How To Survive 3 Days Of Partying In South America’s Second Largest ‘Carnaval’!
In our previous post, ‘The Best Of Barranquilla Carnaval, Colombia’ we showcased our favourite photographs from the 3 day event.
The Colombians certainly know how to party! Here we explain some need to know basics about the Carnaval in Barranquilla, what to expect, and how to get the best value for money as a gringo!
Just one of the many eye-catching costumes of carnaval!
Buying A Carnaval Ticket
We didn’t buy tickets for the ‘Carnaval’ months in advance. We arrived in Barranquilla the day before the ‘official’ start of Carnival and arranged tickets for a ‘palco’ seat through our hotel. The tickets cost us $180,000 Colombian pesos each (approximately £60 GBP p/p). Although this sounds expensive by Colombian standards, the tickets were valid for all 3 days so the price was very reasonable. We had a really great view, and hey, we were partying at the second largest Carnaval in South America so it was worth every penny! (A point to note: The tickets actually had a face value on them of $170,000 so there was a slight mark up from the hotel which we’ll put down to an ‘arrangement fee’).
If you are willing to chance it on the day, we found there are also resellers outside the palcos and along Calle 70 offering tickets for sale. One of our friends had annoyingly lost her ticket on the way and had to buy another, but managed to get a replacement 3-day ticket from a street seller for $100,000 Colombian pesos. So there are definitely bargain tickets to be had if you are on a tight budget and willing to take a gamble by waiting!
The tickets we bought were for a specific ‘palco’ which is basically a tiered seating area with a direct view of the road that is part shaded. Our palco was called ‘Pollera Colora’ – ‘Colourful Box’. Each palco has its own food and drink sellers and some portable toilets. (More about this further in the post).
Our palco was called ‘Pollera Colora’ – ‘Colourful Box’.
Choosing A Carnaval Outfit
After organising tickets, choosing a Carnaval outfit is the next most important task! We were told Calle 72 is a huge shopping street in Barranquilla and it was there that we found a fantastic market selling anything and everything ‘Carnaval’! The great thing about the market is that most sellers were offering items at local prices. Where a price seemed inflated it was also possible to barter to get the ‘best’ price for you and the seller.
From sparkly face masks and colourful hats to feathers, flowers and frills, we spent 3 hours wandering around the market making our choices! The bigger, the brighter, the more colourful, all the better – it was Carnaval after all. Wayne settled on a matching shirt and hat in shiny purple and rainbow colours. (Think a turkey wrapped in tinfoil and you’ll get the picture of how he felt on the day in the heat!) I opted for traditional Carnaval colours of red, green and gold and bought a top with frills, as well as a flowery hair fascinator to match.
We also bought a shot glass on a string to wear around the neck, of course no outfit is complete without one! And we decided on a Barranquilla shoulder bag to carry our refreshments. We also ended up with a glittery face mask, an alternative hair fascinator in pink and silver and another shot glass. Well, we couldn’t wear the same stuff for all 3 days! In total we spent around $80,000 Colombian pesos (approx £26 GBP) on all the bits and pieces. A real bargain!
Our new outfits from the market.
All ready for our first day at Carnaval.
Easily spotted in a crowd! Bright coloured Carnaval outfits worn by locals.
Matching outfits for a group who sat in front of us.
Ready to party in our outfits for Day 2.
Bright and colourful is key to a successful carnaval outfit!
Another outfit change for Day 3!
Getting To The Palco
On the first day our hotel called us a taxi to take us to the palco. (Cost: $8,000 Colombian pesos). However, we discovered it is just as easy to walk, and it’s much more fun. The roads closest to Via 40 (which is the main road for the Carnaval procession) are all closed to vehicles, so we had to get out of the taxi early and walk the rest of the way anyway. The main road you walk down is Calle 70 and you soon know you’re in the right area as many of the houses are decorated with colourful Carnaval murals and parked cars have a dusting of flour. The huge speakers blasting out salsa music every few metres along the street also give it away!
Just one of the many houses decorated with colourful Carnaval murals.
This carnaval mascot is seen everywhere!
Inside the palco there are no designated seats. It is a tier system of metal benches that fill up on a first come, first served basis. The rear benches actually fill up first as everyone heads to the back for shade. There is a tarpaulin cover across the palco but it only provides shade for the rear and middle section of seating. The front rows of benches are in direct sun all morning until late afternoon. (So be cautious of this when choosing your seat if you can’t handle too much sun).
The rear seats are the best if you prefer to be shaded from the sun.
We chose different areas to sit over the 3 days. The first day of Carnaval was the busiest in terms of the amount of people watching the processions and our palco was jam packed. (Which made it difficult navigating through the crowds and rows of benches to get to the toilet, so make sure you at least go when you first arrive). The procession was scheduled to start at 1:00pm but we thought we’d get there early and set off at 10:30am. By the time we got to the palco it was nearer 12:00pm and then we had to queue alongside the entrance to show our tickets and have our bags searched before entering.
As we were with a large group on the first day the only space available for us all was nearer the back next to the live band. We wondered why those seats were empty! The music the band played was really loud but it meant that carnaval atmosphere was flowing in abundance and quickly got us in the mood to dance. It was also a welcome relief to be under the shaded area as it was really hot in the crowd.
The crowd is treated to music from a carnaval band playing inside the placo.
Sunhats & Sun Cream
On Day 2 we headed to the palco at 10:00am as we wanted front row seats for better photographs of the costumes and folklore groups. Day 1 for us had been about drinking and dancing, enjoying the Carnaval atmosphere and joining in with the locals. Day 2 was more about getting good photographs for our blog! We knew that sitting at the front meant being in direct sun for most of the day so we lathered ourselves in high factor sun cream.
A sunhat is a must if you are seated at the front.
The queue into the palco wasn’t so long so we were at the front ready and waiting by 11:00am. That day the palco didn’t seem to get busy until around 1:00pm and the first procession didn’t come past us until around 2:00pm. In the meantime we had been sat under the sun for a few hours and were beginning to wilt. Lucky for us a hat seller came past with huge sombreros for $5,000 Colombian pesos. As I hadn’t thought to bring a hat, it quickly became my best purchase offering some respite from the sun while we waited! Top Tip: If you want to sit at the front, hats and sun cream are a MUST! Put them on the top of your list behind beer and foam!
Sombreros are perfect for providing shade for your face!
Foam & Flour
Before the Carnaval, we had been told to expect to get covered in foam or flour, especially being gringos we would be a prime target. The foam spraying and flour throwing is all in good humour and it turned out that it was mostly gringos and children that took part! You can buy foam cannisters from people selling them along Calle 70, (which are cheaper than in the palco) but we found that the police near the exit of Calle 70 would not let us through the check point with the foam, so we had to buy some again in the palco anyway. ($5-6,000 Colombian pesos).
Foam spraying is part of the fun!
Prepare to get covered – No one is safe!
Be prepared to get covered and just go with it and have fun! (Having a handy pack of pocket tissues is helpful if you get foam or flour in your eyes).
If you walk back along Calle 70 after the Carnaval this is where you’re most likely to get floured. Locals wait with bags of flour poised ready to get anyone strolling past! But if you fancy joining in with the locals at one of the liveliest street parties, then this is the place to be!
Foam & flour combo!
Keeping clean for as long as possible…
Time to get sprayed!
In the centre of the action!
What To Do About Drinks
Buying drinks in the palco will not break the bank. Yes, prices are inflated but not excessively so. Cans of beer and bottles of water were both selling at $5,000 Colombian pesos (around £1.50 GBP) whereas they are around $2,000 from supermarkets and some local cafes. We think it’s worth paying the extra to have a cold one! We also found that prices fluctuated according to market conditions, so drinks were slightly cheaper on Days 2 & 3 as there were less people, so in turn, less demand.
We’d been told by some locals to take our own alcohol. Basically, they’d told us to buy some spirits and pour them into plastic bottles with mixers. So we thought we’d try something new and bought a bottle of Aguardiente from the supermarket (which turned out to be a Colombian aniseed based drink a lot like Ouzo, yuk!) We also took with us some ready mixed plastic bottles of vodka and coke and a couple of bottles of apple juice. All of this fitted nicely in our new Barranquilla shoulder bag! And our new shot glass on a string came in very handy for sampling the Aguardiente.
When we queued up to get inside the palco it is a private security firm that collects tickets and does the bag checks. Unfortunately the guy who checked our bag wanted us to pay $20,000 Colombian pesos just to let us through with our drinks. Other people were being let through with drinks so we knew he was going to line his own pockets and was targeting us as gringos. We were going to leave the alcohol behind on principle, but then managed to barter him down to $10,000 to let us in with it. You never know when your haggling skills will come in handy!
Similarly, people tried to charge us for using the portable toilets inside the palco. We assumed this was part of the ticket price so just be firm and say ‘no’ you’ve paid for your ticket. Just make sure you have your own pack of tissues to hand!
We didn’t bother taking our own drinks on Day 2, choosing to buy cold beers in the palco which were now selling at $4,000 Colombian pesos a can. On the third day we took with us 2 bottles of water in a plastic carrier bag that didn’t even get checked, so we suppose it is just the luck of the draw who is on bag check duty at the time.
Down in one!
Enjoying a cold beer bought inside the placo.
The Best Photography Spots
As we said earlier, Day 2 was our main photography day which focussed on Colombia’s various folklore groups and dancing. We sat right on the front bench of the palco but still found it quite difficult to get great shots. This was because there was a lamp post a little to our left, as well as policemen standing at intermediate points along the route, which obscured our view and prevented us from getting clean shots.
Wayne found a good spot by going to the end of the row and standing on some palettes that were conveniently placed there! This enabled him to have more of a front facing view as opposed to seeing people from the side. Over the 3 days we took over 1,000 shots, so we did have plenty to choose from for our post. Also, a little post-processing work in Lightroom with some cropping here and there always helps with the final image. If you’ve not seen our collection of ‘best’ Carnaval photos click here.
Photographers at the ready.
72 hours of non- stop partying is not an exaggeration! On Calle 70 residents turn their houses into bars and restaurants for the 3 days, capitalising on the passing trade of people walking to and from the Carnaval. They sell cold beer from their front door step and offer barbecued skewers of meat for as little as $2,000 Colombian pesos (a fraction of the cost compared to inside the palco where they sell for $12,000!) They even offer the service of their toilet for a small fee!
Leaving the Carnaval & enjoying barbecued sausages bought on Calle 70.
The fun starts on Calle 70 after everyone leaves the palcos.
It is here on Calle 70 that we found street parties well underway by the time we left the palco just before sunset each day. The Colombians we spoke to ensured us that these parties would carry on until at least 5:00am. Well we’re sorry to admit that we just haven’t got the stamina that they certainly have, so we never made it past 1:00am!
On the second night after more recommendations by a local, we headed to another popular area on Calle 84. Where it intersects with Carreras 44 & 46 there are lots of restaurants and bars that were full with people dancing the night away! This area is a bit more expensive. If you want cheap and cheerful there are lots of shops that double up as bars at night. They sell you cheap beer and have plastic tables and chairs outside where you can sit and drink it. We had just as good a time the following night drinking and dancing with locals outside one of these shop-bars on Calle 72. I even got a free salsa lesson!
Hitting the bars on Calle 84.
Enjoying drinks and sharing stories with the locals.
Make A Date With Carnaval Next Year!
We had a fantastic time at Carnaval! Colombians are some of the friendliest people we have met throughout our travels in South America and they are really proud that their country is now on the tourist map and ‘gringos’ want to come and visit.
What is great about Carnaval in Barranquilla is that it still has its grass roots with the community and shouldn’t be seen as a tourist trap. So get your dancing shoes on and go and party with the locals! It’s so much fun!