Barranquilla is Rio’s cute cousin that you want to say hi to at the cookout. It claims to be the world’s second largest Carnival after Rio and is located on Colombia’s Northern Caribbean coast.
I arrived at the gate of the El Dorado Airport in Bogota, optimistic. Seeing as I was traveling domestically, hopefully I wouldn’t encounter the same visa issues I had on what would have been my other Carnaval trip to Rio. Following the disappointment, I had quickly changed gears and was headed to Barranquilla by way of Santa Marta. I had done some digging and the flight to Santa Marta was HALF as expensive and only a two hour bus ride away. When I arrived in Santa Marta, I hopped on a bus that I thought would take me to the bus terminal. Instead, when I mentioned I was going to Barranquilla, the bus driver dropped me off on the side of a dusty road off the highway and pointed in the direction of a tiny roadside shop. Apparently there was a bus stop there where I could catch a bus to Barranquilla more quickly than going all the way to the terminal. I knew that I would need to pass by the airport anyways on the bus, but I was a little hesitant at just getting off with no real station. I looked back for reinforcement or some sort of support from the other folks on the bus, and they all nodded that this was a more straightforward route to Barranquilla. They truly could have all been in on the joke, but at this point, everything was a free-for-all. I hopped off the bus, my 40 L hiking backpack on and my 15lb backpack strapped to my front and waddled toward what looked like a sign post.
In the distance, I saw another girl with a similar type backpack and I was relieved. Maybe we’d had the same idea. A bubbly Colombian girl, she had also booked a last minute trip from Bogotá to Barranquilla via Santa Marta, but she was even more on the wild side. She’d just hitchhiked on someone’s moto from the airport. I would have toppled the poor person over.
Two minutes later, a small van bus bumbles along the road and stops before us. I let her do the talking in case they decided they wanted to charge me an extranjera price. In a flash, they had thrown our bags in the back and stuffed us into the front of a packed bus. There were no more actual seats so we sat squished behind the driver and the front row of passengers. A beautiful brown-skinned baby girl, not older than 2, sat sleeping in her mother’s lap. The mother stroked her shiny, black hair whenever she moved to calm her down. Celina and I joked and laughed the whole way down, telling the stories that had brought us to this last minute occurrence and what our hopes were for Carnival. She was just here to party it up with her friends and eat some good home-cooked food from their moms. I was excited for the parades and connecting with a few others I’d met in Bogotá and elsewhere who happened to also be celebrating Carnival in Barranquilla.
The next day we, the Airbnb host’s family and I, head out to the Carnival parade on Carrerra 40. That’s where the big parade is. There is also a smaller parade on Carrerra 44. Luckily the Airbnb was close to both. Each day of Carnival has a different name and different meaning. There are also a few important parades that happen pre-Carnival as well. Carnival parades are filled with a number of key characters that residents and tourists like to dress up as also.
Brief Carnival Overview
Provided to you by Wikipedia
Carnival Days and Parades
Saturday -La Batalla de Las Flores. The first day of Carnival is the largest and has elaborate floats led by the Queen of Carnival who is crowned a week earlier. This parade is the oldest and most celebrated of Carnival and has been in existence in its most current form since 1903, yet traditions of Carnival are said to date all the way back to the Spanish colonial era.
Sunday – Parade of Folklore and Tradition. This parade does not include floats, but rather a focus on traditional folkloric groups, cumbia and other dance groups. The dancing groups participating in this parade are the ones called as popular dancing groups, such as Caimán Cienaguero, Negritas Puloy and others as that of the devil harlequins. The music also therefore shows its most conservative facet, being cumbias, chandés – associated with the Garabato dancing group- and fandangos -associated with the Marimondas dancing group-, the musical genres most heard.
Monday – El Día de Fantasía. This day of Carnival focuses more on the costumes that are uniquely adorned with jewels and accessories. On this parade, floats and dancing groups featuring a mixture of traditional folkloric elements with special renewing additions are seen parading. Due to their number of participants, their played music, their displayed color and aesthetic on their disguises, their designs, adornments and accessory, the fantasy dancing groups have been becoming a popular phenomena, specially among young generations, which has influenced the development of this parade with many more new dancing groups participating in it over time.
Tuesday – The death of Joselito. As a closing way, the burial of Joselito Carnaval is carried out, which symbolises the end of the festivities. On this day, many funny burials of Joselito are carried out across the city. This character symbolises the joy of the carnival. It is said that this character “resuscitate” the Saturday of Carnival and “dies” the last day, tired and drunken, to again resuscitate the next carnival. In this way, thousands of Barranquilla persons go out on the streets to cry the deceased with play-acting.
Brought to you by Carnival Dances Barranquilla
El Garabato – It is a dance of celebrating life and death and it names origins from the spanish. The name “Garabato” was given because a wood stick that has red, green and yellow hung ribbons. This wood stick is called Garabato and it is used during the dance to end with a death of the challenge. The costume for the women’s in this spectacular dance consist of a blouse and long skirt both black with a red ribbon around the waist. Also it is adorned by washers in the shoulders and at the bottom of the dress with the colors of the Barranquilla flag (red, green, yellow). Finally women compliment it by wearing an ornament in their head, more specifically flowers also with the flag’s colors. Mens costume is quite different they wear a long-sleeved yellow shirt , a ‘ shaped front bib always blue with embroidered lace and sequins. The mens costume also consist of waring a black trousers and in the knee with lace, high white socks, and black shoes. At their back they use a red cape adorned with sequins and figures of many colors, it usually has different carnaval characters laced and placed.
Marimonda – They are practically known as the clowns of this Carnival, always being silly and bringing joy to the crowd with their funny dance and unchoreographed moves. Now days this character is always colorful and representing fun people. The most known marimondas are The Marimondas of el Barrio Abajo they shake their legs, move arms as chicken, and we can also we can see how they act as if being attacked by ants.
La Negrita Puloy – Puloy is a black woman with a curly, black afro who wears a red and white polka dotted outfit that resembles Minnie Mouse. They use a type of dance called fandango. This is a type of dancing with musical rhythm originated when the black slaves meet at nights in their streets and at that time the dance was serenaded by bagpipes and drums followed by a group of women which were the singers. They sung countless verses related to the different activities they performed during the day, that was their inspiration. Their dances often include an umbrella.
Cumbia – A mix of African, indigenous, and Spanish cultures, cumbia is a courting dance accompanied by a flute and drum. The men often hold their hats behind their backs as they dance with the women in long checkered red and white skirts. It is characterized by a shuffling of the feet.
Monocucu – This costume consist of a large colored robe with a hood to cover the face, this robe are all different and their unique style. It also consist of a mask that cover the rest of the face with a piece of cloth. Its origin is not known but what most can tell its from the carnaval traditional villages such as Rioacha, before the twentieth century. Now present the monocuco is still a present costume with its unique colors and features for example the mask to hide themselves.
Son de Negros – Dance influenced by the African slaves brought through Cartagena. The men who play Son de Negro give themselves the appearance of nudity and paint their entire bodies black with black bermuda shorts. Their lips are painted red. The slaves exaggerated their facial expressions and body movements as a way to mock the Spanish. The dance is characterized by hard fast movements, a pursing of the lips and sticking one’s tongue out.
Mapalé – A very traditional African dance, it includes movements of the hips, waist and arms. When it comes to clothing men wear pants that are until their knee, any color. They are barefoot and shirtless, sometimes with a scarf or turban on their head. But some men prefer to wear shirt so in this case the men who dance mapalé use a sleeveless shirt and most of the time it’s has a leopard fabric. Woman uses a short skirt, and a brightly colored blouse with a armhole sleeve, also mostly made with a leopard fabric or it can be any color. It also goes barefoot. On their head woman use flowers or simple turbans.
Congo – These are some of the oldest traditional costumes in Carnival inspired by the African origins of the enslaved peoples who arrived at the slave port in Cartagena. The costumes consist of large headpieces in the shape of animals or nature and colorful, intricate costumes. I attended a private showing of their routine with TV presenters from the local Caracol station where the leader of Congo Reformado spoke of his pride in being able to share this part of his heritage that had been passed down for generations. The group has traveled throughout Europe and Africa where he mentioned an overwhelming sensation to be able to show and see how this culture had maintained its form despite so many years of oppression and separation.
Personally, I took to Negrita Puloy. She was beautiful and fierce and at times cute. She reminded me of myself with her full afro, big smile or laugh, and the red and white bow in her hair. Yet, for every fully developed unique image I saw of her, there was at least one in blackface. I almost didn’t recognize the bulging white circles and red lips on black caps as a representation of La Negrita but they were. And it proved quite difficult to succinctly explain why I didn’t want the caricatured blackface representations of her when we went to the market. But nonetheless she was my favorite and quite popular. Every where you turned, people sported curly black afro wigs and red and white polka dot dresses.
Carnival outfits were quite simply my favorite part of the festival. Instead of Facebook official, it was more Carnival official. If you and your SO didn’t have matching Carnival shirts or full out outfits, you weren’t really a thing. One couple I saw was dressed the same from head to toe, down to the glittering gold shoes. And it wasn’t just for couples but groups as well. Groups of 5 or 6 could be found walking down the street wearing the same Carnival shirt. Reminded me of the field trips we took in after care with our matching T-shirts as we took over museums and movie theaters. If folks weren’t matching, they were mismatching. Anything goes during Carnival season, and you can mix and match characters outfits or just throw on whatever makes you feel most festive. When I wasn’t trying to channel La Negrita, I opted for El Garabato.
As soon as we left the house for anything Carnival-related, I would hear, “Tienes la opcion de quitar las grafas.” That was the warning Diana gave me each time before she pelted me with corn flour. Maizcena (corn flour) and foam shot from rockets are two popular Carnival favors. Sold in the supermarkets and in the stores, if you don’t experience at least one of these during Carnival, you might not have even been in Barranquilla. Reluctantly I lowered my glasses while she shoved the powdery substance in my face, and of course I did hers in return. Sometimes you caught the other unsuspecting, other times they embraced it full on. But maizcena has to be given to the face. Thrown on the hair or clothes, maizcena has no significance, but powdered faces are the true sign of Carnival. And while I wasn’t a fan of foam myself, little kids and playful adults loved it. It rained foam day in and day out and you couldn’t help but get pelted with it a few times.
We couldn’t negotiate fair prices for seats and the group didn’t want to pay for palcos (bleacher setas), so we walked to Carrerra 44 for the secondary parade. We were all settled in our front seats, faces covered in maizcena, waiting for the parade to start. The stories I’d heard over the past day came to life as the bands played and the floats passed by. Young cumbia couples passed by, trying to remember the choreography, as they danced around each other. Their older counterparts followed suite, exuding the confidence and poise the pelauitos (young kids) were aspiring to. Women in tightly-clad, adorned costumes strutted by, occasionally sipping on water to protect from the blazing heat of the Barranquilla sun. Young men painted head to toe in black as son de negros ran down the sides of the crowds with their spears and sticks, crossing their eyes and sticking their tongues out and scrunching their faces for a photo op before running to the next group (extra problematic, yes). It ran the whole gamut, from indigenous to Spanish to African, the different cultural influences of the populations that inhabited and had mixed to create costeño culture shone through the eyes of the kinky-haired Afro-Colombian girls who threw their head and arms back in motion with the beat like their ancestors from West Africa, and through the eyes of the young garabato boy who marched proudly with his partner as they “fought” for life against the forces of death and oppression.
In the nighttime, after parades, we would either go to Prado or La Troja. Prado actually meant standing on the street behind the Prado Hotel. On the Saturday of Carnival, there is a huge concert at the Prado Hotel. Tickets are pretty costly, but the concert is held on the lawn of the hotel so just outside the wall, people hang out and dance in the street to the music that overflows. One year, when Don Omar came, the residents tore down the metal barrier above the stone wall so they could see him! Omar and Cinara had come from Cartagena and along with the family and some of their friends, we rolled pretty deep into Prado. The street was packed and there was even a separate party playing on one of the side streets. I learned a bit of champeta, threw some more maizcena, tried to dodge the foam, and had a chuzzo (street kebab). This chuzzo would be the beginning of a tragic downfall.
Fast forward two days. (Chuzzo, alcohol, plus fried arepa & excessive amounts of vegetable oil, plus heat = food poisoning/heat stroke requiring lots of rest and water).
I had finally regained the strength to leave the house. I donned the garabato costume I had gotten at the market a few days earlier and the troupe again made its way to hit the town. This time, we were headed to La Troja!
La Troja felt like a block party and a concert all put together. The crowd was heavily packed and when a popular song like (Champeta duo dua dua) came on, they erupted in screams, cheers, and skyrocketed foam into the sky. Just on the outskirts of the crowd, we made a circle with our chairs and danced amongst each other in the middle. The hours passed and we sipped and sang and danced to our hearts content. But as the night came to an end, we headed out knowing we had to prepare for the death of Joselito in the morning.
To be continued!