Cloe, studying abroad at Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia
“Mira en Barranquilla se baila así”: the Barranquilla Carnival
Nestled between Cartagena and Santa Marta, two of the more picturesque cities of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, Barranquilla is an industrial port town, and for eleven months of the year, quietly forgotten by tourists and travel guides. Unless you’re a proper devotee of the famous barranquillera Shakira, it seems that the only other reason to come to this mediocre coastal city can be summed up in a word: carnival.
And boy is it a carnival; the streets are alight, people unite, colours ignite. Champeta, the region’s folk-influenced music with African origins and 18-rated dance moves, plays on every corner. Bars spilling with people are inviting with the promise of finding a dance partner and cheap beer. Drums and singing permeate throughout the city, and everyone seems to have just put their worries aside for four days to indulge in some happiness, with a hefty side of salsa.
Barranquilla was the first town to be founded on its own terms, instead of by Spanish colonialists. For this reason, the city is a melange of history, skin colours and even languages – in some neighbourhoods palenquero is spoken, a Spanish-creole hybrid with Congolese origins. And if you are one of those Shakira fans that I mentioned earlier – you’d know about the city’s large Lebanese population, dating back to an exodus in the nineteenth and first few decades of the twentieth century. Although not the most interesting of cities, the fact that I had to bear in mind is that Barranquilla isn’t made for tourists. It doesn’t have carefully curated museums with bilingual plaques, but it does have its own charm, some wild beaches within half an hour’s drive and better Italian and Arab food than you could find in Bogota.
In a neighbourhood which seemed to belong more to the locals, the DJs must have spotted the gringos as ‘You’re the One That I Want’ was awkwardly wedged between two salsa classics. As expected, we burst into an appalling combination of lip-synching and gyrating to mock rock n’roll moves whilst the Colombians looked on in bewilderment, clearly wondering why this group of youngsters preferred a tacky 1970s musical soundtrack to quality salsa.
There are four main parades, one for each day of the carnival, starting with the Battle of the Flowers and closing with the death parade, and although the costumes are similar, each float has a different theme and significance. There’s a Carnival Queen and a Carnaval Gay, showing how open to homosexuality the majority of people are in this largely Catholic country. During the day, people pay to watch the parade from stands, and, strangely evocative of freshers, have foam fights. In the evenings, the foam turns to flour, which Colombian strangers surreptitiously pelt in your face for no particular reason. All around is merchandise and people dressed as the famous Marimonda, a phallic-nosed folklore character which was traditionally made by barranquilleros who were strapped for cash and made masks from recycling fabric. Another strange and shocking popular costume is young boys, painted black, making facial convulsions. On the surface this seems horribly racist and reminiscent of the Golliwog that everyone-thought-was-acceptable-at-the-time-but-clearly-isn’t – yet the Son del Negro is a traditional way of black slaves making jokes at the expense of the Spanish colonialists and an intangible part of the carnival tradition.
As the locals will tell you, the wild and colourful carnival in Barranquilla is second only to its illustrious Brazilian namesake, and the rich cultural heritage that it showcases is certainly worth a visit. Shrove Tuesday marks the end of the carnival, and I can tell you now – the Colombian love for rumba, the intense heat and the vivacious atmosphere make these four days better than any pancake I’ve ever had.