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:
- Practicing Spanish is one of my priorities, and they don’t speak it in Brazil
- 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
- 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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