A cosmopolitan port city renowned for its party-loving lifestyle, Barranquilla sees its streets transformed into a mesmerizing vision of brightly-colored costumes, energetic dancing and passionately-playing bands as it celebrates its annual street carnival.
Taking place during the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday, the Barranquilla Carnival allegedly has its roots in the ceremonies of Colombia’s ancient indigenous inhabitants, in the traditions brought to South American shores by European colonialists and in the occasional music-orientated festivities enjoyed by 18th Century African slaves. It is the sheer diversity of cultures celebrated during the carnival period, therefore, which captivates the attention of the admiring crowd as they recognize the richness of Colombia’s unique historical past.
That Barranquilla holds a multitude of events beginning one month prior to the official start date of the festival is a clear indication of just how passionate the locals are when it comes to celebrating this long-held Colombian tradition. From the Carnaval de Los Niños(Children’s Carnival) to the Fiestas de Comparsas, Fiesta de Danzas y Cumbias and Danza del Garabato (dance performances) to the Viernes de la Reina de Reinas (Carnival Queen Contest), the weeks leading up to Barranquilla’s grand carnival opening are filled with an abundance of outdoor activities appealing to all ages and create a stirring of excitement throughout the coastal city as the much-anticipated four-day-long extravaganza draws closer.
As for the carnival itself, Barranquilla commences its prestigious festivities with the six-hour-long Batalla de las Flores parade. Led by the newly crowned carnival queen, who throws flowers to excitable spectators, the procession is an unforgettable spectacle of flamboyantly decorated floats, incredibly lively dancers, and highly gifted musicians. However, a day alone is not enough for Barranquilla’s parade enthusiasts; day two of the carnival witnesses an equally impressive display of elaborate costumes during the Desfile de la Gran Parada.
With a stronger emphasis on Colombia’s folkloric traditions, the Great Parade particularly prides itself on its cumbia dance and music performances. A mixture of Spanish and African styles, the cumbia is a courtship dance usually accompanied by strong drumming beats and harmonious flute rhythms. Aware of the watchful gaze of the nearby panel, Barranquilla’s Great Parade cumbia dance troupes will certainly impress the crowd as they move in perfect unison and desperately strive to win the praise of the competition judges. From one contest to another, Carnival Monday is the highlight for music lovers. Setting their eyes on the highly-esteemed Golden Congo prize, an array of the Caribbean and Latin American bands compete in the Orchestra Festival.
With a total of 36 bands performing their beloved music genre in 2013 — choices ranged from reggae town to hip-hop to African-influenced champeta — the festival not only catered for all musical tastes but equally highlighted the undeniable talent of Colombia’s local artists. Just one final day of celebrations left, Barranquilla ends its parade-centered festivities with the Joselito Carnaval. Supposedly a former city coach driver whose only day of rest fell on a Tuesday and who, one particularly Tuesday, drank himself to death, Joselito represents the joys of the carnival which, unfortunately like the life of Joselito, must come to an end.
Although melancholically-dressed in black, the parades’ widow characters are not truly downhearted and, instead, focus their attention on the privilege of having partaken in a 4-day long non-stop party. For visitors looking to understand the importance of Colombia’s coexisting blend of cultures and the absolute enthusiasm of the country’s inhabitants to celebrate such cultural diversity, a trip to Barranquilla’s truly spectacular carnival will not disappoint.