In this article:
- Carnaval de Barranquilla is a massive annual carnaval with a distinctly Colombian flair.
- Over the course of four days, you’ll see elaborate costumes and have plenty of opportunities to hone your salsa dancing skills.
- With plenty of food stalls and streets flowing with agaurdiente, the festival is a fun and delicious way to experience a slice of Colombian tradition.
I had put in my two-week notice at my previous job in Panama and decided that the next stop was to see what the beautiful nation of Colombia had to offer. I’d heard from many backpackers that Colombia, once known as Escobar’s Cocaine Kingdom, had now become one of the most sought-after destinations in the world for those traveling on a budget.
No longer overrun with narcotraficantes, most of the country was now accessible to gringos like me. Colombia is known for its amazing natural areas, low cost of living, welcoming ambiance, and sprawling cities.
At any time of the year, you can find millions of tourists flocking to cities like Cartagena, Cali, and Medellin.
However, I wasn’t due to arrive in Colombia at just any time of the year. I would be arriving near the end of March, a time when nearly two million people make their way over to the off-the-beaten-track city of Barranquilla for a little festival called Carnaval de Barranquilla.
When most people think of Carnaval, they think of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. However, this is a festival that occurs all throughout the globe and (lucky me) Colombia’s Carnaval de Barranquilla is the second largest festival in the world for this holiday.
This is a fact that I was completely unaware of until a backpacking acquaintance of mine informed me that, if my girlfriend and I were going to be in Colombia at this time, it was absolutely imperative that we make our way to Barranquilla between March 26th and 29th (Carnaval is usually held a month earlier but was delayed due to COVID-19).
So, we booked a flight to Cartagena (which is roughly three hours away from Barranquilla by bus) and booked a hotel room in the coastal Colombian city, pretty much entirely unaware of what to expect from this fabled festival.
Here are the facts. As I mentioned, Carnaval de Barranquilla attracts about two million people every single year. The festival features somewhere to the tune of 25,000 performers over four days. During this time, the city’s hotels reach about 98% occupancy (book your accommodations early, people).
There are a whole lot of feathers, painted faces, parades, street food, and people selling pretty much anything you can imagine at “promotion prices.” Unlike its counterpart in Rio, Carnaval de Barranquilla features a uniquely Colombian and uniquely Caribbean flair that’s representative of the people that live in the region.
But, knowing all of these facts doesn’t begin to give you an idea of what Carnaval de Barranquilla is really like. To understand that, you need to experience it for yourself. And, oh boy, did we experience it.
It was a frantic madhouse that bordered on sensory overload. And it was an absolute blast. Here are some things you should know if you plan on going next year.
Barranquilla Is Not a Shining Utopia
Far from it. While some Colombian cities are known for their mountain vistas, colorful art-covered neighborhoods, and pristine beaches, Barranquilla is none of those things.
In fact, when we first arrived at our hotel in Barranquilla we were astonished by the amount of trash that was being windswept across the streets. On top of that, the city’s buildings were largely gray, decaying, and all-around ugly.
Things didn’t get better when we tried to enter the first event of the ceremonies, the Coronacion de Los Reyes del Carnaval (the Coronation of the King and Queen of Carnaval). We were told by every police officer present that we should be extremely careful of our handbags because pickpocketing was about as common at Carnaval as facepaint was.
Indeed, over the course of the four days to follow we would be told countless stories of people having their phones stolen right out of their pockets and we even witnessed a fight that ensued after a pickpocket was caught in the act.
While things certainly took a more optimistic turn once the festivities were in full swing, the trash, ugly buildings, and thievery continued all throughout.
That Noodle-Nosed, Elephant-Eared Dude Is Marimonda
When you arrive for the Carnaval de Barranquilla, one of the first things that you’ll notice is a certain cartoon character popping up everywhere. He’s got a long, noodle-like nose and big, floppy, elephant-like ears and his name is Marimonda.
The character was originally created by the enslaved and working-class residents of Colombia to mock their elitist oppressors during the 19th century.
Some sort of half-monkey, half-elephant, multicolored hybrid, Marimonda is absolutely hilarious and became a particular point of fixation for me over the course of the festival. He’s featured on hats, shirts, banners, and beer bottles everywhere you turn. And rightfully so. Long live Marimonda.
The Blackface Costumes Are a Tribute to Slave Revolts
Another thing that will immediately strike any foreigner in attendance at Carnaval de Barranquilla is the widespread use of blackface. People walk around the streets and in the parades with their bodies covered entirely in black paint and their lips covered in bright red paint.
They hold large sticks and will often point them toward you in menacing ways if you approach after running up to you on the street. Sound unbelievably racist? Yeah, I thought so, too.
While you’d think that such costumes would immediately cause outrage, the Colombian people don’t seem to have any problem with it. Apparently, these costumes are part of a ritual dance called “Son de Negro” meant to honor the enslaved Africans in Columbia who revolted against their Spanish oppressors.
The dance begins with a captain waving a red flag that’s meant to symbolize freedom from their oppressors in the New World.
So, while these costumes may elicit a negative visceral response from those familiar with the hateful tradition of blackface in the United States, it doesn’t share those same hateful roots. Are they still racist? Possibly. Afro-Colombians are divided on the issue, with some saying that it’s disrespectful and demeaning, while others say that it celebrates Afro-Colombian history.
You Don’t Need to Buy Tickets in Advance
In the days leading up to Carnaval, my girlfriend and I were torn as to whether or not we should buy the multi-day pass to the parades and other festivities. Certain articles online said that they were a must-have while others claimed that you don’t need them.
After attending Carnaval de Barranquilla 2022, I can definitively say that you do not need to purchase those tickets. In fact, I’m not even sure what those tickets get you aside from a seat at a slightly higher elevation at the parades.
All of the parades of Carnaval de Barranquilla were on the same street. When you purchase one of the tickets, you get access to bleacher stands that place you slightly higher than the rest of the people at the festival.
However, for around $1.50 (or around 5,000 Colombian pesos), you can get your very own chair right up against the fence and be even closer to the action than 90% of those suckers sitting in the bleachers.
The tickets also get you through the gates into the massive, all-night party (Baila La Calle) that takes place for three nights. However, we were able to bribe our way into that party for very cheap one night, and one night was more than enough in that suffocating, sweaty sardine can.
There are plenty of other parties around Carnaval with no entry fees.
Foam and Aguardiente
On top of all the other things that Carnaval is, it’s essentially just an excuse to have a ton of fun. People are running through the streets, throwing corn flour at each other, spraying foam on each other, dancing salsa, and drinking the Colombian national beverage: aguardiente.
Even if you don’t like to get drunk (like pretty much everyone at Carnaval will be), try a sip of aguardiente and see what the hype is all about. When in Rome, right?
Give salsa dancing a try. Talk to as many locals as you can. Try every new variety of street food that you see. Admire every costume that passes by in the parades.
If you’re not originally from Colombia, it may be your only opportunity to witness Carnaval de Barranquilla in your entire life. So, let loose and make the most of it! It’s sure to be an experience you’ll never forget.