VIP area – it hit me that I could finally feel like I’d made it. If only my teenage self could see me now, I thought. I would have stopped panicking about my spots and fickle friends and chilled the hell out about life.
To our Instagram-addled and CGI-benumbed eyes, it’s not easy for a spectacle to be, well, spectacular. But the ball, and the carnival beyond these marble walls, truly delivers on pinch-me moments and wide-eyed, childlike glee. Every ball attendee walks the red carpet, and this year, melodramatic thunderstorms only added to the heroic spirit of the world’s most diligent pleasure-seekers. Glamour is a competitive sport in Brazil, and people of all ages have spent weeks, and thousands of real, to ensure that they get papped as they walk past the crowds of photographers and onlookers. Exclusive and expensive as the event is, the atmosphere is welcoming and celebratory rather than ostentatious and snooty.
Moving between the extravagant banquet – surreal towers of lobster tails and piles of glistening oysters – to the samba-ing masses in the ballroom, partygoers smile and compliment each other on their costumes. Women chat in the lavatories, commiserating about the blisters on their stiletto-ravaged feet and offering each other lip balm. Frankly, I’ve been to house parties in Shoreditch that were infinitely more snobby and pretentious. And Freddie Mercury never performed on the roof of those flats.
And pleasure is a birthright in Rio, a gloriously democratic pleasure, with street parties (aptly called blocos) beyond the ball open to anyone with a drink and their dancing shoes on. Sometimes travellers are warned not to visit cities during major events, because of crowds and crime and high hotel prices. But London never looked better than during the 2012 Olympics. Football fans visiting Russia during the World Cup found immediate friends in every pub.
Celebration is an art form, and parades, sports events and street parties exist to break down barriers, to act as a social leveller, to raise our spirits and remind ourselves what is good about the lives we live. I might not have visited a single museum in Rio, but after that giddy weekend, I’m completely charmed by the Brazilian commitment to having a good time and am desperate to return. If you really want to get to the heart of a city, go dancing with it.
To read more articles by Anna Hart, see telegraph.co.uk/travel/team/anna-hart