When you’re thinking about places to visit in Colombia, Barranquilla may not be immediately on your radar.
Colombia’s principal port and second largest city, Barranquilla is nestled on the Caribbean Coast and known as the country’s ‘Golden Gate’ for its economic significance in the progression of aviation, transport and technology.
As a primarily industrial city it is a less obvious choice for travelers, who typically opt for the Queen of the Caribbean Coast: Cartagena to the south, or charming seaside Santa Marta with its easy-access to the famous Tayrona National Park to the north.
As the underdog for your Colombian vacation, it is a cheaper alternative to the aforementioned making for less costly transport and budget-friendly accommodation, all the while in close proximity to the true jewels of Colombia.
However, every year, 1 million people descend on the city every year to revel in the world’s second-largest carnival, in an explosion of music and color.
What to do in Barranquilla
Our top advice for visiting Barranquilla is this: come for the carnival!
The city is most famous for its annual carnival which takes place in the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday each year. Colombia’s most famous festival – and the country’s biggest street party – attracts over 1.5 million visitors every year who come to revel in the lavishly decorated spectacle of performance and theatrics that is the Barranquilla Carnival.
The Barranquilla Carnival history dates back to the 19th century and whilst the exact origins are unknown, it is thought that it is intended to welcome the spring in celebration of birth and renewal in a diverse mix of European, African and Indian traditions, dances and music.
Normal day-to-day activities come to a halt as businesses shut-up-shop ready to engage in the festivities for four days of intense celebration. The city becomes a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities, all sharing in the traditions of Colombia’s heritage.
In 2003, UNESCO declared the Carnival of Barranquilla a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity!
The Battle of the Flowers
The Battle of the Flowers marks the start of the carnival, on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, kicking off the event in style as the six-hour parade hosts more than half a million attendees. Partygoers will experience elaborate floats, vibrant carnival costumes and exotic music and dancing ensembles, all hosted by the Carnival Queen.
This event dates back to 1903 and celebrates the end of the One Thousand Days War in Colombia, when the people of Barranquilla congregated to fight with flowers instead of bullets. The poignant story behind this event makes the perfect beginning to four days filled with festivities, where individuals from all cultures and backgrounds unite to honour Colombian traditions.
The Great Fantasy Parade
For some of the most spectacular displays of Barranquilla Carnival costumes, the third day (Monday) of the festival is not to be missed. The clue is in the name, but this parade is a celebration of all things fantasy, a bonkers extravaganza with performers sporting eccentric ensembles in every colour of the rainbow, and dancing choreographed routines based on salsa, reggae, samba and more contemporary methods.
Parade of Joselito
The final day of the Barranquilla Carnival is marked by the death of Joselito, a character meant to symbolise the joy of the carnival. Tens of thousands of people flood the streets with “Joselitos” carried on stretchers and in coffins in a bizarre and surreal final celebration. Street dances, musical performances and masquerade parades give send off to Josalito as one of the world’s biggest parties comes to a close, before reality resumes.
With so many visitors, make sure you plan in advance
The Barranquilla Carnival is the world’s second largest carnival and with over 1.5 million visitors each year, hotels reach 98% occupancy many months in advance. It is therefore highly recommended to plan your trip to Barranquilla as early as possible to ensure you have a place to stay, and to secure some of the best available deals.
“Who lives it, is who enjoys it”
This is the slogan of the Barranquilla Carnival! Colombia invites you to join the festivities, enjoy the music and join in the dancing at one of the world’s biggest parties.
Festival organisers recommend booking tickets in advance to avoid disappointment, and investing in a carnival costume or two will come in handy as well. Be creative – think colour, feathers and sequins!