The Ten Commandments of Carnaval de Barranquilla
Colombia, Festivals, Travel Tips

The Ten Commandments of Carnaval de Barranquilla

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.

Carnaval de Barranquilla 2015

You don’t want to miss the festivities because you’re searching for a place to sleep!

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.

Stay hydrated at Carnaval de Barranquilla

Alternate alcoholic beverages and water, like this guy

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.

Performers often ask for tips at Carnaval de Barranquilla

Can you believe he wanted a tip for this?

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.

Carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia

This kid knows what’s up

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.

Dancing in the streets with strangers at Carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia

Dancing in the streets with strangers

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?

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21 Comments

  • Reply Rachel March 23, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    This looks SO awesome. I’d love to visit during Carnaval. Those street parties sounds really cool – it’s great the locals are so welcoming. But I have to ask, is that guy in the fourth photo supposed to be some kind of poop monster? So gross!
    Rachel recently posted…Practicing My Food Photography at Bottomless Brunch – Masa 14, DCMy Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera March 24, 2015 at 8:51 am

      Hahaha YES Rachel, he was some kind of disgusting poop creature. There were actually two of them. He walked around with that fake poop in his mouth, then tried to make my friend kiss it! Just one of the super weird/creepy things we saw that weekend!

  • Reply Katie March 24, 2015 at 5:36 am

    OMG, this was such a fun post – many life lessons here even 😉 I’ve never been to Carnaval, but your photos look like so much fun!!
    Katie recently posted…Pad Ka Prao Recipe: A Spicy Thai Stir FryMy Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera March 24, 2015 at 8:52 am

      Thanks Katie! It really was a blast. If you ever end up in Colombia I highly recommend it! 🙂

  • Reply Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru March 28, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    Wow, looks like a super-intense unforgettable time! Love your “commandments” take – sounds like the voice of experience was hard won. 🙂
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru recently posted…London: Let It Fly with Virgin AtlanticMy Profile

  • Reply Toni | 2 Aussie Travellers March 28, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks for taking me along on your visit, if I ever get to the Carnaval I will remember your commandments 😉
    Toni | 2 Aussie Travellers recently posted…Muriwai Beach in AucklandMy Profile

  • Reply Travelwith2ofus March 29, 2015 at 3:06 am

    Honestly, I never knew there were carnival celebration in Colombia. Your list in right on the button. I have been to many carnival celebrations and you got it correct, especially the protecting yourself from the Caribbean sun. That is, unless you want to end up baked.

    • Reply La Mochilera March 29, 2015 at 8:28 pm

      Ha, exactly! The sun there is so strong, it’s easy to get burned even if you just forget to reapply!

  • Reply Dariece March 29, 2015 at 9:45 am

    I love this! What a unique idea to put it in the “Ten Commandments” form! Carnaval in Colombia sounds awesome. We’ve been to Carnival in Grenada in the Caribbean and it’s so fun! Lots of colour, dancing, drinking and well, “sexiness” lol.

    Cheers!
    Dariece recently posted…From Hobby To Career: The Complete Evolution Of Our BlogMy Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera March 29, 2015 at 8:29 pm

      Thanks for the compliment, Dariece! I can imagine the Carnival in Grenada is quite similar to this one…sounds like it’s got all the same elements, anyway!

  • Reply christine March 29, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    I never heard of this before but it looks like a blast!
    christine recently posted…Photo Essay: Costa Rica’s beautiful sunsetsMy Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera March 29, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Totally is! I highly recommend it if you’re ever in Colombia 🙂

  • Reply Wandering Carol March 29, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    Bring on the corn flour! I’d never heard of this either but it sounds like a fantastic adventure.
    Wandering Carol recently posted…French spa: Vichy, France, and my social disasterMy Profile

    • Reply La Mochilera March 29, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Ohh man, the corn flour was one of my favorite parts! The gross wet foam got old after awhile though haha.

  • Reply Dave Briggs March 29, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    Have to say this article made me laugh, and looks like you had an amazing time… But HOW much for a dorm ??!!
    Dave Briggs recently posted…Athens, Bicycle Touring, Daves Travel Pages and the FutureMy Profile

  • Reply Jessica O'Neill March 30, 2015 at 12:03 am

    Awesome post, had me laughing the whole way through 😀 This fire water business does sound interesting! And as an Australian who lived in America for a while, I thought strong shots were an American thing. I would have 2 vodka sodas at a bar and feel WASTED hahahahaha. I kept saying to my husband what are they DOING to these drinks and realised the shots were verrrrrry generously poured everywhere we went. 😀 Value for money, right? 😉
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  • Reply Stacey Valle March 30, 2015 at 2:06 am

    oh my god, that look like a great adventure!! Despite the hot sun & that nasty poop guy, it looked like a once in a life time experience! I’d love to go there! I had never heard of it until now. Your title for this post is genius, and you took great photos!
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  • Reply Taylor O September 29, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    Awesome post 🙂 . I just got 2 weeks off of work with the intention of visiting Barranquilla for Carnival as well as Cartagena and Santa Marta. I will be traveling by myself (23 American guy) and plan on staying in hostels. Are there alot of other like minded young English-speaking party-ers around?? Should I be concerned with safety?? Thanks in advanced !

    • Reply Leah Davis September 30, 2015 at 12:21 am

      Great plan, Taylor! You will most definitely find other young travelers like yourself if you’re planning to stay in hostels. In fact, that’s pretty much all you’ll find 😉 You’ll need to be more cautious than you might be at home, keeping your things locked when you’re out of the hostel and keeping valuables close to you/hidden when out and about, but otherwise just use common sense and you’ll be fine! Enjoy!

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