Neighboring the Magdalena River on the Northern Colombian coast is Barranquilla, a city referred to as the Golden Port of Colombia. Natives are known for their festive spirits, and the best representation of that is the city’s most popular event, the Barranquilla Carnival. Held every year for four days around February-March, the carnival is voted the second largest carnival in the world.
Each year, hundreds of amusing characters, imitators, fluorescent dancers, and live artists come together and fill the streets of Barranquilla to exude contentment, culture, and art. Thousands of people, both locals and all over the world gather to watch. As the saying goes, “Quien lo vive es quien lo goza”, meaning “One who lives it is who enjoys it.” If you ever feel intrigued enough to visit Colombia’s Northern Coast to attend the carnival, here is some information in advance, along with a few tips you may find useful.
One of the first things you’ll notice once you arrive to Barranquilla are the carnival decorations everywhere, even at the airport! Multiple pre-carnival events are hosted during the week prior to the carnival, such as the “Guacherna”, the queen’s coronation, and a “mini carnival” for kids. Vendors stock up on extravagant handicrafts and display them at dedicated handicraft plazas. All throughout the city, they sell carnival themed clothing attire, accessories, kitchen supplies, and much more. Although wearing pretty much anything to the carnival is acceptable, checking these plazas out can be a convenient form of finding appropriate attire and spotting cute souvenirs.
A common attire option for families is wearing matching shirts. Seen as a sign of unity, this tactic will help prevent family members from losing sight of each other. Whether it’s from the handicraft plazas or your closet, be sure to keep the city’s intense heat in mind. A light, comfortable outfit is advisable.
Typically, the carnival begins at noon. During the morning time, the streets of Barranquilla are filled with immovable traffic, people walking the streets in wild costumes and vendors. Most convenience and grocery stores’ lines are out the door, crowded with people grabbing last minute items for the carnival. Without a doubt, the most frequently purchased product on that morning is liquor. However, families also stock up on snacks and fun supplies, such as foam and baby powder to throw on each other at the carnival. To avoid the chaos in the morning and ensure an on-time arrival, we recommend buying your supplies ahead of time.
Upon arriving, multiple neon tapes and poles surround the blocks adjoining the carnival site, blocking the cars. Most people arrive in a taxi to avoid the stress of having to find parking, not to mention the traffic!
Once you’re allowed into the barricaded streets, a swarm of vendors selling everything from snacks and drinks, to souvenirs and even phone minutes will call for your attention.
From here, you begin to hear the carnival’s ground-shakingly loud music and free-spirited crowd singing along. The smell of meat on the grill and fried foods is potent, and upon seeing the tremendous amount of Aguila beer cans surrounding you, it’s evident that in this city, the party starts early. Technically, anyone interested in getting a distanced view is able to from this part of the street. However, in order to get a safer and clearer view, tickets for bleacher seating sections called “palcos” are available for purchase. These seating sections will ensure a more interactive and pleasurable experience. Some palcos even offer complementary shirts, hats, bags to wear at the carnival and take as a souvenir.
Palcos are located directly in front of the street where the carnival is held. Each one comes with its own porta-potty bathrooms. Due to their frequent usage, we recommend taking some toilet paper handy just in case you it’s scarce!
As you take in the vibrant, joyous atmosphere, multiple servers will be walking around the bleachers throughout the event to offer food, drinks and answer any questions you may have.
Food options consist of quick bites and comfort foods, such as shish kabobs, pizza, hot dogs, ice cream and more. Liquor options are limited; only alcoholic beverages typical in Colombia, such as Aguila beer and Aguardiente are served. You are welcome to bring any other liquor you’d like with you, just make sure you store it in a non-glass container to avoid any drawbacks with security at the entrance.
It won’t take long for the atmosphere to become friendly and celebrative! Everyone is welcomed warmly. If you find yourself being patted on the back, asked to dance, or with baby powder and foam mounted on your head, just know it’s in good faith! Crowds from one palco chanting out to the next, people next to you pumping up the party by stomping on the bleachers, and witty characters approaching you; it’s all a part of the festive spirit.
There are countless characters waving from carrousels or strolling on foot through the street. Among the most popular is the marimonda, a character inspired from an old man who had no costume prepared for the carnival and put together old clothes and rags to form the perfect costume. The queen of the carnival is also greatly awaited by the crowd. Whether she’s greeting the crowd from a carrousel or dancing away on foot, she’s distinguished by her exuberant spirit, not to mention her flamboyant outfits.
Countless group of dancers of all ages show off their moves, dancing to a variety of music genres, including Salsa, Champeta, Vallenato, Afro-Caribbean tunes. Among the most popular dances are the Cumbia dance and the Garabato. Be sure to have your camera ready!
The carnival usually ends roughly around 5 PM. With swarms of people exiting at the same time, the exiting streets become very chaotic. Because the demand for taxis is so high once the carnival is over, you may have to walk several blocks. Therefore, stay close and be sure to grab a raspao on your way out! Once you’ve left, be on the lookout for an after-party; they’re all around town! It won’t be hard to find one. Lastly, don’t party too hard. Remember, the next day of the carnival awaits you!
Despite the chaos, the carnival’s remarkable cultural expression is unforgettable.
The Barranquilla Carnival 2020 will be held between February 22 and February 25th.
For more information regarding the Barranquilla Carnivals, please click here.