Barranquilla, a coastal city in Colombia has two main claims to fame: first, that it is the birthplace of Colombian pop artist Shakira, and second, that it is host to an annual explosion of color, music and celebration in the form of its carnival. Among a very packed calendar of festivals and events in Colombia, Barranquilla's Carnival stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The event sees crowds of up to 500,000 lining the three-mile long parade route
This energetic and hedonistic event officially lasts for four days, and draws crowds of up to 500,000 people who line the three-mile long parade route. However, in reality, the celebrations kick off several weeks before the main parades during the pre-carnival period, which usually begins in mid-January (the date varies from year-to-yea as the carnival is always held 40 days before Easter). Visit the city in the weeks prior to the processions and you'd be forgiven for thinking that the carnival proper was already underway. Special events and parades litter this period and include the crowning of the carnival king and queen, the children’s carnival parade and the gay parade. The largest of the assorted pre-carnival events is the famous night parade, known as La Guacherna, which is held the day before the main celebrations.
When the real carnival gets underway, it is the Saturday celebrations that are the largest, nosiest and busiest of the four-day party. The Batalla de Flores (Flower Battle) is the main event and this consists of a six hour long parade of floats, led by the carnival queen and her entourage. The show features everything we've come to expect from a carnival: musical tropes, vibrant costumes, folk dances, masked characters, live performers and plenty of flowers. The whole city comes alive with celebration; it is a joy to see all carnival goers, from children right up to Barranquilla's oldest local residents, joining in with the dancing and festival atmosphere.
It is a joy to see all carnival goers, young and old, joining in the festival atmosphere
The second day is the Grand Parade; a procession of carnival characters, and ornately costumed paraders. Given the absence of floats in this parade, the dress and decoration adorning those in the procession become the main show. Marimonda, hooded characters with floppy ears and long noses, are joined by people dressed as dwarfs with large heads (gigantonas), as well as the Cumbiamberos, who appear in traditional regional dress. In among these lot, you may also see lookalikes and people dressed as celebrities and world figures (not always in good taste). Within but a few moments Michael Jackson, Shakira, Hitler and Barack Obama can all wander by.
The festivities continue on through Monday with the Fantasy Parade, another colorful costume parade, and the Orchestra Festival. Bands playing tunes from all across Latin America and the Caribbean dominate this part of the carnival. The carnival draws to a close on Tuesday with the symbolic death and burial of Joselito Carnival, the main carnival mascot who is said to die from exhaustion and a monumental hangover after so many days of partying. This is not your traditional funeral, however, and is accompanied by a period of “mourning” celebrated in comedic and exaggerated fashion. Though Joselito's death marks the official end of the celebration for the year, the character is always resurrected later, just in time to join in the mayhem next time around.
Barranquilla has an international airport, which is served by direct flights from Miami, Panama City and Quito in Ecuador. Domestic airliners also link the city to Colombia's other major urban hubs, including Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Cucuta.
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You won't be short of options for bus routes into the city either. The closest major tourist destination is Cartagena, which is a comparatively (by Colombian standards) short distance away. Buses, including overnight buses, run regularly between Barranquilla and mainland cities like Bogota and Medellin. These journeys, however, can take up to 12-14 hours to complete. If you're not on a very tight budget, you might do better investigate options for domestic flights.
Remember that Barranquilla's carnival is extremely popular and attracts huge numbers of revelers from all over the country. So whichever way you're planning on travelling here, you will need to book your tickets (and hotel) well in advance. Be warned also that prices for transport and accommodation are likely to be in excess of 50% higher than at other times of the year.