I don't like crowds, chaos or cacophony. I also don't like giving in to fear, so I decided to go to Carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia.
"Heck," I thought, "it's not Rio, so the Carnival probably isn't that big."
"It's the second biggest Carnival on the planet after Rio de Janeiro," my taxi driver in Barranquilla informed me. Gulp. We were on our way to the opening events, and I figured it would not be a smart move to jump out of the cab.
"How can you be sure it's number two?" I asked the driver.
"Well," he replied, "I'm not positive it's number two, but it certainly is the largest folk festival in Colombia and one of the biggest and most colorful Carnivals in the world." Somehow, that sounded a lot better.
Led by King Momo and the Carnival Queen, the Carnival royalty announced to the participants that it's their duty to party wildly. Judging by my experience, the citizens of Baranquilla are obedient. Their dazzling costumes, dancing (Cumbia, Grabato, Mapale and other forms that involve intense and rapid pelvic, shoulder and foot action), music (which includes Fandango, Puya and Cumbia), elaborate floats, parades and folk theatre draw on African, European and indigenous sources. Costumed slaves, conquistadors and tribal people mingle with ghouls, Charlie Chaplin, people in fat suits, dragons, gilded Mohicans, Roman gladiators and cartoon characters. I laughed, I got caught up in the action and I forgot about my fears. That's the magic of Carnival.
The Barranquilla extravaganza begins four days before Ash Wednesday and lasts for four days. The Battle of the Flowers -- which takes place on opening day -- is considered by many locals to be their favorite Carnival event. First started in 1903, at the end of the brutal civil conflict knows as The Thousand Days' War, it is a celebration of joy, community, fun, tradition, peace, love and an end to violence. Hmmmm, I mused, the whole world could use a dose of that.
The festivities include a five-hour parade with dance groups, musicians, singers and models on ornate floats. For me, the most comical paraders were the Marimonda, who are easily spotted because of their vividly-colored, hooded masks that feature long, elephant-like noses. One of them waved his nose at me.
Although the main festivities would be enough to satisfy any traveler, I was fortunate to also get a behind-the-scenes look at some of the more private and lesser-known aspects of Carnival. The Casa Cultural Torito Ribeño (Calle 29 No 33-26, Barrio San Roque) is in the 134-year-old house of a family that has been instrumental in introducing and sustaining the El Torito dance and other Carnival traditions for four generations. Family and community members allowed my husband to photograph them applying makeup and putting the finishing touches to their highly creative and imaginative costumes. They showed us their dance steps, introduced us to the current head of the family, Alfonso Fontalvo, and to the maestro mask maker, Isaac de la Loz. A few of his masks were available for sale, and I purchased his own traditional, multi-colored horse mask.
"I wore it for 25 years," he told me.
"I will always treasure it," I assured him.
Half an hour after leaving the house, I spotted the same family entering a cemetery. Dressed in their finest Carnival costumes, they had come to pray to King Momo (who is the God of Joy or Happiness) for a good Carnival. They also wanted to pray and pay tribute at the tombs and crematoria that house their beloved ancestors, who had played such a significant role in the history of Carnival. If you see revelers entering a cemetery, I highly recommend that you ask if it is okay for you to watch them, as it will give you a glimpse of the spiritual side of the festivities.
After the main Battle of the Flowers parade had ended, and I had been sprayed with foam at least four times, my taxi driver took me to his neighborhood, where a riotous local Battle of the Flowers parade continued into the night. Many of the participants were coated in mud, adorned in gold outfits, and they all came dancing down the street, inviting me to join them. It was out of the question for me to refuse.
How could I ever have feared going to Carnival?
If you want to go: There is a great demand for hotel rooms in Barranquilla, so book early. During Carnival, hotels can be quite expensive. You can also stay in Cartagena, which is about 90 minutes away. I went to Colombia with Adventure Associates, a company that specializes in South America, and they made Carnival arrangements for me (adventure-associates.com).
A community center where the traditions of Carnival are practiced and maintained. Photo: Paul Ross
Isaac de la Loz, a master mask-maker, has been practicing his craft for more than 25 years. Photo: Paul Ross
At the community center, locals help each other apply makeup. Photo: Paul Ross
Alfonso Fontalvo, the head of the cultural center, poses next to a statue of King Momo. Some years ago, he was selected to portray the king. Photo: Paul Ross
The quiet side of Carnival. Locals honor the dead at a cemetery. Photo: Paul Ross
Carnival parade. Photo: Paul Ross
Fabulous floats highlight the Battle of the Flowers. Photo: Paul Ross
The creativity of the locals is evidenced in the imaginative parade floats. Photo: Paul Ross
Beautiful women wave to Carnival crowds. Photo: Paul Ross
A scary devil playfully menaces the crowd. Photo: Paul Ross
The devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape. Photo: Paul Ross
Neighborhood parades continue into the night. Photo: Paul Ross
The comical marimonda are easily-spotted by their distinctive long noses. Photo: Paul Ross