Describing my experience on the northern coast of Colombia in February of 2007 is like trying to explain the intensity of an adrenaline rush to someone who has never left his or her couch. Although most conceptions of Colombia as a guerilla-infested, kidnapping-fueled, cocaine cartel-run war zone are grossly over-exaggerated, Colombia is certainly a country of intensity, bursting with opportunity, excitement, music and adventure. There is no better way to immediately get in touch with the grit, soul and culture of the Colombian people than to witness the world famous Colombian Carnival festival in the northern coastal town of Baranquilla. For four days every year before Ash Wednesday the entire northern coast shuts down as everyone puts on their party hats and heads to Baranquilla for a celebration epitomizing the Colombian love of a good time.
According to locals the Carnival Baranquilla is the second largest in the world, falling only behind the festivities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Baranquilla is the fourth largest city in Colombia but architecturally is an unattractive, massive, modern sprawl of concrete blocks and functional yet unfashionable buildings. The city relies heavily on its strategic positioning on the Magdelena river delta to stimulate both industry and trade and the city has very little interest in tourist activity for most of the year. Unlike other places in Colombia which are beginning to cater to the South American travel circuit, Baranquilla has no places to stay, no central area and is normally immune to touristic influence in general. In fact, Baranquilla receives practically no vacationing visitors at all until Carnival obediently comes around and completely over-saturates the entire area with foreign and Colombian travelers alike. Along with the surge of legitimate party seeking travelers, an equal if not larger force of pickpockets, robbers, thieves, professional con men and general criminals also flock to the streets during Carnival in search of easy, rich and drunken pray.
Due to Carnival being the only real attraction for the traveler in Baranquilla there is never anywhere to stay during the festivities and if you are interested in witnessing the madness you have three options for Carnival success. First, you can plan way, way ahead. For months before I arrived I had heard other travelers scrambling on telephones, trying to reserve already over-stuffed hotel space. This option may be the more intelligent, but is definitely less adventurous. The second option is to simply wander the streets nightly, looking for friendly souls to give out floor space. This is certainly recommendable but often times finds the stray homeless gringo paying for accommodation with bodily sacrifice to the older Colombian sector of society. Lastly, the committed yet unprepared traveler can wait for a last minute twist of fate to supply an opportunity for shelter.
I had done no preparation or planning whatsoever when I arrived on the Caribbean coast and was forced into the later two categories by default. I truly had no inclination of how I would experience the festival but I would learn this is the best way to go get your finger on the thumping pulse of Carnaval-ish activities.
My friend Paul and I were completely neglecting preparation and were traveling deep in the south of Colombia before Carnival began, but we did have one connection, one agent up north on the coast who was keeping us in mind as he tried to work out a sleeping situation. Via e mail, my secret weapon/bed-finder, Tyler had described that he had a good lead with two ladies that he had met from the UK who had a brother in Baranquilla. Tyler was putting in overtime time trying to get the ladies to invite us to stay at their place but to no avail. Regardless of the lack of accommodation we had all agreed to meet in Cartegena, a colonial gem on the Caribbean coast about an hour west of Baranquilla. When Paul and I arrived by bus, after two days of continuous travel we were exhausted, we were homeless and Carnival was starting in the morning.
Paul and I met up with Tyler in a small but lively hostel, everyone was bustling around getting prepared to start the party. The British girls that Tyler had contacted were heading out of the hostel to go to their perfect Baranquilla apartment as my friend trailed behind looking defeated from his fruitless effort over the past weeks. The girls were nice enough, perfectly friendly, but were clearly not about to offer three last-minute, party-crashing North Americans whom they had just met a place to stay. Just when things were looking at their grimmest the British girls brother showed up and before they could utter a word of protest he had personally invited us all to come and crash on his floor for as long as necessary.
Perfect and random, although our Baranquilla connection had no room in his car and we would have to catch a bus, we had been on the coast for less than an hour and things were looking up. I had relied heavily on the third option for Carnival success and somehow fate had responded favorably.
Paul wrote down the address to the apartment on a scrap of rumpled paper and we said temporary goodbyes to our new friends.
It was then that I also said goodbye to my large bag. The heat of the coast was stifling but exciting. Pants were changed to shorts, flip flops replaced shoes and shirts were cast aside altogether. Only the essentials would be traveling with me for the coming adventure. With only my day bag we hit the road, jumped on a coastal bus that we flagged down in the dusty blistering heat on the side of the highway and headed towards mysterious Baranquilla.
My first thoughts upon arriving in Baranquilla were that it was an arid, scorched, semi-desert town; sprawling, industrial and public transportationally challenged. We had a street address to find our contacts apartment but nothing else, no directions. The bus station in Baranquilla was as far away from our new apartment as possible and after many questions and many replies of "no sĂ©" we finally found ourselves heading to the proper area of town in a music-blasting public bus. An hour later, after making continual loops through Baranquilla, consisting of moving two blocks in the correct direction then taking a right, another right and yet another right, circumnavigating block by block until we found ourselves only one block closer to our floor-space, the mission seemed hopeless. It was a dizzying and disorientating trip but we could see that the city was alive in every corner. Decorations were everywhere and the sheer volume of the music blasting from every house, plaza, store, bar and liquor-store adequately represented that the cities energy was up and ready for the approaching event.
Although Baranquilla is large and complicated, the real problem that we faced that first night was that my friend Paul was a closet dyslexic. Somehow this condition had lied dormant for his entire life and mysteriously disappeared again after his "accident", but Paul had written the address to the apartment we were searching for completely backwards. This caused a good deal of confusion and wasted time as we wandered the streets with our things until we finally tried the impossible and went to the reverse of the address on our shabby lifeline piece of paper. This random act managed to be the correct and only solution to our terrible ramblings and then suddenly we had found our new home.
The apartment was a perfect Carnival pad, sparsely furnished, lots of floor space, easy to mess up and easy to clean up. We were welcomed to our new surroundings with complete generosity and everyone existed in a communal state on the floor where random mattresses, pillows, towels, backpacks and dirty clothes created a giant mass of sleepable area. Our hosts were happy to include us in their localism but we were also completely free to go as we pleased, given keys to the apartment and expected to find trouble on our own. It was a perfect situation, lots of local hints, invitations to all the right never ending Colombian salsa festivals with the freedom to accept or decline any invitation depending on mood.
Although the coastal zone is an obsessive beer and rum culture, I will never forget the roaring popularity of the local, sugarcane-based, Anis-flavored, shockingly disgusting alcohol called Aguardiente. Despite my best attempts to avoid the substance it was constantly circulating, essential to take in the name of Colombian camaraderie, yet mixing terribly with the usual staple of rum, coke and lime. Each morning the apartment would undergo a daily cleansing but still rudely reminded us of the mixed smells and particular tastes of the previous nightâ€™s activity.
Things officially started when I was woken up at nine o'clock in the morning the Saturday of Carnival by my rowdy new roommate who hadn't slept and was demanding that I get up, get involved and take part in a good morning shot of Aguardiente. Carnival was on and we headed into the streets at ten in the morning, reeling both from the previous nights debauchery and from our liquid breakfast.
Carnival has been increasingly commercialized in Colombia since the country has become safer and more popular with travelers and so for the first time tickets were necessary for entrance into the actual Carnival parade. Of course there was no chance that I could ever justify paying to get into a party such as Carnival, so the search was on for a connection, hook up, rooftop, back door, random rich, generous benefactor, or secret entrance.
We were in the middle of functioning chaos; everyone in the city was streaming toward the parade in a huge surge of humanity. Food vendors were everywhere selling meats, potatoes, rice, veggies, water and lots of ice-cold beer. Although everything looked and smelled delicious there was no hope of access to the food considering the magnitude of humans packed into the streets.
The entrance to the parade corridor was heavily fenced off and guarded by Colombian military and police who were braced against the thousands of drunken fanatics trying to push through and get closer to the festivities. After a mosh pit-like experience where we tried to get close and hop the fence it was clear that this was a useless approach. Soon, defeated in our first attempt, we were swept into the river of humanity and ushered south into Baranquilla's parts unknown.
About two miles from the normal ticketed entrances, the barricades stopped and even more madness replaced the comparative order of the upper parade area. The idea to sell tickets for entrance into the parade had been an attempt to water down the usual insanity of a free-for-all in the streets. However this plan seemed to completely backfire. No one wanted to pay to see the show, so all of the locals shuffled and crammed into the only area where tickets were not necessary and we found ourselves carried by the crowdâ€™s momentum through the secret entrance we were looking for and into the mayhem of the "common area."
It was then that we learned the cultural relevance of foam cans and corn flower, both for good and bad. I huge maddening all out war was taking place. Foam was projected with jet like propulsion from hairspray-looking containers at unsuspecting targets, completely covering everyone and everything in white. Water fights also raged and as soon as a bystander was found to be adequately wet from the foam or the water, white colored corn flour was added to the mix and dumped all over him or her, transforming everyone into sticky, wet, white, drunken, warring apparitions. We were soon completely caught up in the foam and flour fights only to be immediately handed a lesson in their potential negative aspects.
Out of the crowd a gruff looking Colombian rushed towards Tyler and quickly emptied the entire contents of a foam can directly into his gaping eyes. As Tyler floundered around blinded and in pain the Colombian started rifling through his pockets looking for passports, money and cameras. Luckily Paul and I were close by and immediately attacked the vagabond with our own arsenal of fists and foam to his eyes. The would be thief disappeared into the crowd as quickly as he had appeared slipping into the ruckus looking for his next victim before we could do anything further.
We had managed to find our free ticket in and it was all that we were looking for, chaos, excitement, music and anticipation as people tried to push towards the parade corridor and secure a viewing area. As we waded through the foam wars it became clear that anywhere remotely near the parade was packed with pushing, foam-spewing Colombians. No view was available on ground level but like towering sentinels of pure viewing pleasure, rows of tropical trees burst above the seething crowd. The trees immediately beckoned as refuges from the pressing humanity. Upon further inspection however most of the trees were either protected by massive sharp, rose like thorns or were already stuffed with agile Colombians who had happened to think of our plan first.
After much bumbling around we finally found a tree which was miraculously unoccupied largely because there was an entire camp of locals set up around its base and the first branch was about eight feet off the ground. The situation had become grave however and the lower levels of Baranquilla were becoming packed to the point of suffocation. With this in mind I switched into my politest Colombian accent and promptly asked the old grandmother tree watch-woman if she could kindly move aside for just a moment. Although the grandma was clearly stationed to protect the tree from climbing vagrants, she couldn't resist our gringo charm, or maybe it was the cool beer we offered her in exchange for access to the tree. In any case she grudgingly moved aside and I backed up as far as I could into the crowd, my companions trying to hold back the people as a small runway was cleared.
With a running start I ran at the tree and with legs peeling out on the bark, showering everyone around with tree debris I scrambled and clawed my way up to the first branch and precariously dangled for a moment as everyone gasped at the disturbance. Soon though I had swung up into the foliage and became the first inhabitant of our new tree. Supplies were then handed up, beer, hats, foam, flour, cameras shoes, water and anything else we were carrying. Tyler and Paul followed me up and suddenly we found ourselves with the best seat in the city, sprawling branches stretched in every direction in the canopy acting as perfect recliner chairs. I immediately climbed straight to the top of our new base of operations and gaped at the priceless view of the rowdiness below me which stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction.
Although the branches of the tree provided some protection from the blistering sun the heat was intense and unrelenting. As we waited, people below began to drop like flies from heat stroke. Every few minutes an unconscious person would be carried down the parade corridor on a stretcher, medics swarming around them providing shade and water.
Our refuge was not solely ours for long. Although they had not been kind enough to bribe the old grandmother tree watch-woman and she looked increasingly irritated as branches and leaves rained down on her, there were soon minions of like-minded Colombian hooligans co-habitating our tree. Before long our leafy perch looked like any other piece of flora within viewing distance of the parade, a tropical sentinel drooping and swaying with humanly fruit. The top level was ours however and we could stretch out in the canopy and relax in the sun. As we waited for the parade to approach a perfect Y in the tree acted as my bed and I caught up on sleep lost the night before as I dozed to the sounds of the raging fiesta below.
Suddenly an uproar erupted directly below us and I was ripped back into consciousness. One of the many thieves which had been roaming the crowd was caught red handed as he attempted to rob a camera. The man was grabbed and held as everyone began attacking and beating him in a mob like surge. As the frenzy gathered the man dropped to the ground covering his head in a fetal position to ward of the blows and curses. Suddenly another man burst into the frenzy with a huge knife. He picked up the thief and just as I though he was about to stab the incapacitated culprit to death they both darted into the crowd with the knife flashing . Apparently the two were partners and the man with the knife had arrived to save his friend from death by beating and foam-induced asphyxiation. As they ran into the crowd. a wave of swearing followed them into the distance, their occupation preceding them as people screamed and kicked them as they attempted to make their escape. They disappeared into the distance and the roaring of upset Colombians followed them out of ear shot.
Five minutes later the original beaten thief had reappeared, this time being dragged handcuffed down the fenced-off parade corridor by a host of angry police officers. Again, the taunting and jeering from the crowd escalated to a feverish pitch as bottles and trash were thrown at him in a display of his complete public humiliation. Thousands of people joined in his taunting. He was packed onto a police motorcycle shackled and sitting backwards, and was then driven off to his fate.
The time for the main attraction was approaching and long before we could actually see the Carnival parade we could hear it. Cheering and bone-rattling bass foreshadowed the actual appearance of the floats. Suddenly, however, the parade had arrived and the crowed went wild. The floats were massive and elaborate, each one topped with a Colombian supermodel more incredible and scantily clad than the last. Devils, angels, transvestites, political figures, traditional dancers, Reggaeton-grinding youth, confetti-hurling fire engines, live bands, marching bands, jugglers, acrobats, giants, midgets, unicycles, bicycles, motorcycles, tricycles and dancing, drinking, stripping, painted participants of all types marched along for miles in procession. Notable characters included George W. Bush, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Pablo Escobar, Hitler and Hugo Chavez impersonators, as well as an enormous balloon of Juan Valdez.
Our perch in the tree had been perfect for waiting, and had provided an unbeatable view for the first half of the parade, but it became apparent that the real party was happening below. Halfway through the parade we descended from our safe haven in the top of the tree and joined the frenzy. Complete chaos ensued: dancing, water fights, foam everywhere, singing and mayhem. Randomly costumed locals augmented the scene of the actual parade by wandering through the crowd, heckling people. A particularly large and hairy Colombian man with huge fake boobs and a giant prosthetic twelve-inch penis, which sprung out of a box, accosted me and demanded photos.
By the time the parade had passed we had met an entire new family of friends and we were all soaking wet and covered from head to foot in white powder, foam and confetti. As everyone started to file away the energy was ecstatic, Baranquilla was ready to continue the party. At this point we got completely lost trying to find our way home. Finally confused and unconcerned we stumbled upon the infamous "Festival de Cervezas" or beer party. Since we had accidentally arrived at a completely suitable destination we skipped the return home for a change of clothes and continued on with the festivities in our Carnival-tattered, foam and corn-stained gear.
The night continued on a scale of escalating rowdiness. The Festival de Cervezas was packed with locals and was centered around a huge stage blasting music all night. Completely dirty and exhausted we continued dancing in the massive crowd, breaking only for head-sized cups of frothy refreshments. The festivities eventually began to wind down but climaxed with an interactive dance from the famous Aguila girls, who are the shockingly gorgeous spokeswomen/mascots for Cerveza Aguila,the most popular beer in Colombia.
Eventually we were kicked out into the streets, but Carnival was still in full effect. Soon we found ourselves in the heart of Baranquilla at the epicenter of the discotheque world. Continuing on, the night raged, many new friends were met, and many terrible excursions into the world of professional salsa dancing were attempted. The night continued on like this and well into the morning and the next day. Finally, well after the sun had returned from hiding, when our stinking ravaged bodies could take it no longer, we stumbled home and slept for a day straight.
Carnival had chewed us up and spit us out, but it was an experience that will never be forgotten. From new friends to thieves, parades, dancing, getting lost, trusting the third rule of Carnival success and everything in between, Carnival in Colombia was a complete perceptory overload and we came out more haggard yet more confident of our travels than ever before.