Barranquilla, a city on the Northern coast of Colombia, has the second largest celebration of Carnival in the world, after Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. Carnival is a celebration that began in the 1700s in European Roman Catholic countries as a way for people to get all the devious deeds and vices out of their systems before the start of Lent. Today, it is a worldwide celebration that consists of three days of parades, intense partying, costumes, and lots and lots of alcohol. We have our own version of it in the United States, called Mardi Gras. I have always wanted to go to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro but I wouldn’t be traveling to Brazil on this trip. I decided to go with the next best destination of Barranquilla, Colombia.
While traveling in Mexico, prior to Colombia, I met a woman from Austria named Hedi. She was interested in joining me for Carnival in Colombia. Also, I had recently reconnected with a friend from high school, Evan. We hadn’t seen each other in over 10 years. We met up at our 10-year high school reunion. I told him my plan to head to Carnival in Barranquilla and he decided he would join me, along with his friend Ben, who had already been to Colombia many times. So, now as a group of four, we joyously coordinated our plans to meet in Barranquilla for Carnival.
Ben was the first of our group to arrive at our hotel in Barranquilla and he ran into quite a bit of trouble. The front desk clerk of the hotel was behind a blacked out glass window. The only way to communicate with him was if he slid open a little window. Even then, he couldn’t see the front desk clerk’s face. When Ben arrived at our hotel, the hotel had no record of our reservation. Carnival is a hot ticket and accommodations need to be booked at least six months in advance. Evan had booked our hotel room back in September (it was now the end of February) and there were slim pickings even back then. He had used a third party website to book it and apparently the hotel was not affiliated with that website. Ben was attempting to communicate with them in Spanish, which he hadn’t used for many years. Although it eventually all got sorted out, we ended up having to pay more than we were originally told through the website. All in all, an ominous beginning to our adventure. Gringos being taken advantage of.
Hedi and I arrived in Barranquilla together by bus and ordered an Über to take us to our hotel. When the Über driver arrived he was surprised this hotel was our destination. Apparently, this hotel was located in a very dangerous neighborhood and was on the outskirts of town. The driver kept asking us over and over if we were sure we wanted to go to this hotel, telling us how dangerous the neighborhood was. By this point, Hedi and I were uneasy. We had been communicating with Ben about the reservation mishap through text and now our Über driver was warning us about this seedy neighborhood. I had had a similar experience in Mexico with an Über driver who told me I was staying in the most dangerous neighborhood in Cancun. It ended up not being true at all so I was trying to take this all with a grain of salt.
Our hotel in Barranquilla was located about 45 minutes outside the city center. As Hedi and I drove farther and farther away from the city center, the neighborhoods started to take a turn for the worse. The streets were littered with trash and lined with run-down buildings, broken windows and graffiti everywhere. There were people in the streets listening to music or working on cars with threatening, hostile faces. Hedi and I were starting to freak out. The Über driver began phoning his friends to see if there was anyone we could stay with. He was unable to find anyone who could take the four of us on such short notice.
When Hedi and I finally arrived at the hotel, we were both almost in tears. We met Ben in the lobby and he led us to the room. The side of Barranquilla that our hotel was in was very different from the rest of Barranquilla. Our hotel was in a rough part of town, full of auto body shops and a casino that may or may not have also been a strip club. There were two security guards working at the hotel at all times. They advised us even not to wait for cabs outside the hotel during the day. Our hotel room was windowless with three beds, a small bathroom, and an A/C unit. Hedi and I would be sharing a bed.
Evan was the last of the group to arrive and when he finally got there we were itching to go out. We had all had a stressful day. Circumstances such as traveling in foreign countries always creates a little stress. Most of this stress, however, was self-induced by letting outside situations and other people’s opinions influence our experience.
I ordered us an Über to take us to that night’s Carnival festivities, which happened to be located in a huge central plaza about 20 minutes from our hotel. There was a Colombian band performing on a stage and thousands of people in the audience, dancing. During Carnival, Colombians party nonstop for three days. Citizens of Barranquilla prepare for Carnival all year long by creating special costumes and floats. During Carnival weekend, the party never stops. It’s easy to find something going on at all hours of the day. We stuck out like sore thumbs in the crowd, looking around not knowing what to do. We stood dumbfounded, surrounded by Colombians dancing. Although I tried to join in, I have no rhythm (especially compared to Colombians). Their hips don’t lie.A young Colombian guy approached us and started speaking to us in English. He said his name was Juan and invited us to join his group of friends. Our new friend Juan was very friendly and outgoing. He was clearly a little drunk, yelling as he introduced us to his friends. Juan and his friends tried to teach us how to dance to the music. Even though I apparently have two left feet, Hedi and Evan seemed to pick up the dance moves pretty easily. Everyone we met was very warm and welcoming; all of a sudden we had 10 new friends. Most of Juan’s friends didn’t speak English so we were able to practice our Spanish while Juan was able to practice his English with us.
After dancing with Juan and his friends for a few hours we decided to call it an early night. Juan asked us where we were staying and when we told him he said, “WHAT?! YOU’RE STAYING THERE?! THAT’S A SEX MOTEL IN A REALLY DANGEROUS NEIGHBORHOOD!!!” WHAT?! A sex motel? Where people brought prostitutes?! What did we have in store for us?!
We took an über back to our hotel in silence, exhausted and also a little terrified of what may be waiting for us at the hotel. When we arrived at the hotel we were greeted by the two security guards. No one was in the lobby and the hotel seemed very quiet. We didn’t see any sex workers like we had imagined. Exhausted, we trudged up the stairs and opened the door to our pitch black windowless room. The air was hot and muggy due to the lack of ventilation. Evan turned on the A/C, we climbed into our beds, and all fell fast asleep.
The next day was the first day of the parades. The night before, we had purchased three-day passes to the festivities that were around $60 USD, expensive by Colombian standards and, compared to how I had been living in Latin America for 5 months, extremely expensive. Our tickets were made out of cloth and had three different tags, one to be ripped off for each of the parades.
When we arrived at the entrance of the festival, we were so confused. How did this all work? There were many different lines, gates, and entrances. Even though we showed our tickets to the police checking bags at one of the entrances, they didn’t seem to care about them. We were a little confused at this point what our tickets entitled us to or if we had even needed to purchase them.
Once we were inside we saw that there was an area roped off with plastic chairs. Different vendors were selling seats to watch the parade. It was $5 USD a seat. Since we had already paid $60 USD for our Carnival passes we were not wanting to spend much more. We walked around trying to figure out another option and saw there were bleachers to sit on in order to get a better view of the parade; tickets, however, were $20 USD. This was out of the question. We decided to go with the $5 USD plastic seats to watch the parade.
Barranquilla was hot, hot, hot that day. Like, 90 degrees hot. Needless to say, we were all drenched in sweat from walking around. Luckily our seating area had a cover shading us from the heat. Even though the cover blocked our view of the parade (enabling us only to see the bottom half of the parade itself) we were grateful.
The four of us were surrounded by hundreds of loud Colombians drinking, yelling, singing, and dancing. Even though Colombians are excessively kind people, they are also very loud and expressive. Although I don’t want to stereotype Colombians, if you have ever seen Sofia Vergara’s outrageously boisterous character on the ABC TV show “Modern Family,” it’s a pretty accurate representation of many of the Colombians we met in Barranquilla. By the way, Sofia is actually from Barranquilla.
Suddenly as we sat watching the parade, someone took out a long, thin metal can filled with spray foam and started spraying everyone. What was this? Why were we being sprayed with foam? Colombians in the crowd started spraying each other and having foam fights. We were getting covered in the foam from the crossfire. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, one of the Colombians pulled out a little package of white corn flour, took a handful of it and threw it in someone’s face. Soon all the Colombians joined in, throwing flour at one another and trying to hit each other in the face. In addition to being covered in sweat and foam, we now had flour sticking all over our bodies. At first, I was taken aback and irritated by all of this; after a while, I gave into the experience and began to embrace it for what it was. I had wanted to approach this trip with a new attitude free from expectations and preconceived notions. I was in Colombia after all, celebrating Carnival, surrounded by locals. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Looking around, we saw we had chosen the best or the worst seats depending on how one looks at it. None of the other sections were spraying as much foam or throwing around as much flour. This was one of those instances where there wasn’t much else to do but to join in on the fun. What I have learned repeatedly on my travels: to truly get everything from the experience one has to be willing to get out of their comfort zone and embrace unfamiliar situations. If you can’t adapt or be okay with things not going as planned (because they never do) you might miss out on the time of your life.
By the third day of Carnival, we were buying our own cans of foam and starting our own foam fights in the crowd. We had made a handful of new Colombian friends because we were able to go with the flow and take what life threw at us, including the flour. As a result, we were even invited into our new friends’ homes to eat meals with their families. We learned that the passes we had purchased allowed us to sit in the bleachers. Carnival ended up being better than I could have ever expected. Even though our hotel was a strange place, we never had any problems. I can’t think of one negative thing that happened to us the entire time we were there. I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t jump to conclusions based on preconceived notions. It’s better to experience things first-hand and not let your imagination or paranoia shut you down. After all, life is too short. Sometimes you have to stay in a sex motel in the worst neighborhood in Barranquilla to learn an important life lesson!
*feature image by Evan Richards