Colombia’s biggest carnival is held in its fourth largest city, Barranquilla. It’s also billed as the second-largest carnival in the world next to Rio in Brazil. That might be a stretch (New Orleans’ Mardi Gras? Venice?), but it’s definitely the second-largest in all of South America and ranks right up there with the world’s largest.
We needed to see Colombia’s carnival for ourselves and figured once would be enough (we were right). But it was a fun, zany, and exhausting three days. There are four huge desfiles (parades) over the course of the carnival weekend. We made it to three, and that was plenty!
First – a little history
Like carnivals the world over, Colombia’s celebration is all about “get-it-out-of-your-system” revelry before the solemn days of Lent, the Easter season, and Holy Week. Sources vary, but most agree that the first official carnival happened sometime in the 1880s with the crowning of the first King Momo. But the roots of Colombia’s carnival go back centuries before that, to the indigenous and African enslaved people who staged joyful celebrations when their Spanish Catholic masters allowed them to cut loose for a few days each spring. Mixed in with the celebrating was a tinge of subversion, since many of the dances were irreverent parodies of the European culture. Some of that irreverence has carried over playfully in today’s traditions (see Marimonda and El Son de Negro below).
Today, Colombia’s carnival is a microcosm of the Costeño people who live along the Caribbean coast and take great pride in their mixed heritage and cultural traditions. Each parade reflects that rich stew of indigenous, African, and Latino traditions, with music and dance referencing all three cultures.
Here’s a maypole-like dance that’s derived from indigenous dance forms:
Marimonda. We weren’t even out of the airport before we noticed him. A crazy character with donut-shaped eyes and mouth and elephantine ears and trunk. Marimonda is EVERYWHERE in Barranquilla during Carnival – on billboards advertising beer, on the cover of every magazine and program, on bags, hats, table decorations. We saw hundreds upon hundreds of Marimonda characters in the parades, doing their loopy and shambling dance.
But Marimonda has an interesting history. He was dreamed up sometime in the late 1800s by poor and working-class folks who were being exploited by the high-society ruling class. With two long ties, one on the front and one on the back, and those spongy round facial features, Marimonda is a parody of the rich landowners and government officials who collected all the profits from the hard labor of the workers.
El Garabato. The garabato dance is all about the triumph of life over death, and it’s one of the most colorful and joyful things you’ll see in any of the parades. Even the bellmen at our hotel were dressed up in garabato costumes – black knee pants with lacy pockets, silky yellow blouses, heavily embroidered and sequined capes, and brightly adorned Panama hats. The dress for the ladies is long, swirly, and black, adorned with red, yellow, and green ribbons and flourishes.
In all three parades, we saw group after group of garabato dancers pause and “beat death to death” with decorated wooden clubs. If it sounds morbid, it’s anything but – it’s a happy dance performed to upbeat music with lots of whooping and merriment.
El Son de Negro. Coming from our politically correct world, we were a little shocked by these blackface (actually, blackbody) characters making crazy faces and wagging their bright red tongues. How racist, we thought! But we dug a little deeper and found that Costeños in general do not take offense at the Son de Negro dance; in fact, it’s considered a celebration of the African culture in Caribbean Colombia.
For El Son de Negro, young men and boys smear themselves with motor oil and dye their mouths bright red. The dance itself is high-energy and performed to a traditional African conga beat. Their exaggerated movements and facial expressions were originally meant to mock the Spanish who enslaved them; today, it’s mostly just part of the fun.
Desfile Numero Uno: The Battle of the Flowers (King Moma)
Unlike the parade traditions of other carnivals such as Mardi Gras, the first desfile (parade) of Colombia’s Carnival is the biggest and most elaborate. It’s also the one that takes the most stamina. Held on Saturday afternoon, it last at least six hours (we made it to about hour five and there was no end in sight). It’s a dazzling spectacle: colorful and elaborate floats! Dancers galore! Fire breathers and acrobats! Beauty queens! And incredibly ear-splitting music booming from the sound trucks.
(Click on the first photo in the gallery to click through all the photos.)
Desfile Numero Dos: The Grand Folkloric Parade of Tradition
This parade was shorter and more laid back. There were fewer floats and less booming music, but this day was all about celebrating Colombia’s rich heritage of music and dance in all of its multicultural forms. Dance troupe after dance troupe passed by, showcasing the cumbia, paloteo, congo, and other dance traditions.
Among those, the cumbia seemed to dominate. We lost count of the cumbia groups, with beautiful ladies and handsome men of every age keeping the tradition alive. Although the costumes lean to the European, with red-checked gingham dominating, the reedy and rhythmic music has a more indigenous bent. In the old days, cumbia was often performed after dark – that’s why you’ll see ladies holding aloft candles in some of the groups.
Here’s a quick video that shows the essence of cumbia:
And here are a bunch more pics from the second parade:
Desfile Numero Tres: The Grand Parade of Fantasies
As its name implies, this was the most risqué and sensual parade. Plenty of gorgeous people wearing skimpy costumes that showcased their gorgeous bodies, with huge and elaborated feathered headgear.
Desfile Numero Cuatro: The Funeral of Joselito
By the time this parade kicked off, we were already home in Medellín. Joselito is the symbol of all of the debauchery, merriment, and joy that is Carnaval – the Falstaff of Colombia. In mourning his death, paraders are “mourning” the death of all the fun, at least for another year. From the pictures we’ve seen, it looks like a hoot!
How to experience Colombia’s Carnival
- Book early. Seriously. This is one of the world’s largest carnivals, people. John booked our hotel room and airfare at least six months in advance.
- It’s hot. Dress accordingly. Everyone told us we would die of heatstroke, but Barranquilla wasn’t as hot as we expected. This time of year there’s a nice breeze that keeps the heat bearable. Even so, you need plenty of sun protection.
Find a costume. Just about everyone sports something festive, if even just a sparkly little Marimonda on your hat. It’s easy to find colorful Carnaval t-shirts, hair ornaments, and other gear from street vendors everywhere.
- Spring for tickets in a palco. So what’s a palco, you say? It’s a closed set of bleachers for parade viewing that offers shade, food and beverages for sale, and some of the cleanest and least smelly porta-potties we’ve ever seen (they even had TP!). Color me impressed. Our palco seats cost about $32 per person per day, but they were primo, on the second row. A more economical option is the mini-palcos, which have fewer amenities and open seating. We got our tickets from Tuboleta, the TicketMaster of South America.
- Go early. And don’t do what we did. On the first day, signage was lacking (that’s our excuse, and we’re sticking to it!) and we somehow got into the line for the mini-palcos, squeezed in with a huge smash of people trying to get through the narrow entrance. Think toothpaste tube, filled with a bunch of sweaty, frantic, cranky people. It wasn’t fun. Once we got squirted out the other end, we realized we didn’t have to stand in that line for our palco – we could have just walked right in. Lesson learned, and we had two more days to get it right (we did).
- Prepare to get slimed. Part of the carnival fun is getting sprayed with smelly foam or having white talc thrown at you. At the end of each parade day you’ll be a sweaty, slimy, stinky mess, but so will everyone else!
- Palco rules: what stinking rules? In the rowdy domain of the palco, you just go with the flow. As I said, our seats were good – on the second row. For the first parade, the group just in front of us showed up late and proceeded to stand up and block our view. When we asked them to sit down, the dude said, “But it’s OK to stand up.” Well, alrighty then – we stood up, as did everyone else. On the third day, we were a bit late ourselves and found people sitting in our seats. “But señores, on this day it’s OK to sit wherever you like!” Well, alrighty then. We ended up scoring some seats that were even better, so no harm no foul.
Our overall impression
Colombia’s carnival is a hoot – a real celebration in every sense of the word. The only thing in our experience that comes anywhere close is Panama’s Mille Polleras parade. And it turned out to be much more orderly, well-organized, and family-oriented than we expected. Carnaval is a true community event, and it’s an absolute must for anyone traveling in Colombia this time of year.
What are your experiences with carnival celebrations in other countries? Tell us all about them!