Barranquilla gets a bad rep. To quote what some people consider the Bible of travel— Lonely Planet, “There’s little reason to visit Barranquilla outside of Mardi Gras madness… your experience of Barranquilla will simply be of its bad traffic.” Ouch. I’ll admit I wasn’t very taken with Barranquilla upon arrival. After all, it’s sandwiched between Santa Marta and its legendary beaches, and historical Cartagena with its rainbow buildings and expat-friendly resources. While I agree that it lacks the charm, the character, the beaches, the substance of its sisters cities, you wouldn’t be at a loss saying hello… whether you want to or not. Get away from the foreigners (they ain’t here except during Carnaval). Eat deliciously. Dance ridiculously. And find yourself in an emerging metropolitan under perpetual construction. Here’s some ideas:
Take a dance lesson at Monica Lindo
Relax: you’re a gringo. You probably weren’t raised grinding with other three year-olds, like the rest of Colombia… and that’s ok! But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare yourself for the wonderful shit storm of dancing that hovers over Colombia’s coastal region (and Cali). Even if you’re not intentionally on a conquest to shake your assets, you will often be expected to do so in the most random of situations. Shit, I ended up cheek-to-cheek with one of my engineering students during the second week of class! Taxi drivers bop around to endless strings of vallenato, social occasions commence in an orgy of dance, and of course, Carnaval is essentially prom with legal— and illegal— debauchery. The Monica Lindo studio in Barranquilla, located walking distance from the TransMetro bus station and infamous La Troja, is the place to take crash courses in salsa, bachata, cumbia, and yes, even the I-hate-you-I-love-you vallenato. The studio itself, like most in Colombia, isn’t anything fancy. In fact, it’s usually hot as f*$% in there. But all that soon becomes irrelevant once you’re asked to put what looks like a penis mask over your head and shuffle around on your ass (see Marimonda below). It’s best to just show up at their studio— the way most things seem to get done around these parts— and ask for a private lesson. These cost about 30,000 pesos for an hour, a reasonable deal considering the instructors are often stars of Carnaval and travel the world in dance troupes.
Then… boogie until sunrise at La Ocho
Once you have transformed into Shakira— who by the way is from Barranquilla— it’s time to prove you’re worthy. Most visitors prefer the likes of La Troja, an obnoxiously loud and brightly lit salsa establishment in the “safer” area of Barranquilla. ’Tis true, if you like salsa and the ability to see your wallet, your food, and your partner’s pores until the wee hours of the morning… then this place reigns. For a more #authentic (gag me) experience, follow the locals into the southern depths of Barranquilla to La Ocho. This refers to the string/ zone of bars/ restaurants offered along Carrera 8. While definitely a dodgier part of town— one that is better explored with a group— the dance clubs here play a range of genres, anything from reggaeton to, jesus, vallenato. My favorite club thus far is Pink Panther, (Calle 42-27) not only for the fact that its theme is the PINK PANTHER, but because the music never disappoints. Regardless of your choice, note that dancing doesn’t often kick off till 11 or 12. That is, there’s plenty of people in attendance beforehand but they are usually in the state of attaining liquid courage.
Discover your inner hooligan at Estadio Metropolitano
Without stating the obvious, I shall state the obvious: Colombians love their football (or soccer, you silly Americans). Barranquilleros, on a more special note, are known to be even crazier for the sport. This is why, in addition to the sunny weather, all national games are held in Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez. The stadium is located in the very south of the city, thus, the side few gringos see/ want to see. Before attending my first game, I was warned repeatedly to proceed with caution. More like: “YOU WILL DIEEEEEEE, MINI GRINGA.” Honestly, it’s not that bad, especially if you show up about two or three hours before the game commences. This is highly recommended anyway, as to avoid shady stranglers and to revel in the pre-party. Which is rather epic. If anything, defy your gringo status and blend it by wearing the national team’s color: YELLOW. After arrival, be sure to buy yourself a liter of beer. On a lanyward. Because Colombia. Tickets are super expensive online, so it’s best to be in Barranquilla and purchase them directly in town, usually from some sketchy corner store (I can help you with this). If you can’t get tickets or if it’s not the season for national games, a Juniors game promises to be equally ridiculous. For more tips (don’t wear a belt?) and video coverage of a game, check out our video.
Ride the rickety trencito or risk trying
For a unique, slightly unsettling, and historical experience, cough up about 10,000 pesos to a friendly taxi driver, sail past colorful Las Flores (or stop for their seafood!) and find yourself at the beginnings of Bocas de Ceniza. Meaning “mouth of ashes,” this is where the muddy Magdalena River meets the blueish Caribbean. A canal, built in the 1930s, separates the two bodies of water and it is on this canal that you can ride the old timey trencito (check out how the trencito looks at the beginning of this blog). The trencito is a dysfunctional trolley that trudges along the very narrow, often corroded track, for tourists’ pleasure. It costs 15,000 pesos a pop and takes about 30-45 minutes to reach the end of the track. Note that this time is very dependent on whether or not the trencito actually stays on the tracks. But do not fear! If it falls off, the driver finagles with a handy dandy stick that puts her back in place. Once you reach the depot— or plunge to your death— it’s a 30-minute crawl to the VERY end. The actual place where mud meets blue. BEWARE. This walk is not so pleasant. It’s mostly over mounds of garbage and rabid pets so wear decent shoes. And be prepared to feel like shit about yourself. It’s ain’t pretty, easy livin’ in shanties. Also, please advise that it’s hot as balls on on the canal. And I mean, hotter than Barranquilla proper. If I had to do it over, I would have visited in January, or gone nude, escorted by my own personal cabana boy. If you’re lucky, the trencito will come back to retrieve you just as you return to the depot. If not, prepare to wait and grab a drink at one of the shacks.
Pretend it’s Carnaval season at La Casa del Carnaval
Carnaval comes but once a year in Barranquilla— in late February— even if the city winds up in anticipation from mid-December on. One way to learn about the history of this event, as well as buy appropriate souvenirs, is to visit La Casa del Carnaval. For 5,000 pesos, you gain entry to the one-room museum. It may seem a little paltry considering Barranquilla’s massive hard-on for the event, but I was delighted. The room displays a beautiful array of Carnaval masks and fun interactive computer displays. They also play you two historical videos, that purposely hypnotize you and urge you to sacrifice yourself to the Carnaval gods. Or just get your pumped. Otherwise, the Casa makes for a pretty stroll. And if you are around during pre-Carnaval, you may even stumble upon an event. Maybe even one that includes the Queen of Carnaval herself.
While you’re near, go on a street art hunt for the Marimonda
The Marimonda is one of the most beloved characters of Carnaval. Essentially, it’s a rather silly-looking cross between an elephant and your child nightmares. The Marimonda was created in Barrio Abajo, close to La Casa de Carnaval (see above) by a poor man who fashioned some old clothing together. Voila! Now, these clowns are Carnaval legends complete with their own comedic dance, punctuated by Thriller-like moves and butt bouncing (for reals). If you take a careful walk around Barrio Abajo— prepare your best Ninja moves— you may be able to spot the various murals dedicated to the Marimonda. I love this character, not only because I learned his dance at Monica Lindo (see above), but also because he fills me with terror. You be the judge…
Viva La Vegas, in Barranquilla
When it comes to recreational pursuits in Barranquilla, most people tend to spend their leisure time indoors. In malls. Or watching a game. One alternative place to mingle and/or unlock latent talent is at Las Vegas Recreaciones Club. This establishment lacks any semblance to actual Las Vegas, sans the copious amount of drinking. That is, most of Las Vegas is a cafeteria-like restaurant and bar. A crowed one at that, with waiters often neglecting you for more pushy Barranquilleros. But once your do get some sustenance, walk yourself over the game area. It is here that you can toy with the traditional Colombian games of bolo criollo and tejo, both skill-based endeavors that seem to grow easier with more Club Colombiano. Bolo is like caveman bowling. You throw a heavy metal ball really goddamn far— like 23 meters— and try to hit one of the three wooden sticks. A man, guarded by a wooden “safe” area will throw the balls back your way, or occasionally knock over a pin in pity. Now, you’re supposed to keep score in tejo but we were content frustrated beyond reason. Despite my best girly hurls, I never hit a fu*$in pin. Moving on to tejo, aka exploding Corn Hole. A game way more popular in the interior of Colombia, your goal is to throw the metal puck at the slanted board, hitting the triangular packet of gun powder—called a mecha— usually placed in the center of soft clay. Doing so results in a very rewarding/ unnecessarily scary explosion. But beware, it’s not as easy as Corn Hole. The puck must hit the packet just right or else it doesn’t make contact with the metal ring beneath it. I threw about 50 times before I triumphed. But damn it felt good when I finally did. Delayed gratification. Again, there’s an actual game that goes along with tejo but none of us bothered with points. Just. Wanted. EXPLOSIONS.
Rent a chiva
An open bottle of booze and an open-air bus. Nothing could go wrong there. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, all aboard the chiva. These buses, once used for public transportation back in the day, are a symbol of Colombia’s diverse urban and rural culture. These days, they are now up for rent for groups of often drunken individuals and can often be seen in most major Colombian cities: rustic, brightly colored, and pulsating with Colombian beats. Three hours of chiva use goes for about 240,000 pesos, with as many stops, starts, and pee breaks as you desire. When we rented ours, the chiva first made an hour pitstop at La Ocho (see above) and then another one at La Fabrica, yet another popular club. The best part of the chiva, besides the florescent lighting, is the MUSIC. Either let the driver have his way with the system or plug in your phone to supply your own tunes. Nothing beats a bus sing-a-long to “Hooked on a Feeling” as the street traffic turns their attention to this monstrousity of bus and terrible singing coming its way. Whatever. Go with it. Smile and wave, blow kisses, moon. Booze is sometimes included in the package but we brought our own, or stopped along the way for refills. Try these companies: Chivas Rumberas, or Tio.