Moving further East along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, our next stop is Barranquilla, one of the most important port cities in the Caribbean and home of Shakira. First things first: it is not a beautiful city. It is a typical port city, and not really interesting for tourists as such – except for carnival! For one week in February (or March, depending on the dates) the city becomes packed and goes all crazy. I have read in various sources that this is apparently the second biggest carnival in the world, after the one in Rio. True or not, it is quite a sight!
I have to confess that I don’t like carnivals or carnival parades, as they are “forced-funny” in Germany (people are “fun” for a week, then miserable for the rest of the year – I am the other way around haha). But I loved going to the carnival in Barranquilla. There are various parades over 4 or 5 days, which you can watch. Saturday is the so called battle of flowers (la batalla de flores) which I would love to see next time I go, but it is also said to be the busiest day. So I decided to go to the so called Traditional Parade on Sunday. The traditional parade involves traditional music and folkloric dance groups, playing cumbia and performing, for example, the candle dance and the danza de carabate, a danced story on how death got defeated. There are also elaborate costumes, dressing up as famous people, and ladies balancing aguardiente (a local spirit) bottles on their heads (and taking the occasional shot), and the carnival queen comes along as well. Check out the programme on the official website.
Logistics! You could stay in Barranquilla, which is incredible expensive during that week. Beware of dodgy hostels that just open for that week (i.e. one damp room with a pile of mattresses in it). I stayed further East along the coast in Santa Marta/ Taganga, and took an organised day trip with José of TayroTaganga to Barranquilla (find TayroTaganga next to the taxi stand on the main road in Taganga or book at your hostel’s front desk). Even though you could get a public bus from Santa Marta to Barranquilla, for me the organised trip was the best option as I was travelling alone. And really, you want to spend carnival with a group of people, it is much more fun.
So we took off in the early morning to drive the 2.5 hours to Barranquilla, an eclectic mix of Argentinians, Chileans, Germans, Swiss and a young couple from Taganga. It is carnival, so the boozing started at around 9 am in our bus already. Drinks were included in the price of the trip (as were some carnival accessories for everybody), so the cuba libres and whiskey kept flowing. I don’t need to tell you that we arrived in a good mood. We parked our bus near the street where the parade would end and made our way down along the pavement along the route of the parade. On the pavements there are grandstands which you can sit on to watch the parade (entrance to those costs around 4 Euros/5 Pounds) and there are also pavilions with plastic chairs that you can rent for the day to watch the parade (costs about 2 Euros/1.5 Pounds). The majority of our group went for front row seats at a pavilion as we were right on the street and the benches on the grandstands looked uncomfortable. We arrived a few hours early to secure good seats, so then killed time by getting food (there are a lot of food stalls along the road and people come around selling snacks).
We were sitting towards the end of the parade route. I would recommend to get a seat more towards the middle of the parade, as the dancer get tired (the parade took about 3 to 4 hours!) and the first dancers won’t arrive to the end bit of the road until about 3 o’clock. Furthermore, wear some clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty as it is tradition to spray foam at each other or black-faced people (not offensive, just tradition) give you a hug. Also have a little spare change for some of the performers, especially if you’re white like I am. There are not that many foreign tourists there, so the kids will come straight to you to perform a little dance for you (and you give them 2,000 or 3,000 COP – less than 1 Euro).
Another word of warning: toilets… There aren’t any, really. The “toilet” available in the section we stayed at was a bucket over which a chair with no seat had been placed, then an old three-fold door was wrapped around it to give you some privacy. The other toilets along the road did not look any better. We took a wee before getting on the road of the parade in a private home, where they would cover you 2,000 COP to use their bathroom. Fair enough. There are no portaloos in most of the sections along the parade route (so ladies, stay away from beer). Just be prepared for this.
We had a great day out, enjoying the parade, chatting to Colombians sitting next to us, taking pictures, dancing, waving, laughing. After the parade we grabbed some pizza in town (Me: “Just veggies, no cheese!” Pizza man: “You crazy girl…”) and headed to one of the most popular bars (Moy’s Bar), where we danced some more on the street, as the party had blocked the whole intersection already. Way to go, Colombia! We arrived back to Taganga at around midnight, tired, but with great memories.