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.

cumbia dancers at Colombia's carnival

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:

Carnival icons

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.

man with two marimonda figures at Colombia's carnival
John with two Marimonda buddies
Marimonda dancers at Colombia's carnival
Marimonda dancers

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.

female dancer at Colombia's carnival
One of the scores of garabato dance troupes
garabato dancers in Colombia's carnival
“Death” defeated again

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 dancer in Colombia's carnival
El Son de Negro dancer

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!

parade goers mourning death of Joselito at Colombia's carnival
Isabella Chams, 2020 Carnaval Queen, mourning the death of “Joselito” (photo credit: El Heraldo)

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.
  • Sporting our ad-hoc carnival flourishes

    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).

    Photo credit:
  • 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!

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    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Mimi – glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It really was a fun and joyful event! Thanks for reading 🙂

  1. Janis Peace Reply

    Fabulous Susan and Kohn! Thank you so much for sharing!! I am in Orlando for a month baking cookies for a special event. Still live in Kernville. My son Shannon and his son, Landon just moved back to Los Gatos. Hope you are having fun in life! Appears so!! Lots of love to you both!! Janis

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      So great to hear from you, Janis! Sounds like life is still agreeing with you. Come and see us in Medellin!

  2. Karen Cregan Reply

    What gorgeous brilliant photos. Superb blog as always. Miss you, but you’re living a far more adventurous life than we are LOL. Karen

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Karen – great to hear from you! Hope you and Mike are doing well. We miss you too – hope we can see you one of these days.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much for your comment! There were a lot of magical moments at Carnaval 🙂

  3. Brilliant photos, that’s what you call a carnival isn’t it? They look like they really know how to throw a party.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It was a party for sure! So much fun. Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  4. Sue Davies Reply

    Beautiful photos. Colombia’s carnival looks wonderful. Thanks for all the tips on getting tickets, booking early, etc.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you – it was a blast!

  5. Wow, this looks like a really great carnival! All over the world, Latin countries share one thing in common: they do know how to throw extravagant and colorful celebrations.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Bama! Yes, indeed, these folks sure know how to party. It’s one of the things we love about living in Latin America! Hope you are well.

  6. Such dazzling colours, costumes and dances! You certainly scored, on so many levels. Well done, going with the flow and for the stamina to forge ahead, despite crowds, heat and stinky stuff floating in your faces, to partake in such an incredible cultural adventure. I hope to make it to Colombia sometime later this year or next. Muchas gracias to you both!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, it did feel like an endurance test sometimes! But we are so glad we got to experience Carnival. Good luck on planning your trip to Colombia and let us know if we can answer any questions!

      • Well, that planning thing fell flat, didn’t it… for ALL of us? Sheesh. Well, as globe-sailing navigators, I know you’re well-versed and prepared for any sudden shifts in weather, tide, wave patters, etc. So this must have just been another nudge 😉 Take care of yourselves!

        • John and Susan Pazera Reply

          You likewise 🙂 and keep planning that Colombia trip. I know you’ll make it here someday.

  7. Linda Travelitic Reply

    It looks awesome! We didn’t end up making it to Barranquilla when we were in Colombia but would love to go next time we are there. Now I’m thinking we should plan it for around Carnival time. 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      That would be a great time for your return visit! It really was a blast 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      It was super-fun! And it was a photographer’s dream, which made it hard to sort through our hundreds of photos. Thanks for reading!

  8. Beautiful photos that capture the exuberance and colours at the carnival. You’re strong to go to three parades. Thank you, John and Susan, for sharing this with us.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ah, thanks so much for your comment and you are so welcome 🙂

  9. Wow, great post and beautiful photos. So many similarities with Cuba’s carnival, including the palcos. I’ve just discovered your blog — looking forward to following and reading more! Thank you.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ah, thanks for reading and for visiting our blog! Cuba’s carnival must have been amazing. We loved our visit there and hope we can go back someday.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks for visiting – glad you enjoyed the post!

  10. I am impressed with your stamina, managing 3 days? Wow, well done you!! Such an incredible Carnival, the costumes, the colors, the joy in all your photos…I felt like being there with you. I have been to the Carnival in Rio, many years ago, it is an incredible spectacle. I would love to see this one in Colombia, it looks amazing. Thank you for sharing all the history behind it, fascinating to learn. Great post!!!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed the post! The Carnival in Rio is on our radar 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, my – thank you! Hope you two get to experience Colombia’s carnival someday 🙂

  11. Wow! This post just oozes vibrancy. I love the colours, the action, the faces of young and old. I’ve never had the pleasure of being part of a carnival like this. It looks like so much fun (and I’ve always enjoyed getting dressed up in costume). Thanks for the helpful tips.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      So glad you liked the post – thanks for reading! It was my first experience with Carnival too (although John had been to Mardi Gras). Unforgettable!

  12. What a fab experience guys! The costumes are just mesmerising. Love how the Colombianos just make up the rules as they go along 😂 Good on you for going with the flow. I’d love to see this one day!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, yup, going with the flow seems to be a national pastime here! Thanks for reading. And I have a feeling you two will experience Colombia’s carnival someday 🙂

  13. Wow. You guys are really livin’ it up. Great pictures and looks like great fun.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks – it was really fun! And thanks for visiting our blog 🙂

  14. Gorgeous post! Love the beautiful colors and the beautiful people! I’m from New Orleans (but have Colombian ancestry) and Mardi Gras in the Big Easy seems much different and more chaotic. It looks like they don’t through beads and trinkets in Colombia, is that accurate? I wish they would discontinue that tradition in New Orleans as it just makes a mess and works the crowds into a frenzy. I just went to the carnival in Rijeka, which is in Croatia where my husband and I are living. It wasn’t as colorful as the Colombian one, but was very enjoyable and distinctive in its own way.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks for your comments and for visiting our blog! No, no beads or trinkets for this Carnival, and we were impressed with how well it’s organized. Another surprise was how family-oriented it is – with people of all ages participating. I’ll bet Carnival in Croatia was really interesting!

  15. I love that Latin spirit full of smiley faces, colors, impressive and rich costumes and talented dancers.So muny good vibes! Great article!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! We would have replied sooner, but COVID-19 intervened. I wonder if there will ever be another Carnival? So much of our world is about to change radically. Anyway, we do appreciate your reading and commenting.

  16. Wow.

    I love this post. Music and colorful clothes. I have been only in Bogotá. In Helsinki, Finland, we have Samba Carnivals, but maybe not this summer due to Coronavirus. Well, I love Colombian Cumbia very much and I have hundreds of them. Do you love Cumbia?

    ¡Que disfrutes de una estupenda jornada!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Yess, we love cumbia and the carnival is the best place to see it! I hope they have it next year. The coronavirus is changing so much of the world. Muchas gracias por su visita de nuestro blog!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you! We just visited and subscribed to your blog as well. I submitted a comment but I’m not sure it went through. Anyway, thanks for your support!

  17. This looks amazing, and your photos are fabulous, capturing the feel of it. There’s such a similarity with Candelaria, and with Guelaguetza that we went to in Mexico. I think Latin America has just about the best carnivals in the world. They really now how to party.

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