It was difficult to know what to expect of Barranquilla carnival, given that the only experience we previously had of carnival season had been in Rio de Janeiro – a hard act to follow. However, even though Rio and Barranquilla are home to the two largest carnival celebrations in the world, they are difficult to compare. During Carnival in Brazil, the entire country comes to a halt. Most people take the week off work, thanks to the double bank holiday, and it is celebrated in cities over the entire country. Barranquilla carnival, in comparison, is smaller-scale in terms of the fact that it is only really celebrated on the Colombian Caribbean coast, and it unfortunately doesn’t warrant any festivos. So, we all decided to go in with no expectations and make the most of every minute.
On Friday evening we set off on our bus journey to Barranquilla from Cartagena. The salsa and vallenato music playing all the way there got us in the mood and, after a quick stop for an arepa de huevo, we arrived earlier than expected. Getting off the bus, we were met by music blasting out of speakers and colourful carnival decorations everywhere. The excitement in the air was palpable. That evening, we had our first experience of flour being thrown at us. On any normal day, leaving a bar with a face full of flour (which gets into your hair, ears and eyes) thanks to the new ‘friends’ you’ve just made whilst you’ve been sat harmlessly drinking your Club Colombia, would seem strange. However, at Barranquilla carnival, it is tradition to throw corn flour and spray foam over your fellow party-goers.
On Saturday, we headed into town early decked out in our hula skirts, flower garlands and faces covered in glitter – four fairly clueless gringos wanting to join in the fun. The carnival atmosphere in the streets was really special. Families were making the most of the opportunity to gather together and have their own private parties outside their houses and those going to the parade hurried down to the Vía 40 in their fancy-dress costumes, all accompanied by blaring reggaetón music and the smell of barbecuing meat. The Batalla de las Flores is the biggest of the four carnival days. In the streets, people are ambushed by ticket sellers shouting “palco, palco, palco”, trying to flog last-minute tickets. In the stands it is hot and sweaty but so much fun. A live band plays music and the first members of the procession approach from a distance.
As Colombia’s largest folkloric display, the parade celebrates all aspects of Colombian culture, from beauty queens, to campesinos, marimondas (the symbol of Barranquilla carnival), Afro-Colombians, beautiful young dancers who dance along behind their parents lapping up the attention from the crowd: even the police take part in the parade. The different styles of dance represented in Barranquilla carnival tell various stories about the culture of the city. The Cumbia, which represents romance, the Garabato, representing the mystical battle between life and death, and the Congo, to represent the historic memory of slavery and connection to Africa. The festivities don’t stop after the parades have finished, but continue on late into the night. Most carnival goers congregate on the streets to eat and then carry on dancing and drinking at bars, on street corners or in open spaces. From the huge speakers on almost every street corner, all sorts of music be heard: from salsa, to vallenato, cumbia, merengue, reggaetón and champeta, to name a few.
As the Sunday morning Carnival-goers make their way to the parades once again, this time slightly worse for wear, the atmosphere is still lively. Today, tickets are much cheaper, selling for less than half the price of Saturday’s. However, spirits are still high and it is a better day for families to go and see the parades. They are all relatively similar in nature, but at the heart of each, the slogan “quién lo vive, es quién lo goza” most definitely applies. Unfortunately, we had to make our way back home on Sunday evening, but the celebrations continue into Monday and Tuesday. Overall, a very different experience to Rio carnival. Although smaller scale, it feels more intimate and perhaps more rustic, giving it its own special charm and making it unique. A fantastic weekend.