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“Barranquilla Carnival is an homage to tolerance”

With more than a hundred years of history, the Barranquilla Carnival is today more relevant than ever. From the thousands of visitors coming to be part of the celebration, to the recent homage Shakira paid at the Super Bowl, an expert told us what is this big Colombian party about.

*Ana Cristina Larsen is part of the Barranquilla Carnival Foundation Cultural Committee. In 2020, the celebration will take place between the 22nd and the 25th of February. 

What is the Barranquilla Carnival?

Barranquilla Carnival is a party of tolerance, where people from different backgrounds get together to celebrate. It is an homage to tolerance. We receive everyone because we are all the same when it comes to joy and pleasure. I’ve been part of the Barranquilla Carnival Cultural Committee for 18 years. Barranquilla Carnival Foundation, the organization that operates the carnival, is also a massive event planner in the city. For me, talking about the Barranquilla Carnival is not only about the actual four days of celebration, but also about every artistic manifestation that exist in the city.

What’s the story behind the Carnival? 

There are some versions. I can talk about the part of history that says that the Carnival was born around the Magdalena River bank [the longest river in Colombia], it is a product of the cultural exchange of some communities that lived along the river. The Barranquilla Carnival used to be celebrated in a different time of the year, but then it became a religious tradition. Forty days before Easter, people have four days to sin before the Holy Week. Martha Buelvas, the great expert of the Carnival says that Barranquilla Carnival is a party that is alive. And because it is alive, it also evolves. 

How is the Barranquilla Carnival calendar?

The first event of the Barranquilla Carnival season, and the last one of pre-Carnival (the pre-Carnival events calendar lasts two months), is the Guacherna. It is an informal and nocturnal parade, one week before the beginning of the actual Barranquilla Carnival. The different dance groups perform freely on the streets. Then, during that weekend, there are other carnivals happening in different towns around the city, like the popular Santo Tomas Carnival. After that, the crowning of the Barranquilla Carnival queen arrives. It is a big event that happens on Thursday. On Friday, there is a big concert, and you can find Ruedas de Cumbia in Barrio Abajo like every Friday, but these ones are explosive. On Saturday is the Batalla de Flores; on Sunday, the Gran Parada de tradición (which is a parade where all the traditional artistic manifestations of the city have a performance); on Monday, we have the Gran Parada de Fantasía, which is a parade where all the groups dance and walk with their best costumes. On Tuesday, we have the death of Joselito Carnaval. 

Even though the six weeks that come right before the Barranquilla Carnival are low season for tourism, we have gigantic events taking place all around the city every weekend. That is why so many summits, conferences, and meetings occur in Barranquilla during those weeks. 

What is the death of Joselito?

It is the death of the Carnival. It dies every year. We have always cried the death of Joselito Carnaval, but now we have a big parade that starts on the 82nd street, and ends at the Casa del Carnaval. People put a lot of effort in mourning Joselito, and planning his vigil. 

How was the evolution of the Barranquilla Carnival during the 35 years that you led Aviatur (the biggest travel agency in Colombia) in the Colombian Caribbean?

Years ago, part of the local population left the city during the Carnival. Only those who lived in the neighborhoods that had performance happening in the parades stayed. Everyone from Barranquilla engaged completely when the Carnival was declared Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco in 2003. When that happened, people started bringing friends from other cities and countries; business people organized summits during the days of the celebration, and funding the shows. 

What was the process to receive such title?

It was really a process of protection. A process in which we committed ourselves to preserve some manifestation that were to be extinct soon. Unesco set a “to do list” that became a map for us to navigate the preservation of our cultural treasure. It made us more conscious about what we had. It was also a viral process led by the government and business people, that intoxicated the whole city. 

In the Barranquilla Carnival Foundation, we give financial incentives to initiatives that take place before and after the Saturday and Sunday of the Carnival. It helps to keep the popular festivities alive. Another example of the work we’ve been doing is the development of the Museo del Carnaval, and the documentation led by Martha Buelvas and Jaime Abello.  

Has the tourism sector grown around the Barranquilla Carnival?

For us, the market that has grown faster and strongest is the one related to summits and meetings. During the Barranquilla Carnival week, you can find large groups of people who come to be part of summits and stay in the city for the party.  

How to get to Barranquilla?

We have two direct flights every day from Miami (American and Avianca), and two direct flights from Panama (Copa). By land, you can come from Cartagena and Santa Marta. Many people come from Cartagena to participate in one day of the Barranquilla Carnival and then go back to Cartagena at the end of the day. 

What is to expect from the Barranquilla Carnival 2020?

We have some new products this year. We want the Carnival to be back to the street, to the curbside. For a while, the Barranquilla Carnival became a stage show, and now we want it to be free and street level. In a way, we achieved our goal. We recovered a long avenue right behind the old Aduana building. It is a road called Par Vial de la 50, a long street designed to reduce traffic downtown.

The Park Vial de la 50, with the setting of the Aduana building, will be close and will have events on every corner. This year, the cost will be around two dollars that includes two beers and a soda. There will be bands, the famous Troja will have a pop-up bar here too. People will find many blocks and kilometers of party. 

What is it that makes Barranquilla different to others cities?

I would say it is the people. Barranquilla is an active city. It does not have much of a protocol, and it is also very warm. It has special features. We received waves of immigration throughout our history. That multiculturalism makes the barranquillero a very sincere and comprehensive person.