Carnaval de Barranquilla

March 23, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

An explosion of color and culture, the Gran Parada in Barranquilla Colombia 

 During the weekend of February 23rd and 24th 2020, Shelley and I had the great fortune to be able to attend the annual Carnaval in Barranquilla, Colombia. We had been traveling in Colombia since February 5th and had a return flight to our home in Massachusetts on February 25th. Our stop in Barranquilla for Carnaval was to be the grand finale of what turned out to be a very fun and memorable trip to a country we had never visited before. The carefree joy and frivolity of the celebration is like something from another long gone era now. As I write, we are living in the midst of the Corona Pandemic. These images are an homage to a world that once was, and one that I hope will return again for us all some day.

Prior to our departure we had done some research on Carnaval, but it was really impossible to know what to expect when we arrived in Barranquilla, a city of over one million people on Colombia's Caribbean Coast. Carnaval in Barranquilla is said to be the second largest one in the world after Rio de Janiero's in Brazil. As we pleasantly found out, it was a massive party and became one of the highlights of our trip. It also gave us further insight into and appreciation for the Colombian people's joyous and fun-loving attitude towards life, one that I reconnect with whenever I hear some Cumbia music play.

Barranquieros take Carnaval very seriously with many elaborately decorating their houses. Carnaval takes place over four days before Lent. During this time Barranquilla welcomes national and international tourists to join with the city's residents to enjoy four days of music, dancing, drinking and intense festivities. During the carnival, Barranquilla's normal activities are paralyzed because the city is busy with street dances, music concerts, parties and three costumed parades.

A detail of the colorful decorations on another one of the homes. The strange masked character in the chair and hammock is called Marimoda, and is a distinctive folkloric symbol of the celebrations which date back to the 19th century. Very little is known about exactly how and why the carnival began. There are several theories; the most popular belief is that the carnival was held to welcome the arrival of spring and as a celebration of birth and renewal. Colombian Carnaval originates from a combination of pagan ceremonies, catholic beliefs and ethnic diversity. It is a mixture of European, African and indigenous traditions, dances and music. 

Another comic and strange decoration. The bowl of fruit and eggs must have its own meaning and significance.

On our way to view the parade, we were invited to have a beer with a few of the friendly folks already celebrating at eleven in the morning.

Shelter from the sun, the ubiquitous sombrero Colombiano on sale near the parade route

The bleachers, or "palcos," offered the best view of the parades. There are three parades held during the four days of Carnaval. Unfortunately most tickets for the bleachers with the best views are sold in advance, and those seats were full by the time we arrived.

What is a good parade without an ample supply of junk food? Carnaval starts on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with a five- to six-hour long parade called the Battle of the Flowers (La Batalla de Flores), which is considered one of the main events. The Great Parade (La Gran Parada) held on Sunday and Monday is marked by an Orchestra Festival with Caribbean and Latin bands. Tuesday signals the end of the carnival, announced by the symbolic burial of Joselito Carnaval.

One of the newer traditions that Carnaval revelers love is to spray espuma, a sudsy foam, on each other. It can be a bit hazardous for cameras, so I kept mine in a plastic bag until ready to use.

Super Espuma

The following group of images are from Sunday's La Gran Parada, a celebration of Colombia's folkloric traditions. This woman represents one of the many Cumbia dancing groups. The Cumbia originated on the Caribbean coast where intermixing between the Spanish, indigenous and African peoples produced a large mestizo culture.

A group of Cumbia musicians playing their traditional instruments

Dancing in the streets! What impressed me about the parade was the large number of intergenerational groups participating.

One of many colorful and elaborately costumed groups is called Congo. They are said to be some of the oldest styles of costumes of Carnaval. At certain points along the parade route, they perform an elaborately choreographed routine to the cheers of the audience. Their movements are said to have originated from the African slaves who performed war dances of the Congo during the early days of their captivity in the New World.

In addition to costumed dancing groups, there were a number of costumed individuals making their way along the parade route interacting with the audience and often seeking tips for their humorous antics. It was one crazy, multi-faceted event.

  Another traditional Carnaval group is called El GarabatoEl garabato is the name of the staff with red, green and yellow ribbons that is carried by the men. The group and their dances are said to symbolize the struggle between life and death.

The carnival Queen, Isabella Chams Vega. Each year a new queen is chosen by the Board of the Fundacion Carnival de Barranquilla, usually in August or September. The queen's responsibility is to be the center of attention and motivate all Barranquilleros to participate and enjoy their annual Carnaval.

King Momo  the carnival King, is also chosen for his contributions to the community. This year's King was Alcides Romero Cogollo, who from the audience's reactions must have been a very popular guy, although I'm not sure about the company he keeps.

The Marimoda is one of the most recognized and popular symbols of Barranquilla's Carnaval. They are said to represent all care-free and fun-loving people which is a big part of Carnaval's ethic. The distinctive mask is said to have originally been created by a poor Baranquillero who couldn’t afford the fancy expensive costumes of the time and improvised his own mask from a fabric sack with holes cut for eyes and a long nose attached to the forehead.

The parade on Sunday was about six hours long with many lovely and colorful costumes. Participants spend much of the previous year making costumes and practicing their dances in order to prepare for the event.

And the band played on.....


Throughout the parade, there were various costumed characters like these grim reapers who were reminders of our own mortality. They were a bit spooky, but I didn't appreciate how prophetic they were. Now only a month later, the whole world is ravaged by the corona virus pandemic.

Another Congo group, I was impressed by variations in their colorful costumes. A lot of time and effort must have gone into creating them.

Tiny Cumbia dancers in their distinctive calico dresses

El Toro, the mythical bull, taunts the crowd.

This exotic couple added to the mystique and magical feel of event.

The best I could tell from my limited Spanish language skills, this colorful group were a parody of religious monks. They were rapping out humorous blessings through a bullhorn to the audience who responded with cheers and laughter.

One of the most unusual dance groups in the parade were Los Hijos de Negros, or Sons of Negros. These  performers would be considered very politically incorrect where I come from, but in Barranquilla they represent an historic Carnaval tradition that goes back to the African slaves brought to Colombia by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. It is said that during that time, the slaves exaggerated their facial and body gestures as a form of entertainment and used them to make fun of the Spanish. These contemporary dancers paint their bodies black to represent the color of the slaves, and use red dye on their mouths and tongues as an added exaggeration. Their dance movements are hard and fast, and the young men dramatize expressions with their mouths opened and their tongues out. 

As part of their routine, the Hijos de los Negros enjoy interacting with the audience along the route.

In addition to the costumed revelers in the parade, there were small groups of costumed mischief makers on the periphery of the route. I spotted this fake paramilitary patrol comically rounding up bystanders. Given the recent tragic history of violence perpetrated by Narcos, the FARC, the right wing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian Army itself, I suppose this is one way to exorcise those demons in a more light-hearted way.

As dark and bizarre as it may seem, it was all part of Carnaval fun.

The motto of Carnaval in Barranquilla is: Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza or "those who live it are those that enjoy it." For this young reveler, it looks like he is pretty much done enjoying it for the day. 

As we were leaving the parade area, I bought a bottle of water from this very gracious lady and her daughter. They were kind enough to pose for a photo. 

With the parade nearly over, the folks in the barrios were getting ready to continue the party with music and dancing late into the night. This is one serious boom box party machine ready to get the party going.

And what's to say about this reveler other than she just didn't give a .... for all the crazy stuff going on all around her. 

As time allows, which we all seem to have a lot of now that we are all in social isolation, I will be posting more images from our incredible adventure in Colombia.    

Paul,  March 23, 2020
Life In The Time Of Corona  

















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