Colombia’s Carnaval Is an Assault on the Senses

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Colombia’s Carnaval Is an Assault on the Senses

If you’ve been to a party anywhere, you already know what Carnaval is about—music, dancing, drinking, drugs, petty theft—but Barranquilla’s version is bigger, louder, more colorful, and goes on longer.
February 11, 2016, 10:00pm

If you're going to party, it might as well be the biggest party. Colombia takes a go-big-or-go-home approach to Carnaval in the coastal city of Barranquilla, second only to Rio de Janeiro as the world's largest pre-Lent celebration of excess and hedonism. The city-wide bash, which UNESCO considers a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity," is a mix of indigenous, Spanish, and African elements, creating a uniquely Caribbean blend of sights, sounds, and tastes.

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Live bands perform cumbia, tambor, chandé, and more at full volume at concerts, parades, and block parties all over the city, keeping the beat until sunrise. Aggressive beer vendors hawk local favorites like Aguila and Club Colombia, in addition to more exotic brands like Miller Lite and Coors, while hungry partiers chow down on beef, sausage, or chicken on a stick, along with cheese-filled arepas and slices of mango doused in salt and lime juice.

Tens of thousands of people converge at the parties, pushing, shoving, and elbowing their way through the crowds while spraying foam and tossing chalk in all directions. Men and women from all over Colombia and the world meet, mix, and mingle, moving from party to party with new friends and potential romantic partners. American tourists indulge in cheap cocaine while revelling in the discovery that Tinder works just as well in Colombia as in the United States.

If you've been to a party anywhere, you already know what Carnaval is about—music, dancing, drinking, drugs, petty theft, and fucking. But Barranquilla's version is bigger, louder, more colorful, and goes on longer, a four-day blur of drums, foam, feathers and writhing, sweaty bodies. By the end, King Momo, symbolic leader of the festivities, died from exhaustion and alcohol poisoning, his corpse dragged down the street during one final parade until next year, when it starts all over again.

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Caribbean tambor music kicks off the pre-party at Barranquilla's famous Carnaval celebration. (All photos by Ada Kulesza.)

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Meat on a stick is the official snack of Colombia's Carnaval.

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Folk dancers costumed in cumbia style lead a celebration that spills out into the crowd.

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Aggressive vendors hawking beer, food, and spray foam work the ever-growing crowds at the Flower Battle parade.

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The Carnaval market offered colorful clothing for insufficiently gaudy tourists.

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Clowns of all types mixed with tourists and other revelers at the after party Saturday night.

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Drunken, distracted crowds provide ample opportunities for pickpockets.

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Aguardiente and and whiskey circulated liberally, shared among friends and strangers.

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The 2 AM meat market sold fodder for the next day's hungover barbecues.

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Handicrafts and trinkets on display near some of the the local flora.

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Folk dancers twirl through a park in preparation for their performance.

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For a break from music and dancing, some circus acts took the stage.

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Even the houses in Barranquilla got dressed up for Carnaval.

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The Carnaval Queen mourns the loss of her beloved King Momo, who succumbed to excessive consumption.

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Not sure where that naughty nun is going, but she's taking a whole parade with her.

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A vehicle decked out as Marimonda, a famous Carnaval clown, graces one of many street-corner after parties.