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Covered in Flour! Just Back from Carnaval in Colombia

I'm impressed once again by the gusto and courtliness of the Colombian people, and their traditions. Mardi Gras celebrates decadence, and this was a much larger, more joyful celebration of local culture.
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Despite the excitement of "The Supers," Bowl and Tuesday, I decided to get away from these obsessions for a long weekend. The mayhem of a pre-Lenten carnival seemed the perfectly timed short escape. My friend Lorry, a New Orleans resident and a Mardi Gras maven, would be my traveling companion. She wanted to compare her beloved hometown version to another exceptional one.

Rio was the obvious choice, but we chose the second-largest blowout in the world, in Barranquilla Colombia, on South America's Caribbean coast. Their "carnaval" has been on since the 19th century, and received a UNESCO Heritage Award as a "magnificent" example of folkloric expression. Lorry was intrigued and I was excited just to avoid hearing about Barack and Hillary for a little while.

Entranced by colonial Cartagena a couple of years ago, I feel comfortable in coastal Colombia. (It's the mountains I'd avoid.) The country, alas, has begun an unfortunate marketing slogan: "The only risk is that you'll never want to leave." Say whaa? I mean, could there be a worse one? How about "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!"

Anyway, Lorry and I met at our hotel in Barranquilla on Thursday night, ready to roll. And here's my short take of our carnival experience:


First impression of Barranquilla: speeding drivers, art-deco architecture in pastel hues, blue neon lighting, lots of plastic surgery clinics. Buildings festooned with festival flowers, animals. Breezy, balmy.

We visit the "Romantic Museum," recommended by locals. Learn about the history of King Momo, a big-shot local chosen yearly for the parade. See a dozen Carnaval Queen gowns (any kind of queen would dig their over-the-top razzle dazzle). Miniature constructions of this commercial port city, a melting pot of cultures and religions. History, antiques.

We learn about residents over the years: Nobel-Prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, (he wrote the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude near here). Shakira, who earned a statue for giving back to her hometown, not just shaking her hips. And Nina Garcia, an editor at Elle and one of the judges of my beloved Project Runway, a Barranquilla homie.

We window-shop in a generic-looking mall. Good value. The dollar is okay here. Lorry buys a cute halter top. I purchase some coffee. Also poke around a nearby handicraft area: woven bags, glittery carnaval tees, lots of miniatures of Marimonda, the elephant emblem of this celebration, representing truth, wisdom and anything else you want.

Step into the contemporary cathedral across the street, built in 1982. Vast stained glass windows rise to cavernous ceilings, huge interpretive sculpture of Christ, impressive mosaics.

Lunch at La Cueva, our one really special meal (the rest, empanadas, sausages, sandwiches on the go.) This has been the Barranquilla meeting place for "hunters and intellectuals" for 60 years. Art, elephant footprints, lore of 1950s artists and writers and drunks. Cool. Weird. Welcoming.

Music called "cumbia" continues as day turns into night, around barrio corners, from crowded, colorful buses - sound of drum, recorder and a cheese-grater thingy that sounds like maracas when scraped. We latch on to connected locals and poke into a party where "Angie" the gracious young 2008 Carnival Queen shows up, along with the regional governor. They make the rounds of dozens of these gigs. Sup on coconut water, empanadas, not much else. Street dances- mix of Congo, Spanish and indigenous people. Go to bed hungry but eager for tomorrow's main parade.


Many carnaval events over several weeks, up until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but today's "Battle of the Flowers" is considered the highlight.

We arrive around one. Family crowds, good vibe. Young people handing out toilet paper for porta-potties, and condoms (for later?), with ads on the packaging. Also Bible pamphlets from fundamental churches. Most of them dumped. Viewers stand for hours in the sun, smiling, chatting. Some beer, lots of water.

The scope: five-six hours, several miles, thousands of participants. Vivid colors, smiles, music that vibrates through your body, dancing, floats. Fast pace. No lags. Fire-eaters, jugglers on stilts, beautiful women swiveling in provocative get-ups, close, but no nudity. Gorilla suits, masks, feathers, floating balloon animals, transvestites playing to the crowd, sequins flashing in the sun, big skirts, headdresses, movement. Most unusual participants: small men covered in mud, eating mud.

A red carnation, thrown by a gorgeous girl, hits me in the head. Battle of the flowers?

On and on. Street vignettes poke fun at evil and powerful. Not PC--black face, big-nosed Middle Easterners, Castro, Osama, Bush as a devil with a penis gun (no boos though). Cesar Chavez (not a fave here) and a Latin version of Hitler, with a placard advertising an optician. (I swear I hear people say, "Hi Hitler!") No comment.

Eventually get doused in puma, a flour mixture. Also pose for a camera which turns out to be a water pistol.

But I feel safe and exhilarated and stay till the end. A spectacular parade.


Didn't sleep much last night as street music goes on until 4 am. Sounds as if outside my window, but no one there. Early breakfast of empanadas, steak with onions, watermelon and coffee in the hotel patio, by a fountain. Beats my usual wheat toast and tea.

At the airport, get frisked twice, put through two machines and my goods get sniffed carefully, including sealed coffee. The lady ahead of me carrying-on a five-foot feather headdress, much admired, and also sniffed. Funny.

FYI: Next year's Carnaval culminates February 20th to 25th. For a more complete vacation I'd add a couple of days in Cartagena, an hour south, to explore that historic town. And if you seek beach time you could add a day or two in Santa Marta, north of Barranquilla. I haven't been there, but locals noted it for clear water and wide sands.

As for me, I'm impressed once again by the gusto and courtliness of the Colombian people, and their traditions. Lorry said she'd never seen anything like yesterday's parade. According to her, Mardi Gras celebrates decadence, and this was a much larger, more joyful celebration of local culture.

We now plan to visit a pre-Lenten carnival every four years, around "Supers" time. Venice, Trinidad, Rio, of course. That gets us to 2020.

Great weekend. And I got back just in time to see the Giants upset the Patriots. They have their own celebration in New York on Fat Tuesday, but I'll stick with the memories of Barranquilla.

Lea Lane is founder/editor of and authored Solo Traveler:Tales and Tips for Great Trips (Fodor's)