Cold air blasted from all directions, as if on cue, just moments after we settled into our seats. I appraised my friend Alex’s attire and concluded that he would undoubtedly freeze in the thirteen air-conditioned hours we’d spend on that bus. I offered him a consolatory pat on the shoulder, then set about swaddling myself like a fussy infant in my down sleeping bag. He really should have known better; Colombian buses are all the same.
As we pulled out of Medellín’s Terminal del Norte pointed in the direction of coastal Barranquilla, we could never have imagined the beautiful chaos that awaited us at our destination. I knew very little of Carnaval de Barranquilla the day I abruptly decided I just HAD to attend; what I DID know was that it was the second-largest Carnival celebration in the world, which my mind instantly translated to PARTY.
My presumption was not wrong–Carnival really is a massive city-wide, non-stop party. Barranquilla, a drab, polluted city by anyone’s standards, transforms for this multi-day festival into a vibrant and welcoming tourism destination that showcases the benevolent spirit of the Colombian people.
By now you’ve seen some of my favorite photos from the event, and today this non-planner (that’s me, guys) wants to offer up her hard-won knowledge to anyone hoping to attend next year. Without further ado, I give you…
The Ten Commandments of Carnaval de Barranquilla
1. Thou shall acquire proper accommodation many a fortnight prior the festival lest thou wish to sleep on a bed of hay (or, you know, the street).
Do as I say, friends, and not as I do. My decision to attend Carnival was made rather hastily, meaning I booked my accommodation just one measly fortnight ahead of time and paid an outrageous price for a bed in a six-person dorm. There’s no way of knowing whether I could have secured a lower priced had I booked earlier, but those who waited even longer found themselves with zero hostel options to choose from at all. One of my friends showed up in Barranquilla with nothing arranged and was able to find a local willing to rent him a bed for the weekend, but I wouldn’t recommend taking your chances like he did.
A better option might be to go with a group of friends and share a hotel room. My friends in hotels spent considerably less per person than I did–around $50 per night–while I forked out an outrageous $82 per night for my dorm bed (and then cried in the shower). Rentals on Airbnb might be cheaper as well, but I personally didn’t research that option. And just to clarify something here, despite the extortionate prices, I actually LOVED my hostel, Mamy Dorme. It was loaded with cool people, located just a short walk from the main parade route, and the staff was incredibly sweet and helpful. I’d happily recommend it if you’re looking to go the hostel route during Carnival.
Of course, the cheapest way to stay in Barranquilla for Carnival is to Couchsurf! Just make your arrangements well in advance, because these spots fill up the fastest of all.
2. Thou shall don proper sun protection lest thou wish to be smitten by the mighty Caribbean sun.
I beg of you, do not underestimate the power of the sun in Barranquilla. You may not be able to see the Caribbean from the middle of the dusty, stuffy city center, but trust me, it’s there. And a Caribbean sun knows no mercy. Factor fifty, friends. Factor fifty.
3. Thou shall remain well hydrated, lest thou wish to slowly bake thine internal organs.
It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of things and choose Águila (the local beer) after Águila to quench your thirst, but this would be a mistake. You’ll sweat out just about everything you’ve got in a matter of hours when you’re walking, dancing, and otherwise cavorting through the streets under the beating afternoon sun. Proper hydration iskey, and should not be overlooked.
4. Thou shall procure proper transportation when traveling great distances at night.
If you find yourself needing to get from one end of the city to the other (and it’s a big city!) I strongly suggest taking a taxi at night, especially if you’re alone. I never felt particularly unsafe in Barranquilla, but then again, I never walked anywhere alone at night, either.
5. Thou dost not give away all thy pesos to beggars, lest thou wish to go hungry when the empanada craving strikes.
More than anywhere else I’ve been in Colombia, I often felt like a walking ATM in Barranquilla. I lost track of how many times we were approached by beggars (often cleverly disguised as performers who demanded pesos in exchange for creeping us the f*ck out), some so brazen that they’d simply block our path and startle us with repeated shouts of “MONNAAAAYYY!” until we could calculate a path around them. “No, gracias,” often proved too polite to deter such aggressive begging; the best course of action is often just to walk away.
6. Thou shalt not carry on thy person the entirety of thy wealth, lest thou wish to be robbed of it.
While the probability of being accosted in the streets is not high, especially if you stay with a group, it remains a possibility. It’s a good idea to leave most of your cash and valuables at home and only bring with you the money you think you’ll need. If you take your expensive camera gear out with you during the day, try to swing by your room to lock it up before heading back out for the evening.
7. Thou shall garb thyself in as much neon, glitter, flowers, beads, and fake mustaches as humanly possible lest thou wish to appear a pedestrian nincompoop.
Dressing up like a fruitcake is one of the best parts of Carnival. Costumes and accessories are dirt cheap at the many pop-up markets around town, so there’s really no excuse not to. Also, I just really wanted to say nincompoop.
8. Thou shall attend the parades, but thou shalt not forsake street parties.
Parades take place every day of Carnival; the main event of the day can usually be found on Via 40. While these parades are good fun, you do have to pay to attend–that is, if you want to see anything. Cheap street-level seats cost just 5000 pesos (less than $2.50) but if you don’t arrive early you’ll be several rows back, likely with a great view of some guy’s bald spot and little else. Bleacher seats give you a much better view of the parade but cost considerably more. The day we went to Via 40, we arrived late and were able to haggle down the price of our tickets to 20,000 pesos per person (around $10), but depending what section you’re in, they can cost as much as 50,000 (~$25).
On the other hand, street parties take place all across the city and are absolutely free! Seemingly every home and business sets up their own massive sound system and blares music at all hours of the day and night. Everyone smiles, everyone dances, and everyone is welcome. These parties were the highlight of my weekend.
9. Thou shall wet thy whistle with the local potation of Aguardiente, and thou shall distribute it freely among friends and strangers alike.
Nothing wins friends faster than drinking (and sharing) the national drink of Colombia, Aguardiente. Though sometimes referred to as fire water (agua = water; ardiente = fiery/burning), you needn’t be scared! At a manageable 29% alcohol by volume, it doesn’t really burn like the name might suggest. And Colombians don’t pour massive shots like we Americans and other foreigners are used to; half shots are the way to go. A chaser of water is allowed…abstaining, however, is not.
10. Thou shall partake of such tomfoolery as throwing corn flour in the faces of unsuspecting strangers, becoming entrenched in foam wars with armies of small children, and letting cross-dressing men slap thy face with the 9-inch penis of the baby doll he’s carrying before he steals thy beer.
This might be the most important commandment of all. Get in there! Get messy! Make a fool of yourself! And let it slide when that crossdresser with the well-endowed baby doll steals your beer. The memories you make will last a lifetime, and I guarantee you’ll come home with a few good stories to tell.
Have you been to Carnival in Barranquilla? What other advice would you add?