It may not be Rio, but little ol’ Barranquilla’s Carnaval brings the heat. And although the event itself lasts but four official days, the city practically oozes Carnaval revelry for nine months out of the year. Regardless, most visitors only show up for the flashiest time, this year being February 25-28th. Foreigners pour into the otherwise very un-gringo city, creating an international party infesting the dusty streets. You’ll likely be a newbie to the city and Carnaval, so it’s necessary to be prepared for the inevitable hedonism. I’m here to help:
1.Buy parade tickets like right meow. If you’re in Barranquilla, head to the closet mall— Viva, Buenavista, Villa Country— and then attack one of the many booths selling tickets. Stores like Exito, a Wal-mart of sorts, also has dedicated “Tu boleta” sellers. Contrarily, order your tickets online from here. A lot of the site is in Spanish and credit cards can be finicky on it, so best of luck. My credit card was rejected with a grand FU. If your luck runs better, aim for the palcos (stands) as close to the beginning as you can afford. By the time the dancers shimmy to the end— many, many hours later— they are tired as shit. Note that when you buy you ticket, it gets you the palco for all four days of Carnaval. Only plan to watch the parades one or two days? See below…
2. Still don’t have tickets? Be Barranquillero and do the gives-no-f*&$s approach. Simply make your way to Via 40 (where the parade does it thang) and hunt down one of the many people trying to sell their tickets. Easy peasy. Still no luck? Wait a day. While day one of Carnaval is quintessentially fabulous and prime time at the palcos, days 2-4 still wow. But that doesn’t stop most revelers— especially non-Barranquilleran Colombians who have to work for the man on Monday— from escaping after one solid day of getting shit faced. And so, those who flee like to sell back their tickets at a discounted price… right there at the palco to desperate, interested parties. So if you are without a golden ticket, simply show up on day 2 or 3 and look out for scalpers of the reputable kind. No shadiness at all, guaranteed. Last ditch effort– climb a tree and watch the parade from up high. When in Barranquilla, do as the locals do.
3. No accommodation? Yup, you and everyone else. Unless you were wise many, many moons ago, you’re generally shit out of luck. Nevertheless, bring your tent and plan to Woodstock it. In places like Mudvi Park, which actually does have a legit camping area (close to the airport). No one’s gonna sleep anyway, but if you have to, the po-po have bigger problems than a gringo treading on park land. As for your haul, stop by The Meeting Point (Barranquilla’s one lowly hostel) and beg profusely for them to guard it for a some fortune. And by doing so, you just might nab yourself a bed if reservations fall through.
4. Prepare for palco hell. Arrive early. The palcos open at 10 a.m. so this is your chance to nab front row seats. Next, bring snacks and hide them deep in the recesses of a lady purse. They aren’t very cursory with their security check and you’ll want plenty of food and water to sustain you. Yes, they DO sell stuff but it often takes an hour to receive it, if at all, and with or without your change. Finally, whether or not you got a “shaded” palco, the sun still streams through their sorry excuse for a roof. Prepare to sweat like a whore in a church.
5. As mentioned, this city ain’t accustomed to dealing with gringos. There’s silly people like me and my colleagues that live here for some reason but we represent a rather insignificant ratio. People round these parts may stare at us, mystified or even catcall (yay machismo culture), but I have never felt uneasy. Or asked for money. Or pick-pocketed. That being said, Carnaval time sees an influx of bumbling visitors— like hundreds of thousands of them— who are often drunk, lacking adequate Spanish, and completely oblivious of the lawlessness of the land. Unless you’re Colombian, expect to be harassed at Carnaval in typical fashion. Therefore, be savvy: Keep your money in your SHOE. Pickpocketing is rampant during the festivities. Take Uber. Taxi drivers will often overcharge you as a foreigner and you probably won’t even know it.
6. The costumes and colors of Carnaval are mesmerizing. You’ll find yourself envious, wishing you had the skill/ body/ balls to pull off the attire prancing past you. But one caveat: you shouldn’t wear super nice clothes to the parades or street parties. And that’s because you will inevitably become a personal mop for the excess of debauchery flying around: foam, colored powders, water guns, BOOZE. I have a Cumbia skirt and I wouldn’t dare flutter a ruffle on street level. However, DO feel free to wear as much glitter and gaudiness as you can muster to accent your otherwise drab attire. Hell, show some skin even… everyone else is doing it. If you lack rainbows in your drawers at home, hit up Barranquilla’s malls (see tip #1). Places like Exito, Jumbo, and PINK HEART— Colombia’s “Claire’s— are ready to pimp you up. Or just wait until you pass one of the many vendors
7. If you’re like me, well past the age of multiple nights of intoxication, take a break from the shit show and pay homage to Barranquilla’s other sites. Some of them will most likely be closed on official Carnaval days but others will make it a point to stay open and reap the benefits of financial wealth. Also, if you’re sick of fried street food and juices, check out some of Barranquilla’s finer dining or cheap eats.
8. I can’t emphasize how important it is to handle the sun with care. It’s hot as f*&$ here. Yes, the nights are quite lovely and breezy, but the “winter” winds have already started to die. You will be the sun’s bitch, despite most palcos being in the shade. Lubricate yourself with sunscreen SPF 500 and top yourself with a fancy hat— preferably one that includes a Marimonda (see #5). Bring your own water bottle and be eco-friendly. Barranquilla’s tap water is super safe to drink.
And duh, have fun. Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza!