It’s time for a post about the extravaganza known as Carnaval! I realize, Carnaval is in February. But, I actually timed this post in mid-December on purpose. Most of you are caught up in the holiday spirit of Christmas, Hanukkah and New Years. But, if you dream in sparkle and neon (like I do), now is the best time to start planning your Carnaval fiesta.
You may already know that the biggest and most famous Carnaval festival is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. However, so long as you are in South America (and even select cities in Europe) the week of Carnaval, you can find yourself a celebration.
My two months exploring Colombia happened to fall during Carnaval 2017. I feel fortunate that it did. Baranquilla, Colombia is the 2nd largest Carnaval festival in South America. It is an iconic annual Colombian tradition.
If you happen to be in Colombia in mid-February you absolutely DO NOT want to miss out on Baranquilla, Carnaval!
In this post:
- What is Carnaval?
- Where can you go in Colombia to celebrate Carnaval?
- How to plan for Carnival?
- What can you expect at Baranquilla Carnaval?
- Awesome images from 2017 Carnaval in Colombia!
1) What is Carnaval?
First thing first. Let’s stop confusing Carnaval with carnival.
More familiar in the western world, is the term carnival. This is a traveling show that typically consists of acrobatics, exotic animals, sideshows, rides and games. Carnivals are unrelated to Carnaval. However, their names have the same latin origin “carne levare”, meaning “to remove meat”.
“To remove meat” is apropos, because Carnaval is a religious festival preceding Lent. This Christian celebration occurs before Ash Wednesday. Festivities of Carnaval are similar to the tradition of Mardi Gras, in New Orleans, USA.
Carnaval is celebrated through parades, masks and costumes, and public parties in the streets. Alcohol, meat, and sweets are commonplace during Carnaval festivals. After all, people are trying to get all the gluttony out of their system before Lent begins.
Carnaval is a time for throwing social rules out the window. The expectations of how to behave in daily life are put on hold for a festival of pure enjoyment and indulgence.
How Carnaval is celebrated varies from place to place and depends on local traditions. Some Carnaval celebrations are 1 day or 1 weekend. In Rio de Janeiro and Baranquilla, Carnaval festivities are a week long.
2) Where to go for Carnaval in Colombia
“It falls in February”, was the extent of my Carnaval knowledge when I arrived in Colombia. So, I started with a quick google search of the following: best place to celebrate Carnaval in Colombia. All sources agreed. Baranquilla.
Admittedly, Baranquilla is one of the least exciting places to visit in Colombia. If it is not Carnaval, I wouldn’t suggest a visit. Surrounding cities like Cartagena, or Santa Marta (Taganga is quite nice) are more exciting places for travelers.
So, you have two options.
- Stay in Baranquilla. Be in the middle of all the Carnaval action.
- saves time
- saves transportation costs
- freedom to join in as many Carnaval activities as you want
- housing options are more limited and often expensive
- you will be far from other tourist sites and activities
- Stay in one of the more exciting cities. If you choose this, you will need to hire a driver, or rent a car. Cartagena to the South or Santa Marta to the North are tourist friendly cities. Both are approximately a 45 minute drive from Baranquilla.
- Many options of hotels, hostels and guesthouses
- More affordable housing options
- easy access to other tourist sites and activities
- close to beaches
- Far from the action of Carnaval
- Expensive transportation
- Limits time and number of Carnaval activities you can take part in
3) How to plan for Colombia’s Carnaval?
Simple answer: In Advance!
- Determine where to stay. You can stay in Baranquilla or in one of its surrounding cities.
- Get on booking.com and reserve your accomodations.
- Buy tickets in advance. You can show up and buy entrance tickets to the parade, but you will be dealing with scalpers and their exorbitant prices (easily $ hundreds of USD). After a quick google search, the cheapest ticket price I found online was at Ticktbis.com for $47.13 USD (€39.99). These prices are not likely to last. So, act quickly. Tickets include 3-day entry to the parade.
I know you are probably focused on Christmas and New Years right now. But, if you want to party Carnaval-style, now is the time to start planning! Planning for Carnaval in advance can save big $$.
As many of you know, I am a spontaneous traveler. Planning in advance is not my jam. But when it comes to Carnaval, don’t wait! Things book up and get very expensive. I mean, of course they do, Baranquilla is the place to be for Carnaval!
So, are you convinced? Save yourself the cash, and start planning today.
4) What to expect at Baranquilla, Carnaval?
Beginning several blocks away from the main parade street, you will find venders selling foam, sparklies and neon in the form of hats, jewelry and trinkets. Oh yes, and snacks.
*You are not allowed to take outside food or beverage into the parade tents and bleachers. Consume all before entering. You can buy from inside.
As you get closer to the main street, things start to get more crowded and crazy.
People dressed in costumes will be everywhere. Music will be blaring, feet will be dancing, foam will be flying, and beer will be drunking. Bright colors, wigs, cross-dressers and general rowdiness are sure to distract.
But, if you have tickets to enter, you will need to find your designated entrance.
Let’s be honest, If you don’t look like this in mid-February, then you’re doing something wrong!
Don’t forget to dress “appropriately”. The crazier your colors and style, the better!
- brimmed hat
- wigs (the faker the better)
- vivid hair accessories
- big unusual jewelery
- Match your friends and family
If your outfit meets any or all of the criteria from this list – you are ready for Carnaval.
Most hotels in Barranquilla are not within walking distance to Carnaval, unless you are willing to pay a small fortune. So you will need to rely on taxis. But don’t worry, once you are on site, they are easy to come by. Getting to Carnaval may require calling to get a taxi. Be sure to ask the receptionist at your hotel/hostel for the number of a reliable taxi service.
At Carnaval, let your inner oddities shine through.
Marvel at incredible traditional costumes
Have a blast!