Hands down the Carnival of Barranquilla is the biggest folkloric tradition and best party in Colombia with more than 2 million people participating every year.
Held the weekend before Ash Wednesday – 40 days before Easter, if you’re anywhere near the Caribbean coast of Colombia at that time, you really should venture to Barranquilla and party with the locals.
This is the second biggest Carnival in the world after Rio de Janiero.
Over 50 countries celebrate Carnival. But nobody does it like Barranquilla. A joyous festival, the Carnival of Barranquilla is a four day holiday for the locals. In 2003, it was named one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
A week before Carnival things start heating up. Officially the party runs from Saturday to Tuesday – a period when the parties never end. There’s dancing, drinking, eating and colorful costume parades with live music, floats, fire breathers and famous Colombian politicians and stars.
The festivities date back to 1888. The Carnival first started as a free day for slaves who would celebrate with music, dance, food and drink. Over time African/indigenous ceremonies mingled with the church’s Christian observances. Today the Carnival has morphed into a national spectacle. It’s a melting pot of cultures: European, African and indigenous all blending together. They dance to heavy drum beats of Colombia’s musical genres: cumbia, Spanish paloteo and African congo. And by wearing the carefully crafted, colorful costumes the people seem to transfigure and explode.
The Carnival slogan is: “Quien lo vive es quien lo goza“. ‘ Those who live it, enjoy it.’ The Carnival of 2021 will be held Feb. 13-16.
The Covid 19 situation permitting, of course. But it’s hard to imagine even a plague putting a damper on the force of nature that is Barranquilla’s Carnival.
The two main parades are on Saturday and Sunday.
On Saturday it’s ‘The Battle of the Flowers’ or La Batalla de Flores which winds down street – Via 40. This is an annual tradition and has been kicking off the festivities every year since 1903. It starts at 1 p.m. and lasts at least six hours. The parade, headed by the Carnival’s newly crowned Queen, is jam packed with floats, blasting music, fire breathers, costumed folkloric dancers and hundreds of thousands of revelers.
On Sunday it’s the Gran Parada de Tradicion y Folclore – ‘The Great Parade of Tradition and Folklore’ starts at 1 p.m. again on Via 40. This parade has no floats but features over 300 dancing groups and plenty of music.
On Monday its the Gran Parada de Comparsas ‘The Great Parade of Performing Groups’. This fringe parade features slightly more modern music and dance: salsa, samba, cumbia, reggaeton and electronic music.
The best way to see the Carnival is get tickets to the bleachers called palcos. They can be purchased through the ticket office site – tuboleta.com. But at 360,000 COP ($100) a ticket, they are not cheap. Pricing may seem high for Colombia but consider the experience of Barranquilla’s Carnival comes in at just a fraction of the cost when compared what it would cost to see the carnivals in Rio, New Orleans or Venice.
The palcos or bleacher seats have no seating reservations. It’s first come first serve. Those in the know take a seat near the top in the back benches where there is more shade during the day. Afternoons in Barranquilla are hot and muggy. Remember to pack sun screen and a hat.
A cheaper way to see the parade is to walk down along on the sides of Via 40’s parade route. The wide sidewalks and side streets along the parade route are open to the public. There are tents lining both sides of Via 40. Behind the tents there are countless vendors selling beer, drinks and food.
To get closer to the parade on the street, get a seat under a tent. For 20,000 COP ($8) you get a plastic chair and a somewhat better chance of jousting for a view of the parade. Again seating is first come, first served. To get a good street view you’ll have to stake out a spot early in the day. And if you come late you will be sitting in the back of the tent where it’s almost impossible to see the parade. Pretty much forget taking photos of the parade. But the back tent and side street experience is so unique; watching the people party, vibrate, let loose. This is the real Carnival.
In the afternoon, as the sun goes down behind the buildings, they pull the roofs off the street tents. The breeze picks up. It get cooler and you can see better.
In Barranquilla it’s an act of joy to throw flour, confetti and spray foam on each other. You will get doused with flour and foam. If you’re smart you’ll bring hand wipes, a towel and change of shirt.
When the sun goes down there are street parties all over the city. Most the merriment goes down on Calle 70 and Calle 84. Feel free to walk around. The revelers are friendly and hospitable. They will be dancing, the music will be pumping and drinks flowing freely.
Make room reservations early
Accomodations are the hardest thing to come by during the four days of Carnival in Barranquilla. Don’t wait to reserve a room as the city is near full occupancy.
I have tried to reserve a modestly priced rooms six months before Carnival only to have them cancelled a few weeks before the event. Reasons given: they were over-booked, had to squeeze more people in the room, had quoted me a price forgetting it was carnival weekend and their pricing doubled or tripled.
The city is full of mid-range hotels, hospedajes, hostels and Airbnb options. Enterprising locals rent out rooms in their homes during the holiday. But reservations can be tricky.
An upmarket area with many hotels is Calle 72 in the north part of the city near the Buena Vista shopping mall. Here one will easily be able to book the higher priced hotel rooms. As a last minute resort many of them will be vacant before and during Carnival.
If you just want to see the formal festivities and could care less about partying the night away under street the street lights? Then save a lot money staying at one of two neighboring cities: Cartagena to the south or Santa Marta to the north.
Cartagena is (just 63 miles (102 km.) from Barranquilla. Santa Marta is even closer – 43 miles (70 km.). From Santa Marta it’s just a two hour bus ride to Barranquilla.
Get to the station early in the morning as the buses fill up with people from Santa Marta on their way to Carnival. The last returning buses leave around 8 p.m.
When the music’s over…
Barranquilla returns to being a gritty, port town. A place most Colombians don’t visit on their vacations. But the locals are proud of their city’s intense personality which is always on display and overflows during Carnival.
Founded as a Caribbean trading port in 1533, Barranquilla is the largest port city on Colombia’s north Caribbean coast; the fourth largest city in the country. One could come a day or two before or after Carnival to check out the city. There are plenty of things to see: museums, castles, cathedrals, parks, town squares and a zoo. Go shopping, visit the sights and eat some seafood.
Barranquilla also has some nice beaches. Playas de Salgar, 15 minutes from the city, has bathing establishments or balnearios that rent umbrellas, lounge chairs and sell food and drinks. Pradomar is a private and relaxing beach. Admission is 10,000 COP ($3). Or take an open air train from Los Flores neighborhood to the coast where the mighty Magdalena River plows into the Caribbean sea.
Then again, Cartagena and Santa Marta are just a short bus ride away.