Suddenly, it’s snowing, the fluffy white stuff swirling madly under the streetlights. Not unusual on an early February night, right? Except that it’s 70-something degrees, and I’m hanging with my local friends Stefano and Marcelo over Águila beers at a bar on Colombia’s subtropical Caribbean coast.
Something moist lands on my head as some guy in a colorful cloth mask leaps around in front of our outdoor table, cackling and shaking a can of foam as a girl sporting a striped straw hat flings white corn flour on our shirts. We wipe off with a shrug and a rueful grin — it’s par for the course for Carnival in the city of Barranquilla (sometimes dubbed “Quilla” for short), Colombia’s fourth largest and home town of singer Shakira and Detroit Tigers shortstop Edgar Rentería, and the old stomping grounds of lit lion Gabriel García Márquez.
Yep, it's that time of year again. And it's not just New Orleanians — millions of others south of the border are still recovering from the mad multi-day partying and parades of the last days before Lent, in places like Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Bolivia and, most famously, Brazil.
The one I’m recovering from, though, you’ve probably never heard of, even though it’s the biggest in the world after Rio de Janeiro’s (more than 550,000 participants this year), yet a good bit less commercialized, glitzy and pricey to attend. It’s also closer to its 19th century folkloric roots — indeed, UNESCO recently gave it the nod as a World Heritage treasure because of the way it showcases this coast’s mix of European, African and indigenous cultures — and especially since the 1960s it’s been growing bigger and better every year. Carnival in Barranquilla is also safe (safer than Rio these days, some would say), lots of fun and definitely something to keep in mind for next year.
In fact, it feels kind of like Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve and Halloween and New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade all rolled into one — normal life in this burg of 1.7 million all but shuts down, and everyone goes on a joyous, sometimes raucous spree.
I got a glimmer of what was coming when I saw the Avianca flight attendants decked out in spangly vests and red-black-gold jester caps. Then the troop of kids prancing around the airport in marimonda outfits (bright blue pants, red vests, and hoods that looked like gas masks on LSD but were supposed to represent monkeys, with big floppy ears, spectacle-like eyes, and long, droopy probosces à la bonobo). And of course the bit of business I glimpsed while heading into town: a pair of jeans trailing from the trunk of a taxi, outfitted with stockings stuffed and arranged like a comically bulging pair of male genitalia.
Such hijinks and plenty more were on display during Carnival’s central highlight, this past Saturday afternoon’s Batalla de Flores (Battle of Flowers), a three-mile, six-hour cavalcade of floats, marchers, firebreathers, and folkloric dance and music groups. Then there were the endless squads of distinctive Carnival characters, especially marimondas, masked harlequins, and congos, African-derived characters in whiteface, dark glasses and two-foot-tall headdresses resembling chefs’ toques riotous with feathers, flowers, and/or other colorful doodads (the Spaniards brought African slaves to this coast, leaving Barranquilla and nearby Cartagena with its multculti mix). Many of the floats were loaded with either hot chicks in skimpy bikinis or various beauty queens, including Carnival’s “Queen of Queens,” a sweetheart of a 22-year-old industrial design student named Angie de la Cruz; another held her co-ruler, the Rey Momo (“clown king”), 40-something mustachioed musician José Ignacio Cassiani.
And of course there was burla up the wazoo.
As I learned from a visit to Barranquilla’s Museo Romántico, a museum of the city’s lore which naturally includes a hefty chunk of Carnival, one of the celebration’s central concepts is la burla (making fun of something or somebody). Back in the old days, that usually meant slaveowners, colonizing Spaniards in general and stuffed-shirts from Bogotá. Last Saturday that translated into pokes at Colombian drug lords, FARC terrorists, pols and soccer players, as well as past and present characters from pop culture and the world stage. I spotted an obese drag Shakira, a couple of Osama bin Ladens and another pair spoofing strongman Hugo Chavez of next-door Venezuela (one was strolling with Fidel Castro, the other palling around with George Bush). Another Bush was dressed as the Devil, leading a pack of demonic minions and aiming a penis-shape watergun at the crowds. And then there was Adolf Hitler, sieg-heiling his way down the street in the company of a girl with a sign plugging a local optician. Good times — but by the time a gaggle of zombies came staggering by four-plus hours later, I was starting to feel like one myself.
The one off note was the location — the “official” parades are held out at the grubby cargo port zone on the Magdalena River because it has Via 40, the longest, straightest avenue in the city. But it’s ugly. Shade is hard to come by and they charge for bleacher seats.
Back in town, though, two free street parades were happening at the same time, sometimes with the same floats and marchers after they left Via 40. It’s here you’ll really find the locals cutting loose (complete with plenty of foam and flour — a big no-no on Via 40) and keeping up the hoopla long into the wee hours. Sitting at that bar just before it started “snowing,” I gazed out at hundreds of people jamming other watering holes up and down Calle 84, along with a folk group at the entrance to the Bogaloo Casino cavorting with a red gorilla. A few blocks away, a televised “beer carnaval” was packing an entire stadium with thousands of revelers and high-profile music acts. My friend Marcelo is from Bogotá, and he seemed a tad bemused by it all — while quilleros think bogotanos are prudish stuffed-shirts, bogotanos tend to view quilleros as lazy, hot-blooded types who just want to laisser les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll).
But apart from one of the biggest, most kick-butt parties in the hemisphere, is there any reason to visit this mostly low-rise city? Honestly, not so much. Besides the Museo Romántico, there are a couple of museums and some nice old houses. There's the historic bar eatery called La Cueva, famous as the hangout of García Márquez and his cronies. And there are some nice beaches nearby. But what you’ll really want to do is couple Carnaval here with a visit to Cartagena de Indias, about an hour’s drive west, famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the largest and most spectacular colonial Old Towns in the Americas. You might want to make it your first stop, though; after all that partying, my head is still spinning and my voice is gone. Good times ...