Something big is coming to Barranquilla. Very big. Bigger than Christmas. Bigger than New Year’s. Bigger than Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Bigger than the World Cup – oh wait, not as big as that. No one can compete with fútbol. But big. Very big.
It’s Carnaval – the traditional celebration that comes at the end of the church season of Epiphany and just before the belt-tightening of Lent. Carnaval (Carnaval in Spanish or Portuguese, Carnival in English) is enthusiastically celebrated in parts of the world with a Catholic and sometimes Anglican tradition – Latin America and the Caribbean, parts of Europe, parts of Canada, and of course New Orleans. The biggest and most famous of the parties happens in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For reasons that I haven’t been able to pin down, Barranquilla’s celebration is the second largest, second only to Rio.
Carnaval in Barranquilla is a living, breathing, moving amalgam of parades, concerts, dances, beauty pageants, folkloric art, costumes, and street parties. Its origins and traditions are a mishmash of African, Caribbean, Latin/European, and indigenous cultures. It embraces dualities, including the duality of history itself (history being neither totally good nor totally bad, but some of both). It is at once Bacchanalian and family-friendly, sexy and religious, and highly artful while arguably distasteful. No matter what one’s opinion of the event and its traditions, it’s undeniably important. UNESCO itself declared Barranquilla’s Carnaval a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This year is its 200th Anniversary.
While the Carnival season begins at different times in different parts of the world, Barranquilla kicks it off with “Pre-Carnaval” events in the three or four weekends prior to the four days immediately preceding Ash Wednesday. The official event is this coming Saturday through the next Tuesday (Fat Tuesday, by its Cajun name). On those days, the rest of Colombia and a solid slice of the rest of the world will descend on sweet and unassuming Barranquilla, who will receive all the revelers with open arms, and with a party that took at least a year to prepare.
Gio and I are going – not to everything, but to big chunks of it – and I’m planning to take you with us. But if you’re going to go, you have to prepare, Barranquilla-style. For those of us who live here, this means attending at least one pre-Carnaval event. Gio and I took it easy – we went to a parade that was less than a block from our house. (For better or worse – we’ll soon find out which – we live right next to a primary area for official celebrations.) I compiled snippets of the parade into one video that you can watch in only three minutes. As you’ll see, despite the fact that this parade was not even on the list of official pre-Carnaval events, it had plenty of life and action.
Perhaps the faces of the participants say it best… as the slogan goes, “Those who live it, enjoy it.” Viva el Carnaval!