Sequins, Corn Starch, and Dancing at Carnaval

The crowd ringed the round stage in concentric circles, with food vendors in the furthest rings.

The band was setting up, and the MCs were making platitudes about Barranquilla’s unique contribution to Caribbean music and Colombian culture. Ladies in neon green skirts pushed me and the rest of the crowd to create space in the innermost ring. I moved back as far as I could, effectively smashing the petit girls behind me.

The band started off with booming bass drums, echoing rhythms from an Africa long ago, a sound which elicited cheers from the dancers for the rest of the night. The mids and congas and maraccas picked up the rhythm as the sole melodic instrument, a flute with the voice of a horn, led the drone.

Carnaval had its grown-up king and queen, and its little king and queen, who opened the tambor party.


A girl and boy led the parade of dancers, dressed in colonial red and white, with arms lifted and faces up and outstretched, smiling. Each dancer held a candle that dribbled hot wax down their hands. The pairs circled each other sensuously, sexually, as they moved around the stage, the crowd collapsing behind them, following their circumambulation like a throbbing, writhing sea, dragging me and Aaron into its wake.

Every sound of the thunderous bass elicited a cheer from the crowd.

Carnaval in Caribbean Colombia lived for five nights, driven by archetypes and fed by meat, liquor, and congos. Wigs, sparkles, cornstarch, and spray foam dotted the sea of people dancing until sunrise every night. It was the inexorable party to cap our South American adventure, which would quietly finish under the hushed murmurs of Lent.

Fiesta to end all fiestas, not a healthy vegan snack option in sight, the city of Barranquilla donned colonial-era skirts and sparkly wire flowers cocked to the side like Spanish ladies. The men wore straw hats and bandanas around their necks. Some African boys covered their bare upper bodies and faces with black paint, and brandishing fake machetes and wearing colorful flowers on their hats, took pictures with revelers for a tip, evoking the revolutionary insurrection of 1812. The diety presiding it all was a perverse Ganesha, an elephant man whose long nose, I’m sorry, looked just like a penis.

Of all the costumes and archetypes at Carnaval, the most beloved and most bizarre was the ghostly, cartoonish head of an elephant with a penis nose.

The day after the tambor dance party we went to the Battle of the Flowers parade in hopes of getting shots of sexy bikini- and feather- and sequined-clad dancers for our assignment with Vice. We should have bought tickets or secured press passes, because when we got to the parade route, every block was an impenetrable wall of people, hawkers selling beer and water and snacks, crows with wrathful pointy elbows, sweat and neon headgear. We walked parallel to the route for two hours tring to find a somehwat open spot to see the parade, but when we got to its end, a relentless tide of people were coming from the other direction. We gave up, watched from afar, and left.

That night we went to a bar near the Carnaval market, which was actually a massive party.

The city turned into a grand party for Carnaval.

Ever wonder how the corn starch industry can survive when you purchase a tub for $2 and it lasts for years? Because every year the denizons of Barranquilla purchase the world’s stock and throw it at each other. People sprayed each other with foam, too. It was so fun. But later we heard stories about people getting foamed in the eyes and pickpocketed.


It could have ended there but it went on for three more days. The first two nights were my favorite, but I also enjoyed Monday night, when we took a 30 minute Uber ride to an event called the “Festival de Comedias,” which turned out to be a creepy dark children’s carnival set in the parking lot of a dark soccer stadium. That was really weird.

I also enjoyed the last night, when Carnaval ended with a gaudy funeral parade largely led by men dressed as women ostentatiously mourning the Carnaval king, who succumbed to five days of drinking and eating meat on a stick and dancing and whose death brought the end of the party.

A gaudy funeral procession led by crossdressers marked the end of Carnaval as the king succumbed to his over-indulgence.

In Latin America the music never dies, even during Lent. But Carnaval was a distinct ending for us, since this was the last country and last big event we had lined up. The big party over, our next major destination is home, in just six short weeks. We can’t wait.

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