At the start of February I returned once more to the city of Barranquilla, this time to experience one of the most important dates in the Colombian calender: Carnival!
I flew to Barranquilla a few days before the carnival began with my housemates and a few other friends. Conveniently, my housemate Silvana is from Barranquilla and her family very kindly allowed us to stay in their home. We had a relaxing first day chilling on a beach near the city. It bears mentioning that Barranquilla is an incredibly hot place. Whilst I freely admit that I am not particularly good at dealing with such places (understatement), one of the things I like most about them is how life completely changes: it’s practically impossible to be stressed or to rush when you run the risk of melting from the exertion.
In the evening we went to the Plaza del Caribe to a free concert called “Noches del Rio,” celebrating the start of the carnival and music from around the Magdalena River, and indeed, the whole world. One of the things I like most about Colombia is how important traditional music continues to be, regardless of age, and how much it varies according to region.
Undeniable proof that carnival is so much more that the parades are the street parties. On Friday evening we went to one such party (two actually) in the centre of the city. I was initially somewhat confused as to why we were going to a random street, but it soon became clear enough. Music was playing, the aguardiente was flowing (woo..) and a plentiful supply of flour and foam spray could also be obtained. Soon enough everyone in the vicinity was all but unrecognisable, covered in a sticky mixture of flour and foam, laughably drunk and happily dancing to the music. There was such a contagious, carefree buzz in the air among the hundreds of people packed in the streets, that I was left convinced of the following; parties where you can unashamedly squirt people with foam, bombard them with flour and drink 20 p beers are my kind of parties.
After a few hours we went in search of food and found ourselves a rather yummy chuso desgranado. This is a very typical Barranquilla thing and one that consists of meat, lettuce, tiny crisps called “fóforos,” sweetcorn, costeño cheese (aka the best Colombian cheese I have come across thus far) a whole host of sauces (tomato, mayonnaise, pineapple…) and a very hard-to-describe thing called bollo (google it). It’s nicer than it sounds and looks.
We soon moved onto our second street party of the night, outside the iconic Troja salsa bar, where we bumped into the rest of the British Council assistants. We spent a few hours dancing in the streets, which were still full to bursting with party-goers. We were, however, forced to make a move in the early hours, after quite hilariously discovering that one of our party had consumed rather more than their fair share of aguardiente…
On Saturday the carnival parades kicked off. After a mad rush to make it to the stands by 11 am and a heated discussion with a guard who responded to our question as to why our seats were already taken with a, “they always sell more tickets that seats” (genius), we then waited a good hour for the procession to actually begin. Ahh Colombia…
The first parade is called the “Batalla de Flores,” and it was very much worth the wait! As its name suggests, there was rather a lot of flower throwing going on. Needless to say, my only “carnival” experience up until this point (Frome Carnival) left me wholly unprepared for the intensity and duration of Barranquilla Carnival. The parade was full of all manner of costumes (I particularly enjoyed the women dancing whilst balancing aguardiente on their heads) and a huge variety of dance groups called “comparsas” – the 20 or so members of one such group were ALL dressed as gorillas, which, in the baking heat of Barranquilla was impressive in itself. There was also a questionable amount of blacking up, as well as half-naked women, carnations being thrown in all directions and a baffling number of carnival queens. It seemed like every company or organisation present had one; supermarkets, mobile phone companies, newspapers, beer brands, even the bloody police! Over the following days the parades were equally crazy – it was all enough to make Frome Carnival rather pale in comparison…
A important part of carnival are the various characters that accompany it, a wacky mix of inexplicable creations. One of the most iconic is the “Marimonda.” Originally a joke intended to mock the rich and make them feel uncomfortable, it turned into a popular symbol. It is said to have been created by a Barranquillero who couldn’t afford a costume and it consists of wearing a brightly coloured mask that bears a strong resemblance to a penis, with the craziest, most clown-esque clothes you possess. Worn back to front, of course.
Another well known character is the “Negrita Puloy,” a black woman wearing a frilly red and white dress, with big necklaces and earrings.
The “Maria Moñitos” is another face that makes a regular appearance. This costume took off after one Barranquillero entered the parade with hundreds of brightly coloured ribbons woven into his hair, a face full of make up, high heels and a brightly coloured party dress, perfectly encapsulating the happiness, audacity and “mamadera de gallo” the Costeño people are renowned for.
I will now leave you with what was undoubtedly the most played song during the carnival. This kind of music is called Champeta. It’s from Cartagena, a coastal city in the north of Colombia, and is ridiculously catchy. The song essentially describe a upper class woman (posh being “pupi”) who didn’t used to like Champeta, as she considers it “coleta” (chavy). She then gets sucked into a TV, dances Champeta and becomes la Pupileta. Obviously.
The following video was the official carnival video last year and features the then carnival queen. It’s a somewhat odd video that illustrates the carnival timeline, as well as many carnival characters. On the first day of the parades the human embodiment of the carnival spirit, Joselito Carnaval, is brought back to life and the celebrations begin. The parade on the fourth and final day of carnival is known as the “Muerte de Joselito,” his death symbolising the end of the celebrations for another year.