There’s no way to fully encapsulate Carnival through mere words and pictures. The sights, sounds, smells, and general excitement whirl your senses into a stupor from day 1 and it does not slow down until the festivities end.
My initial plan was to spend Carnival in Brazil. The idea was to go through Venezuela and down into Brazil, put my bike and myself onto a boat to float down the Amazon River, and then ride further to the city of Salvador for their much touted Carnival. I even pre-paid for accommodation as was recommended in the event that it gets sold out.
Days before I planned on crossing the border into Venezuela, I decided against it. The reports coming back were of a tense social situation that was teetering on the brink of civil war. I am thankful I decided not to cross for the fact that I would have been smack in the middle of the country when the violence finally erupted. An obvious gringo on a big orange bike was not going to fly under the radar.
Following my dusty and dirty adventures in and around Santa Marta, I headed southwest along the northern coast of Colombia to the city of Barranquilla where the second largest Carnival in the world is held. Many assume the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the only one but there are Carnivals all over the world, each with their own flair and personalities.
So as disappointed as I was to not head to Brazil for Carnival, I had one of the biggest in the world just a couple of hours away in Barranquilla. I joined in on an apartment with some people I met in The Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta and we met up again in Barranquilla not knowing what to expect.
The mystery of Carnival unfolded over a hazy 4 day weekend filled with parades, festivities for old and young, colorful costumes, rum, dancing, and the seemingly constant spray of foam that manages to hit everyone at some point.
The parades were not quite as over the top as I was expecting but then again I didn’t pay to sit in the stadium seats with the best views. What I saw though was a festival celebrating life for all ages. Music, dancing samba schools, confetti, foam, and smiling faces of participants and those watching. The street celebrations flowed to and from the oozing neighborhoods where local families and residents enjoyed the excuse to celebrate.
As the daytime parades winded down with the sun, the crowds dissipated only momentarily before commencing with the blur that becomes the nighttime festivities. A mixture of bars, clubs, and street parties become your playground to let loose. As each morning followed the next, they became more and more difficult. My body and mind seemed to move slower and slower. You have to pay to play.
Carnival was not all fun and joy as is the hope. You have to earn it. The heat of northern Colombia during the day mixed with the hectic jostling of the parade crowds can be tiresome. Mixed in with repeated late nights flowing on raging rivers of rum and you have created a weary blur of a person.
After leaving our apartment for a quick lunch on day 3, our crew of 10+ people returned to find belongings missing. Further searching revealed that more of us had been ripped off. I personally had my GoPro camera (including the footage), iPod (it’s the music I’m missing), and cash stolen.
The usual sentiment of anger, sadness, and feelings of violation ran through us. The police were not notified due to the fact that they did not make housecalls for such a matter and really, what are they going to figure out in the remaining two days we were in Barranquilla? Especially when they’re pretending they have lots of work to do at Carnival.
So with all of that in mind, we considered ourselves lucky they did not take more and we were all safe. The thief(ves) should be happy we didn’t come home early. There would have been nowhere to run.
Although we had no proof, I was convinced that the security guard and the owners of the apartment were in on it; there was only one way in/out, the security gate on the door was conveniently non-functional, and the security guard somehow hear and saw nothing, even though his desk was maybe 15-20 feet from the apartment door.
One slight concern for those traveling, especially to an event like Carnival, are pickpockets. I got to experience that the first night as we walked parallel to the markets. The usual spray of foam enveloped us but this time people subtly bumped into us and I felt a hand go into my pocket. I immediately grabbed the offender by the shirt and ripped him away from me. I was smart enough to keep my valuables and cash in my sealed pockets and we continued on unabated.
Carnival lived up to the hype in many ways, but not completely. My expectations were high but I also had no idea what to expect. It was an unforgettably mentally hazy weekend of highs and lows. The spectacle of Carnival will live with me until dementia or death takes my memory. While I can’t promise that I will be back to Baranquilla, I still have the desire to check out Carnival in Brazil.
Following the chaos of Carnival, I made the brutally long 12 hour ride back to Medellín. Minor mishaps, slight detours and delays, and summiting then descending rainy mountain passes in the darkness left me shaky, lightheaded, and wondering at times what the hell I was doing.
Finally, arriving near midnight at Hostal Poblado in Medellín, I wearily slipped into my bunk and passed out in a heap. The next morning I arose later than everyone in the building, just in time to catch the last of the kitchen’s drip coffee. Clearly not fully conscious, I added what I thought was sugar to the dark brew, only to be miserably surprised by a salty and bitter mouthful of disappointment. In my morning haze I inadvertently poured salt instead of sugar into my mug of coffee; the last of the brew. Humorous in hindsight, borderline catastrophic in the moment, I tiredly rinsed out my mug and went out in search of a coffee shop.
Since I decided to avoid riding through a civil war in Venezuela, I’m heading down south along the western side of South America. Up next, Chapter 6: Ayahuasca and the Coffee Growing Region
Star this journey from the beginning: Introduction