If you want to party like there’s no tomorrow and get to know the fantastic culture of the Colombian Caribbean Coast, Barranquilla (Colombia) is definitely THE place.
My friend Daniela Cohen, Barranquillera to the bone and a fully committed participant to the carnival helped me out with this article about one of the most colorful and happy festivities in Latin America.
It’s actually the second most popular and important, after the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in Brazil.
The Barranquilla Carnival is in the blood
Daniela can’t even remember the first time she attended. As a child, she would wear costumes and dance in the different comparsas and parades.
It is necessary to go back a few centuries to understand the carnival’s essence, to a time when Spanish and Portuguese peoples conquered the American continent bringing their own customs and culture as well as African slaves.
Such a mix ended up fused with the Native Americans which created a rich array of new customs from the catholic rites of the Spaniards, to the Indian pre-Columbian ceremonies and the musical heritage of the African slaves.
The celebration seems to have some relation with the day of party that slave owners used to offer them during the 18th century.
During this day black slaves went out on the streets with musical instruments and distinctive costumes, dancing to tunes that came from their native Africa.
The exact date of the first celebrations is unknown but in 1903 the first Batalla de Flores occurred, giving way to more and more activities each year.
What is the Barranquilla Carnival about?
Many people consider it the most important of Colombian folklore celebrations and it’s not just about partying (though there’s a lot of that), it requires a great deal of organization as one of the most traditional and memorable of celebrations.
Thousands of people start preparing months in advance, dancing groups, costume makers and even the Queen of the Carnival dresses herself up and works very hard to make this an unforgettable affair for all her subjects.
About a month before the official start of the Carnival, there’s the “Pre-Carnival”, a set of previous events with comparsas, parties and music.
It all starts with the Lectura del Bando, a very solemn ceremony in which the new Sovereign of the Carnival (chosen by a distinguished committee) receives the keys to the city from the Mayor himself.
She then decrees for all citizens a “time of party, happiness, color and music”.
Important artists are invited as well as folklore companies of great prestige to entertain the adoring audience.
Anybody can attend for free, but if you’d like to be closer to the action you can pay a special entrance fee of about $17 to 30 dollars.
The following couple of weeks there are several events in different areas of town and they’re open to everybody.
There are the Fiestas de Comparsas (Comparsas parties), Fiesta de Danzas y Cumbias (Dances and Cumbias Party), the Viernes de la Reina de Reinas (Friday of the Queen of Queens) and the coronation of the Carnaval de los Niños (the Children’s Carnival).
There’s also the Danza del Garabato (The Garabato Dance) organized by the Country Club, and accessible to anybody who wants to watch. Streets are blocked, music starts blasting from big speakers and the parade starts with dances and choreography.
A week prior to the Carnival, the Guacherna de Esthercita Forero happens. It’s a night parade that anybody can attend (with registration) and everybody can dress up as they wish, making it a showcase of different tastes, ethnicities and ages.
The Queen’s coronation is on the Thursday before the Barranquilla Carnival begins.
Within a show with artists, dances and choreographies the new Queen accepts the crown from the former Queen and demonstrates through dancing in front of all her people, why she was chosen as the Monarch for the present year.
The event happens at the stadium and anybody can attend from $20 to $30 dollars depending on location.
The Barranquilla Carnival begins
The carnival is kicked off by the Batalla de Flores (Battle of the Flowers), a parade of carrozas (parade floats) and comparsas.
You will see the Marimondas (a costume with floppy ears and big nose with bright colored pants and vests inside out, representing the low income person making fun of the wealthy).
The Monocucos (a costume that was born out of the wealthy property owners who wanted to hit on poor girls without getting recognized in centuries past).
The Congo (with their tall hats).
The Garabato (a costume that represents life and death with the face painted white and a scythe to take the dancers).
The Cumbia and the Africans.
The Queen, with her entourage including princes and princesses, dances and entertains the audience once again, proving why she’s the Monarch of the Carnival.
People can attend this event for $25 to $100 dollars depending on location, but it includes food, drinks and a whole lot of fun!
In the evening there’s the Metro Concierto, with artists such as Juan Luis Guerra, Marc Anthony or Sergio Vargas so that you can dance the night away to the best of Latin music! Entrance fees go from $20 to $100 dollars.
On Sunday, more partying! The Gran Parada de Tradición is a parade with numerous folklore companies and popular groups, bearing the traditional costumes of the Carnival.
On Monday the Gran Parada de Comparsas showcases fantasy costumes accompanied by very elaborate choreographies.
On Sunday and Monday there’s the Festival de Orquestas (Bands Festival), a contest for many bands and singers which grand prize is the Congo de Oro.
The event starts at 3 pm and goes on until the wee hours of the next morning. Entrances go from $17 to $50 dollars.
The Carnival ends with the Entierro de Joselito (The Burial of Joselito), the main character of the Barranquilla Carnival, he symbolizes the joy and intense partying that after four days of pure ecstasy, has to die.
Thousands of people walk the streets, marching next to the Queen, in her mourning for Joselito.
Men and women dress up as “happy widows” saying goodbye to this grand event for all Barranquilleros.
Daniela is part of the “comitiva” for the Queen this year (her entourage) and she can’t believe her luck! She’s so honored!
The Barranquilla Carnival has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.
You really need to go and see it for yourself, because it doesn’t matter how much to read or hear about it, it is an experience that you need to live and you will always want to come back!
Have you even been to the Barranquilla Carnival? Tell us about your experience!
Have you attended other festivals or carnivals in the world during your cultural travel? Tell us about it in the comments field!
- To get to Barranquilla, take a direct flight. If there are no direct flights from where you are, get to Colombia’s capital Bogotá first, and then a connection flight to Barranquilla.
- Barranquilla is hot and humid. Very hot and very humid, so dress appropriately, use sun block and insect repellent.
- Be prepared for a lot of noise, tons and tons of people and being thrown flour or water on the streets.
- Here’s all the information about the Barranquilla Carnival for 2012.
- Or download the 2012 program sheet!