Day 155 – Barranquilla – South America’s Second Biggest Carnival

Whether it’s through this blog, my social media accounts or old fashioned talking and texting, most people who know me also know where I am. I’ve not kept it much of a secret.

Perhaps unsurprisingly as February approached I was contacted by a few friends from home, as well as people I’d met travelling, with some variation of the following:

“I’m coming to Rio for carnival – where shall we meet?” 

They had assumed that as I was travelling in South America during February I would be somewhere in Brazil, most likely Rio de Janeiro, for the annual carnival. I couldn’t really blame them for thinking it – where else would I be?

Well, I was in Barranquilla, a city on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, for what is purported to be South America’s second biggest carnival.


Yes, Barranquilla. One friend in particular (hi Wally) really couldn’t understand this decision and did not mince his words:

“If you’re travelling in South America and you don’t go to Rio for the biggest party in the world you’re a ****ing idiot.”

While he may have had a point there was some logic behind my decision:

  1. Practicing Spanish is one of my priorities, and they don’t speak it in Brazil
  2. With a flight already booked from Bogota to Lima a peak season return trip to Rio from Colombia didn’t seem like an efficient use of cash
  3. Barranquilla is the second largest carnival in South America – surely that’s a big deal?

Looking back those first two reasons were pretty lame (I’ll come onto the third) but once the decision was made that was it; I was being joined by Kenny and Ben and we were fully committed to making the best of whatever Barranquilla had to offer.


Carnival Day One – Foam FOMO

Upon arrival we headed straight to La Troja – a large bar which acts as the colourful epicentre of the street party. We were clearly playing catch up as most of the revelers were already hammered and covered in a sticky mix of flour and sprayable foam. We caught up pretty quickly.


Once we realised it was perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to spray what was essentially high pressured shaving foam in the faces of strangers we filled our holsters with as many cans as we could carry and got stuck in, receiving plenty in return.


While Kenny appears to be offering  his phone in sacrifice to avoid further punishment, the night’s first foam-related casualty was Ben’s wallet, which was plucked from his pocket while he wiped his eyes clean after a full frontal espuma attack. Immobilizing your victims just before you rob them is such an effective method I was surprised it didn’t happen to all of us, and I later met a number of other travelers who had succumbed to the same trick.

After an incident-free 6 weeks in Colombia this was a disappointing development, but on reflection it could just as easily have occurred at Notting Hill Carnival and definitely beats being robbed at gunpoint in Rio, which seems to have happened to a worryingly high number of people this year.

Ben was good humoured about the whole thing and after cancelling his cards the revelry continued unabated. As I had found elsewhere in Colombia, the locals all wanted us to party with them, dishing out shots of aguardiente and kindly ensuring that every part of our faces and hair were covered in flour.


Day Two – Getting Our Charlie Chaplins Out

Our first full day of carnival was also the day we chose to don our rather peculiar fancy dress outfits. After originally planning something Charlie Chaplin-inspired with braces (suspenders to the Americans), hats and baggy trousers, the eBay journey somehow led us to ‘tuxedo style boxer shorts’ complete with bow-ties, providing the bows for our barely concealed packages.

For the first time in a long time I was a little reticent about getting my bits out in broad daylight and kept my jeans on for the most part. Kenny had no such qualms, stripping down upon arrival to the delight of the assembled Colombian females.

Es un téléfono en tus calzoncillos o estás feliz de verme?


We paid very little attention to the ‘crowning of the carnival Queen’ taking part alongside us – the procession was underwhelming and we were having too much fun with our espuma cannons. Not wanting to be caught short in a shoot out I typically carried three at all times.


Following the previous day’s blueprint we drank, we sprayed foam, we danced to Cumbia (a northern Colombian music genre which provides the soundtrack to most of the carnival’s events), we made friends and had another great day and night out.

Day Three – Same Same But Different

On the third day Ben and Kenny returned to Los Estados Unidos and I finally paid attention to one of the carnival’s formal events for the Gran Parada de Comparsas (The Great Parade of Groups).


This was a procession of dance troops from all over Colombia, making their way through town in choreographed unison along with a wide selection of marimondas – colourful Colombian carnival characters who don disturbingly phallic face masks.


It was great to watch and surprisingly interactive, with dancers stopping for photos and spectators dancing alongside the passing groups. I was encouraged to get involved and did my best to overcompensate for the black t-shirt and jeans with some unconventional dance moves, mixing cumbia and twerking to create a new genre Twumbia, which went down surprisingly well.


After the procession we headed back to La Troja where I ingeniously navigated the full body search, somehow smuggling in a full bottle of aguardiente using my sock and jeans.


Once inside we drank, we danced, we…well you know the drill by now. Always the same.


Tricky Day Four

On the fourth and final day of carnival I had absolutely no interest, cowering in my hotel room in the foetal position muttering “please make it stop.” Three days of heavy partying after a couple of big nights out in Cali in the preceding days were more than enough.

This gave me time to reflect on whether I had made the right decision in being in Barranquilla and not being in Brazil. With the wider context I do think it was the right call, but had I planned further in advance I may have done things a little differently.

While Barranquilla may host its continent’s second largest carnival and we had a great few days of fiesta with the locals, it’s really just a big street party and doesn’t come close to the scale and ambition of the annual events in Rio. Watching videos of the ‘Sambadromes’ and parties on the beach, visitors should not confuse Barranquilla and Rio as being even remotely similar spectacles. To paraphrase a quote from one of my favourite films “it ain’t the same ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same sport.”

A fun party it was, and I’m glad I went, but next year I’m going to Rio. With the speed at which the months are currently flying by there is a decent chance I’ll still be out here…

Next Stop: Adios Colombia, Hola Peru 

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Day 146 – Plant Therapy – From Cocora Valley to San Pedro via Yoga

Word of the Day 

Dendrophilia: the love of trees. The term may sometimes refer to a paraphilia in which people are sexually attracted to or sexually aroused by trees.

Since starting my travels I have often oscillated from one extreme to another in an effort to derive some kind of balanced existence. This has taken many forms: periods of aggressive partying will be followed by abstinence and a renewed interest in the gym; after travelling with friends I have enjoyed some alone time (and vice versa); from the bustle of city life I’ve yearned for the tranquility of a beachside bungalow or a mountain retreat.

One of these switcharoos was required after the work I had put into my recent attempts at self-improvement. In search of relaxation and serenity my destination of choice was Salento, a breezy 9 hour bus ride through steep winding roads from Medellin.


Salento sits in what is known as the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Region, of Colombia, as its consistent year-round weather conditions are perfect for growing the stuff. It is a quiet little town surrounded by lush countryside which for me (and anyone old and British enough to remember) is reminiscent of the backdrop for Postman Pat, with hills and trees so green and perfect that they must be fake.



Other than visiting one of its many coffee farms, which is a pleasant way to spend a few hours, you can also play Tejo, a Colombian sport/pastime (depending on who you ask, a bit like darts) which involves throwing heavy metal pucks at a gunpowder-filled target 20 metres away, creating a mini explosion on a successful impact.

My game, including a cameo performance from two visiting Profumos (hi Proffo and Steph) was, as usual, accompanied with a bottle of aguardiente, so we sensibly played the gringo version from half distance. Still, with the neighbours’ pucks whizzing past our ears at great speed we were relieved to emerge unscathed.


Tree Love

The real draw that brings the backpackers to Salento is a tree – Colombia’s national tree – the wax palm, which is most prevalent in the nearby Cocora Valley.

I didn’t realise I was a dendrophile (not in the sexual sense, I might add) until recently but, on reflection, I have been fascinated and surrounded by majestic trees since my early childhood. Living in a house called Redwood, named after the giant conifer in our garden, I also loved the weeping willows of our neighbours, the towering oaks at my first school ‘Oakwood’ and the ancient yews of the nearby Kingly Vale (see below). The mystical power of trees is hard to put into words but Herman Hesse does a pretty amazing job here (thanks for the assist Julia).

Yggdrasil Yew Kingley Vale forest.jpg

The wax palms of Cocora Valley are very different from all of the above but truly spectacular as these trees, sometimes growing as high as 60m, all trunk and no leaf, seem to have somehow outpaced evolution. With no obvious need to be so tall relative to one another or their neighbours they are really just showing off.

Often compared to the Truffula Trees in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, their dimensions and general appearance are certainly surreal. With the perfect sunny day and a mountainous backdrop we couldn’t help but keep taking photos.


Yoga Love

Returning to El Viajero in Salento after 6 hours of walking, a free yoga session put on twice a week by this excellent and great value hostel (shout out to my El Viajero amigos) was the perfect way to stretch out and wind down. Yoga, a traveller staple, has not played a huge part in my trip but I have enjoyed it when available, always feeling energised and motivated by the practice.


The yoga sessions in Salento were hosted by Vladimir, an excellent instructor with an immediately warm and loving energy. He was spiritual in a genuine and unforced way, and sang beautifully at the end of each class.


I felt somehow drawn to Vladimir and was not surprised to find out that he was a practicing shaman. After my recent ayahuasca experiences I hadn’t been planning on taking any more plant medicine, but they say the plants call you when you’re ready, and I had a strange feeling that I was supposed to meet Vladimir at this time. It turned out he was hosting a san pedro retreat on the only 2 days I had free before meeting friends, cementing my belief that the universe wanted me there.

San Pedro

San pedro is an Amazonian cactus, one of the three main ‘power plants’ along with ayahuasca and peyote. Albeit less potent than ayahuasca, san pedro is also a psychedelic, well known for its healing properties and its ability to rekindle people’s love and enthusiasm for life.

Not having any ailments to be healed, nor feeling short of enthusiasm or love for life, I perhaps didn’t need a san pedro retreat like some of the other participants, but I thought it would be an interesting experience, and it was.


The ceremony, conducted entirely in Spanish for 12 people, started at 10pm and finished at 11am the next morning, without interruption. We drank, chewed and ate the san pedro, also known as ‘huachuma,’ throughout the night while sat around a bonfire getting increasingly ‘chumado’ while singing and chanting with the assistance of tribal drums, guitars, panpipes, rattles and various other instruments. It felt a lot less weird than it sounds. No photos were allowed during the ceremony but this was the aftermath.


We took turns to pass around the Talking Stick (that’s my inaccurate translation from whatever the Spanish was) whereby each person got to hold a stick and speak to the group about anything on their mind. My statements in Spanish were short and jovial, as the huachuma only made me feel a little silly and spaced out, but for many of the people involved this was an extremely emotional coming of age. Most of them cried some combination of happy and sad tears, and left the following day as new people, rather like I had felt after my ayahuasca experience.


Perhaps the language barrier softened the impact of the shaman’s words, but for me it was an unusual and entertaining night rather than a life-changer. Having said that, watching the sun rise from complete darkness behind the mountains was a beautiful sight that I will never forget, as was this goat doing yoga on the verandah.


Next Stop: Carnaval de Barranquilla

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