Quien lo Vive es Quien lo Goza
Carnival is a mix of joy and rebellious celebration, and while the world knows all about Rio de Janeiro, it’s Colombia’s festival that has a place in my corazoncito!
The biggest celebration during the week and a half before Ash Wednesday takes place in the industrial port city of Barranquilla. I’ve explored much of the Colombian Caribbean coast’s pre-carnaval celebrations that occur every weekend leading up to Mardi Gras, and my experience was specifically in a small beach-side pueblo in Dibulla, La Guajira about 4 hours from Barranquilla. Recently I had the opportunity to experience the festivity with many of my Peace Corps co-workers in Baranquilla.
I highly encourage everyone to check out this vibrant, colorful, happy, and fun event. It’s no wonder their slogan is always “quien lo vive es quien lo goza“, translating to “who lives it is who enjoys it.”
Carnival originates from a combination of pagan ceremonies, catholic beliefs, and ethnic diversity (a mixture of the African, Indigenous, and European traditions), dancing, and music. It was at first a holiday for slaves protesting and mocking the reigning power, religious authority, the wealthiest classes, and other forms of crippling colonization. It later grew to be a celebration of the region. The first documented date in the Carnival’s history was in 1888 when the first King Momo was picked. The King Momo signifies the beginning of festivities, is usually charismatic and/or a good dancer. Unfortunately, the queen is chosen by her physical appearance, unlike the King, as well as her charisma and/or dancing skill. It is customary to choose a King Momo and Queen by schools, institutions, and regions.
We had a wonderful time! We attended the biggest parade that takes place on Saturday before Mardi Gras by road Via 40. Here is where we haggled for tickets (25,000 Colombian Pesos or about $8.50 USD per person) just outside of the parade gates. We did have to wait around for about an hour in order to find the best price with the help of local Colombian friends. It didn’t help that we were with a small group of “stereotypical” Gringos, therefore we were given higher prices by most. This is where being Latinx or POC and speaking fluent Spanish will help you, and possibly get you in faster with a better price offer. The same Colombian friends said the tickets are usually more expensive if you buy ahead of time because the tickets we got were last minute. We went to the parade again on Sunday, which was free but not as extravagant as Saturday.
The most comical of these caricatures is the Marimonda because they are usually silly and perform goofy dance moves. They are always trying to make fun of everyone, especially the ruling powers. When I ask what type of animal the mask represents, I get hilarious explanations: “a monkey”, or “no it’s not an animal, it represents male and female genitalia on the face!”
One of the first quotes I saw in large, bold print on a taxi when I first arrived to Barranquilla for my initial Peace Corps training said “Más feliz que un gringo con disfraz de Marimonda“, which translates to “More happy than a gringo with a Marimonda costume”, meaning that even foreigners enjoy the fun that this caricature brings.
A couple of us were featured in the local newspaper El Herlado with exactly that quote as the title since Colombians have been very excited about the decrease in violence and the uptick in tourism.
The most popular form of music and dancing during the parade and other events is Cumbia and Mapalé:
Two highly recommended evening events we attended for open-air dancing were the Carnavalada in the Parque Cultural del Caribe with live music, and the famous La Troja on Carrera 44 con calle 74. Take a look at the Carnaval’s main website for a list of events starting from pre-carnival season until Mardi Gras. The most common music played at these venues is Vallenato, Champeta, Salsa, Reggaeton and other Afro-Colombian beats.
Be aware of three potentially annoying things to look out for at this celebration.
1) Constant flour, foam, and water being thrown in your face, hair, clothing, and even directly in your eyes. This will happen no matter what you try, so if you know you won’t like this, don’t go.
2) Be wary of wearing fancy jewellery, clothing, or carrying your phone. Colombians will always urge you to not “dar papaya” which is slang for “making yourself a target.”
3) Black Face is very prevalent throughout the festivity which is cringe-worthy. Be prepared to see this, while most dancers and paraders are a mix of black and brown Colombians, and while the majority of the queens are white or light-skin Colombians. Be careful if people dressed like this approach you because they like to intimidate tourists and foreigners to give them money, and they will try to touch you with the tar they are painted with.
Experience it yourself, por que quien lo vive es quien lo goza! Carnaval de Barranquilla‘s main parade takes place the Saturday before Mardi Gras every year. If the time coincides, flights to Colombia are very cheap in February!
To hype you up, enjoy a video I organized of our 2017 experience: