Barranquilla is an important industrial port and the fourth largest city in Colombia with over a million people, but it’s best known for its annual Carnaval celebration. Most of the year, nearby cities like Cartagena and Santa Marta attract all the visitors compared to this working class urban sprawl, but once a year Barranquilla packs its streets with the South America’s second largest Carnaval. While Rio de Janeiro’s celebration is the largest, I’ve now experienced them both and might have to give the edge to Barranquilla when it comes to which is more enjoyable. The intimate craziness of the celebration mixed with the friendliness of the people make it special. I wouldn’t really recommend visiting the city any other time of the year, but if its Carnaval time, then Barranquilla makes for an unforgetable experience, especially with your camera.
So here are my first impressions of Barranquilla, from my personal Street Photographer perspective…
7 First Impressions of Barranquilla
(From a Street Photography Perspective)
1. Best Carnival Around
Barranquilla celebrates the second largest Carnaval in South America. Years ago I experienced the largest one, in Rio de Janeiro, so I had #1 to compare it to. And while Rio’s is unquestionably much bigger and extravagant, I’d have to pick Barranquilla as my favorite between the two.
Rio, as a city, is infinitely more interesting than Barranquilla. And as a Carnaval, it’s done on a much bigger and more impressive scale, which I do love. So, why do I prefer Barranquilla’s? It’s more personal, inviting, accessible and down to earth. You really feel like a part of it with the people and this provides an atmosphere that is very enjoyable and authentic. This also provides an atmosphere that can be better for street photography. Rio can be overcrowded, overwhelming and not always accessible, while in Barranquilla you can easily shoot away and join in everywhere without a care. Yet it’s still the second largest Carnaval, so there’s endless street parties and celebrations to experience.
While the city definitely does fill up with visitors for Carnaval, it doesn’t feel overly touristy yet. The locals get more excited to see visitors and are very inviting and welcoming to have you join in the celebration with them. It’s a non-stop experience that can’t be forgotten.
2. Join the parties with your camera if you’re here during Carnaval
This is the number one tip I can give here during Carnaval. Do not be afraid to join in or take photos at any of the local feeling street parties, it’s all about celebrating together here. The locals love it. The Carnaval is a time to have fun, let loose, and enjoy the positive energy brought together. If they see you having fun, it’ll only make them open up even more.
It couldn’t be easier to shoot, especially at Barranquilla’s Carnaval. Just smile, have a good time and join in the fun. And take as many photos as you want. Carnaval in Barranquilla is the perfect example of Colombia’s friendly, vibrant and generous spirit.
3. Parties in Prado. Get used to foam in the face.
You’ll find street parties going all over Barranquilla during Carnaval, but Prado is in the heart of the celebration where you’ll find the most. I stayed on Calle 75 / Carrera 60, which couldn’t have been a better location. The Calles in the 70’s here are lined with street parties all the way up to Carrera 82, where the main parade goes on. I’d recommend checking all of them out and just exploring this area full of parties, music and dancing spilling out onto the streets. To be honest, while the main parade is fun and worth a day in the stands, the street parties are where the real fun is at, especially for street photography.
Foam spray cans are crazy popular here. Everyone, young and old has their fun with them. And no one is off limits. There are no strangers during Carnaval so don’t be surprised if someone suddenly unloads a can of white foam in your face. And don’t be surprised if that someone is 60 years old or a 6-year-old laughing at you while shooting from below. It will definitely be part of your experience here.
4. Not much worth visiting outside of Carnaval
While Barranquilla is actually the 4th largest city in Colombia by population, it’s a working port city without much attraction for visitors. Carnaval is their time to shine, but not many will visit outside of this yearly week. And for good reason. There’s just not too much to do or see or enjoy when you have other cities like Cartagena and San Martin nearby.
I arrived in Barranquilla a couple of days before the Carnaval and tried walking around the city for street photography and it was mostly empty streets without much interest, unfortunately. Luckily, they know how to completely change that once Carnaval starts. I just wouldn’t recommend coming here any other time of the year for photography.
5. Walk behind the stands, check out each connecting street for street parties
The most concentrated areas of life and celebration are actually behind the parade stands, not in them. Walking along the pathway behind the stands, you follow non-stop action and activities. Food carts and beers, people celebrating and dancing, others trying to watch the parade in fenced non-stand sections, music and street performers, plus plenty of street parties along the way. Some of the biggest and craziest street parties in the city are on connecting streets too, so always look down the streets you walk by. They’ll be close. My favorite walk for photography during Carnaval was walking back and forth behind the stands. It was some of the highest non-stop energy I’ve experienced walking anywhere, with new scenes of life developing each walk. It’s impossible to get bored and not have fun the whole way.
6. Buy costumes at the stadium and bring your camera
If you don’t already want to join in the fun by dressing up like everyone else, I’d recommend it. Not just for fun, but also for photography, as I was noticeably even more welcomed by locals into the street celebrations, as they smiled, commented and even offered me beers because of my Carnaval attire. Barranquilla has their own colorful Carnaval themes too, but what you’ll notice most is an amusing elephant-like character with a long nose called La Marimonda. To be honest, this very strange character is imprinted in my mind ever since.
For the best place to build and buy your outfit, head to Romelio Martínez Stadium, which isn’t too far south of Prado. Here, the stadium is surrounded with market stands selling all Carnaval related goods and attire. There’s a lot going on around here too so bring your camera. You’ll have street photography opportunities while you find your outfit.
7. Reserve accommodation early, but you can buy Carnaval tickets late
This is the second largest Carnaval in all of South America, but in a city that is nowhere near the size of Rio, especially when it comes to tourist infrastructure. So, the city fills up many months in advance. While it can be possible to find last minute options, it won’t be easy and your choices will be extremely limited. To save the hassle and stress, I wouldn’t wait until the last minute if you plan on coming here. I reserved my place almost two months before and had to spend a lot of time searching online for something still available in a good location. The hotels fill up first, in addition to jacking up the prices, but I found better luck on Airbnb, while saving some money.
As far as Carnaval parade tickets, you shouldn’t have to worry. You can get it out of the way in advance if you’d like, but you can also easily go to the parade and buy tickets right there before you enter. You’ll find resellers everywhere outside, or you can go straight to the “palco,” tiered seating area, and buy them at the individual entrance there. Do beware of getting ripped off, though. I bought my tickets at the individual palco after they already let me in so there was no chance of getting a bad ticket. If you buy outside, you can have them walk to the entrance with you if you get a bad feeling from the ticket. Also, many will sell 3 day packages for everyday entrance, but I chose buying one for the biggest parade day and spent the other two days enjoying the surrounding celebrations. You can still always find free standing areas to watch the parade too.
South America’s Best Carnaval
Colombia is a difficult country to top already, but topping off my stay in the country with Carnaval in Barranquilla couldn’t have been a better choice. The friendliness, intimacy, street parties, craziness and Carnaval life of the city was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Walking Barranquilla’s streets, parades and parties with your camera is guaranteed to be something you won’t soon forget. South America’s second largest Carnaval is really its best if you want the large, but intimate, local experience.
If any of you have been to Barranquilla before, tell me about your experience and impressions of the city and country in the comments below! And stay tuned for more on Barranquilla, including some of the best Street Photography shots I captured while there.
(from a street photographer’s perspective)