One of the first things I did when I decided I wanted to come to Colombia was to download an app called HelloTalk. It is a language exchange app that allows you to match with native speakers of a language that you wish to learn who also want to learn your native language. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is trying to improve their knowledge or skills in a foreign language. The first person I met and started talking to on this app was Juan David (JD), a Colombian guy from the coastal city of Barranquilla. When I told him about my desire to travel to Colombia the first thing he said to me was “You have to come to Barranquilla for Carnaval!”. Now, if you are anything like me, the only Carnaval I had ever heard of was the one in Brazil. What this, and most of my time thus far in Colombia, has highlighted to me, is that we, or at least I, have a tendency in Australia to be somewhat insular in our understanding and knowledge of the broader world (except for those “supremely enlightened” travellers that seem to have been everywhere).
Carnaval de Barranquilla has actually been recognised by UNESCO on the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In short, it is an incredibly culturally significant festival, which I had never heard of. While there are many theories as to how Carnival originated, one thing is sure, it is a mix of cultural dance, music and customs from the Indigenous population of the area, Spanish colonialists and Africans who were brought over, predominantly, through the slave trade. The reason for this culmination in Barranquilla is primarily because it was and still is the primary port in Colombia.
While there are many events in the lead-up, the most iconic and culturally significant period of Carnaval occurs in the last four days before Ash Wednesday. As a result, the dates of Carnaval vary from year to year following the timing of the Easter Holy Week but always occur on a Saturday – Tuesday. Friday sees the coronation of the Queen of Carnaval, a highly prestigious title that has been handed out since 1918. The Queen has an integral role to play in all of the subsequent parades and is not just a tokenistic position, it comes with a lot of responsibilities, and from what I saw, requires a considerable degree of stamina.
On Saturday you are treated to what is probably considered to be the main event of Carnaval, the Battle of Flowers. This is the biggest parade of the four days and consists of many floats and dance groups who make their way in a grand procession along one of the major avenues of the city. The sides of the road are lined with palcos (a type of temporary grandstand) which cost money to sit in; however, they have some much-needed shade and tend to have live bands playing music while you wait for the parade to reach you. On Sunday the parade that takes place solely focuses on folklore groups and is often referred to as the Great Parade. Monday houses the Fantasy Parade, where people dress up as crazy characters from fantasy books and movies. Finally, the last day of Carnaval is reserved for the funeral of Joselito. Josélito represents the spirit of fun and festivities of Carnaval. He dies at the end of each Carnaval and is resurrected at the start next years. This representation comes from a folklore story about a man, José, who partied non stop for the entire duration of Carnaval and was found, supposedly dead, on the last day in the streets, unconscious. He was in the process of being buried when we woke up exclaimed that he was just drunk and went back to sleep. On this day there are many mock funerals for Josélito held throughout the city, and there is even a prize for the best recreation of the event.
With this in mind, it’s not really a mystery as to why I placed Carnaval de Barranquilla at the top of my to-do list during my time here in Colombia. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances surrounding my departure to Colombia, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it and as such hadn’t booked flights or accommodation until I was in Bogotá. ROOKIE error! Understandably the event entices a massive influx of tourists, leaving flight and accommodation availability low and exceedingly expensive. If you ever find yourself wanting to attend Carnaval de Barranquilla, do yourself a favour and book things WELL in advance. I was lucky enough that JD’s aunty had a room which she said she would rent out to me for the time I was there (hotels for the duration were around 900-1300 AUD). With that sorted, I found a return flight a few days either side of Carnaval for a more reasonable but still massively inflated price.
On Thursday I left the apartment for the airport at 5am for my 7:20 flight. During my spare time at the airport, I met a group of lovely people who recognised that my passport was Australian and I recognised their Swiss passports. The mother, Liz, actually lived in Brisbane but was in Colombia to attend Carnaval and celebrate her birthday. They gave me a heap of tips and ideas for things to do while in Barranquilla as well as inviting me to the beach party, which, unfortunately, I was unable to attend.
When I got off the plane in Barranquilla, a few things dawned on me. One, I didn’t know the address of the place I was meant to be going. Two, JD had his phone stolen two days prior, and I might not have a way to contact him if he wasn’t at the airport. Lastly, I was relying a whole lot on someone who I had never met in person. After picking up my bags and moving out of the arrival lounge, I was greeted by promo girls giving away free shots of Aguardiente (a Colombian spirit literally called firewater), a national police band and no JD. At this point, I thought to myself, “hmmm, maybe he is just waiting outside for me”. As I walked outside, every man and his dog was trying to get me into a taxi, which I was having none of, but at this stage, I was starting to feel more than a little anxious. I had sent JD a few messages, but no response or indication he had seen them. So what did I do? I went and stood in no man’s land between the taxis and the terminal to try and figure out what I was going to do. After about 45 minutes of deliberation, I decided I would book whatever hotel I could for a night and get a taxi there in the hopes that JD would eventually get in contact with me. Not two minutes after getting my confirmation e-mail, JD sent me a message telling me that he had been held up and was on his way and to wait for him inside the terminal. Thankfully I was able to cancel the booking at no cost, phew.
About 30 minutes later JD arrived with another guy, who turned out to be his cousin José. I had been talking with JD, A LOT, over the past six or seven months, but there is just something about meeting someone in person for the first time. Things were a little awkward, to begin with, mostly owing to my somewhat rattled condition at that point. And if I was unsettled then, things were not helped in the slightest by the first place that we stopped off at. As previously mentioned, JD had his phone stolen a few days earlier and we were at one of the shadiest places I have ever been, to get him a new one. Judging by the process in which his new phone was given to him, I ascertained that I was witnessing the “great cellphone circle of life”.
After JD got his new phone, we headed off and went to “Carnaval House”, where I got to learn all about the history and cultural significance of all the events. Once we finished the interactive tour, we had a quick look at the Queen Mary Cathedral and mosied on over to JD’s house where I met his family. After a while Hose arrived and we drove to JD’s auntie, Marelbi’s house.
I dropped off my gear, and we jumped into a taxi to go down to one of the nearby pubs La Troja. At this point in time, feeling very unsure of my surroundings and realising I didn’t actually know much about the people I was with, conventional wisdom, as well as the voices of many people in my head, was telling me one thing. DON’T GET REALLY DRUNK! Who is for conventional wisdom anyway?
To be continued…