Barranquilla, Colombia – Barranquilla , a city of over 1 million people knows how to throw a party, only it was a party like none other. If you are making your “bucket list,” a reference to things you want to do or accomplish before you die, my vote would be to add Barranquilla ’s carnival experience to your list. Here’s why!
The grand parade, held on a Saturday afternoon each year just before the start of the Catholic feast of Lent, is the party’s culmination. You’ll realize immediately it’s carnival weekend because the minute you finish with Colombian customs at the airport, after the 2.5 hour long flight from Miami, the party is on - bands playing in the airport, models offering everyone drinks and a jammed arrival terminal full of excitement and anticipation for the weekend’s big party.
Billed as the second largest carnival in South America, the carnival’s grand parade had it all - group after group of folkloric dancers and singers wearing colorful costumes; very unique floats (or carriages as the locals call them); and finally, a cast of characters that may be unmatched anywhere in the world.
Let me set the stage. Nearly 600 Colombian army troops assist other law enforcement agencies so that the huge crowds, estimated from 200,000 to 500,000, stay safe and secure along the 3-mile long parade route. For Americans who may be worried about security issues in Colombia , I felt incredibly comfortable during the carnival and during my time in Barranquilla .
For the traditionalist, the parade is certified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Event because of the parade’s history. It dates to the turn of the 19th century, and it attempts to retain its original charm – hours of singing and dancing by the people of Barranquilla - not a parade dominated by outsiders, professionals and corporate interests. (The Latin super singer Shakira can vouch that the residents of Barranquilla know how to sing and dance; she hails from the city.)
Although at times it seemed like chaos, kids and families were everywhere along the parade route. It was mostly a family friendly event, with not a single chest being exposed for beads as in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. From the older parade participants, who could be seen grooming youngsters to continue the family tradition of participating in the parade, to the youngsters in the crowd watching, the pride and joy of the participants and onlookers in their parade was palpable.
Initially, I was unsure how wild it was going to get. Pre-parade participants walked along the barricades that held crowds from spilling over into the streets and passed out condoms to adults, followed quickly thereafter with people dispensing Bible booklets.
Once the parade started, its obviously quick tempo set the stage and made the hours in the Colombian sun pass by like they were minutes. (Although the temperature was in the high 80s, the low humidity made it bearable.) At times, parade participants were jogging to keep up with the rapid pace, a pace that contained virtually no “dead time” or holes. Floats, some as elaborate as something you might see in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, were sometimes driving by so fast you could barely keep up with them.
The floats, music and dancers, many wearing homemade masks of various types, were original and the highlight, but another key element that made the carnival so unique was its cast of characters – I am not referring to Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie, but look-alikes of world leaders and other personalities – some of which were cheered while others jeered during their walks in the parade.
Where else can you find a near clone of Usama Bin Laden walking in a parade and shaking hands with a President George Bush look-alike? The random appearance of these figures made the event seem like a dream – there was absolutely no way to predict what would come next – anything was possible and virtually nothing was off limits from being lampooned on this day dedicated to having fun.
There was music, floats and singers sandwiching an Adolph Hitler look-alike. Hitler was followed by a favorite crowd villain – Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela . More than one Chavez made an appearance, a testament to the country’s displeasure with its often mouthy next door neighbor. One Chavez look-alike posed for pictures with a cigar chomping Fidel Castro double.
At other times in the parade participants conducted skits, poking fun of local stars and figures – from referees taunting international soccer superstar Carlos Valderrama to the residents of Bogotá, who are perceived by locals as being uptight and stuffy. To top it off, the unforgettable mud people, a group of approximately 20 people entirely covered in mud, pleased the crowd with their antics. They posed for pictures as they picked the mud off their bodies and ate it.
Colombia ’s official tourism slogan summed up my visit to Barranquilla , “ Colombia , the only risk is wanting to stay.”
How to get there: American Airlines has direct flights from Miami to Barranquilla.
Where to stay: Puerto Sol Hotel in Barranquilla. Rates increase dramatically during the week and the weekend of Carnivale. This hotel was charging over US $200 per night.
For more information: http://www.turismocolombia.com