Carnaval de Barranquilla, the second largest Carnival in the world after Rio de Janeiro, is a force to be reckoned with.
This extravagant, hedonistic celebration in the five days preceding Ash Wednesday is an experience I’d will any traveler to have at least once. If you happen to be in Colombia in early February when it takes place, it would almost be irresponsible not to.
While there’s no right or wrong way to celebrate Carnival, I’ve devised a handy list of Do’s and Don’ts to help you make the most of your experience.
My most important piece of advice? If you get the chance, go! You’ll make memories to last a lifetime and experience a unique aspect of Colombian culture that not many tourists get to see.
Carnaval de Barranquilla is a true embodiment of the generous spirit of Colombia; and as they say, Quien lo vive es quien lo goza! (Who lives it, enjoys it!)
DO think outside the box when it comes to booking accommodation. Hotels and hostels are not your only options.
These are likely to be the most affordable options, and you’ll have the advantage of hanging out with an in-the-know local!
DON’T wait until the last-minute to make your arrangements.
While it’s possible—likely, even—that you’ll be able to find a bed (or floor space) when you show up to Barranquilla, you’ll be able to enjoy the festivities more if you have the peace of mind of knowing where you’ll be sleeping.
DO get in on the action.
Vendors roam the streets selling giant cans of foam and boxes of maizena (corn flour) that locals will inevitably use to cover you from head to toe.
Instead of fruitlessly trying to avoid this (because you won’t), buy some ammunition of your own and fight back! Some of our favorite moments of Carnival involved no-holds-barred wars with locals—adults and children alike.
DON’T wear anything that you don’t want getting messy.
I’m not kidding when I say being floured and sprayed with foam is inevitable. Your hair will be a mess and your clothes will be dusted white by the end of each day, and your friends won’t want to listen to your whining when your dry clean only shirt becomes a sticky, sweaty mess.
DO dress up.
Markets pop up all over town selling brightly colored (and inexpensive) costumes and accessories to help you fit in with other Carnival revelers. You’ll probably feel more out-of-place if you don’t dress up than if you do—nothing is off-limits, so the whackier, the better.
DON’T forget sun protection.
Wear a high factor sunscreen when you head out in the morning, and reapply throughout the day. Shirts covering your shoulders, wide-brimmed hats (widely available) and sunglasses are all highly recommended.
DO partake of the Aguila, the Pilsen, the rum and the Aguardiente.
There’s nothing wrong with letting loose a bit and sharing in the fun with the locals, just make sure you do so responsibly. Between rounds of drinks, stay hydrated with plenty of water, and don’t forget to refuel with snacks throughout the day. Consuming alcohol on an empty stomach is never a good idea.
DON’T forget where you are.
You’re still in Colombia, you’re still a tourist in an unknown city, and you are still a potential target for thieves, especially if you let your guard down. When drinking, keep your wits about you; at night, make sure you are always with a group, and if you need to go anywhere by yourself, hail a taxi.
DO stay for more than one day.
The celebrations last for many days, and with prices of accommodation shooting through the roof, it can be quite expensive to be in Barranquilla for the entirety of Carnival. However, the atmosphere changes day-to-day, and it’s certainly worth spending a few days in a row checking out everything it has to offer.
Festivities change from day to night as well, so save some of your energy for after the sun goes down.
DON’T just go to the parades.
You’ll find desfiles (parades) on the major parade route, Via 40, every day of the event. These parades are touted as better and more extravagant, and as such, it’s much pricier to get a good seat for viewing. It’s worth going for at least one, but there are many other ways to enjoy Carnival outside of this event.
On other streets, smaller, more intimate parades pass by where you’ll not only get a better view, but you can have a much more interactive experience as well.
Additionally, street parties take place all over the city starting in the afternoon and lasting until the wee hours of the morning. These parade alternatives were some of our favorite moments of the festival.
Carnaval de Barranquilla may be a big investment in terms of both time and money, but it’s one you’ll never regret.
If you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.