If you’ve heard of Barranquilla, it’s likely for one of two reasons–either you’re a big Shakira and/or Sofia Vergara (Modern Family) fan and know it as her birthplace, or you know that it’s said to be the second biggest Carnaval celebration in the world, behind Rio. For me, Carnaval was one of several reasons that I extended my stay in Colombia from two weeks to five. I’d booked in at a legitimate hotel (fancy!!) weeks ago and arrived Friday night via bus from Santa Marta. After shopping for some Carnaval related swag at a huge, nearby street market I opted for a chill night with a friend that I’d met at Tayrona.
Saturday of Carnaval had the most famous parade, the Batella de Flores. The week before I’d been talking to a woman on the bus on the way to Tayrona and she asked if I had a ticket yet. This should have tipped me off, but I didn’t know the word for parade yet and assumed that she had meant night festivities. While you could find a place on the street and peek over shoulders/tents, the majority of people (locals and tourists alike) watched the parade from palcos. These were basically shaded, raised bleachers that provided for optimal viewing (and dancing). They had both palcos and mini palcos lining the streets of the entire parade route. Within the palcos, venders sold food, beverages, and hats/sunglasses.
To gain entry to the parade area (and palcos) you needed a ticket. Thankfully I was hanging with a friend that I’d met at Cocuy that was fluent in Spanish, and we successfully scalped a ticket from some guys on the street. Mike and I got a late start and were entering our mini palco when the parade was just starting (you buy a ticket for a specific palco or mini palco, and they are all numbered and seem like independently operated establishments). The operator of the palco informed us that we’d bought fake tickets and demonstrated their falsity by trying (unsuccessfully) to burn them with a lighter. His real one, he demonstrated, would burn. How this constitutes a real ticket I still don’t understand, but everything was all good as we negotiated an extra 20mil pesos per head and were shuttled into the palco as the paraders started passing by. We still paid less than face value for the tickets and were in!
I must admit that while most of the costumes and floats were cool, I expected much more dancing out of the performers. Some of the costumes were also blatantly racist, which was a bit weird and unsettling to see. Even if the performers didn’t do much dancing, our fellow parade watchers in our mini palco did. As each float passed, it blasted music and everyone in the palco stood up and danced and sang along. Not a bad party for 2 in the afternoon. 🙂
After the parade ended we rested until dinner time and headed out for some traditional cuisine with a mish mash of travelers and Colombians that Mike had met along the way. This place was the largest venue I’d ever seen for a restaurant. It easily sat 500. It was also pretty empty, but had a live band playing at unnecessarily loud volumes and a small crowd of people dancing and enjoying the music. From here, our motley crue of 7 made our way to a street party in what our local friend described as a “working class neighborhood”.
For the celebration, all of the bars set up their speaker systems outside and competed for the loudest music on the street. They also sold beer, but most groups of people had their own bottle of aguardiente to share. According to tradition, everyone sprayed each other with canned foam and covered each with flour. The streets were packed with people and obviously everyone was dancing their hearts out.
The people couldn’t have been more amazing. We danced, sang (well, they sang), and took countless selfees with them until 4 in the morning. We were the only tourists I saw there, and the locals were wildly entertained by our gringo dancing moves (or lack thereof). I am proud to say that I got three compliments for being a good dancer, one of them from a girl so I like to think it was for real :). It was definitely one of the best nights of the trip and one I’ll remember for years to come.
Carnaval would continue until Tuesday, but I could only stick around for the parade on Sunday before heading off to Cartagena for the week.