What is Carnaval?!

Everyone I’ve met tells me I arrived “en una buena época” – at a good time of the year.  Not only is it the “cool season” (highs in the lower 90s, lows in the upper 70s, with a really nice evening breeze), but it has been Carnaval season!  You’ve likely heard of Carnaval thanks to Río de Jainero; behind Río, Barranquilla has the world’s second-largest Carnaval celebration in the world.  Fortunately, the festivities bleed outside of the city, and almost every municipio (municipality) in the departamento (state) of Atlántico has its own celebrations, so I’ve been able to live it without traveling into the city.

So what exactly is it?  It is a 4-day holiday that occurs the Saturday-Tuesday leading up to Ash Wednesday.

  • Like New Orleans has its Mardi Gras as a night to go all-out before making sacrifices during Lent, so Barranquilla has its Carnaval.
  • Like the French took Mardi Gras to New Orleans, so the Spanish brought Carnaval to Barranquilla.
  • Like New Orleans has made Mardi Gras completely different than that of the French thanks to their own particular culture, so has Barranquilla made Carnaval completely different than that of the Spanish or any other former colonies, thanks to their unique mix of cultural traditions coming from the Spanish, indigenous, and slave peoples.

Officially the holiday is 4 days.  However, ever since my arrival 3.5 weeks ago, the town has been in “Pre-Carnaval” with events happening every weekend.  Quien lo vive es quien lo goza!  (Whoever lives it enjoys it!)

Components of Carnaval/Pre-Carnaval:

  • The Reina (queen) and Rey Momo (king); these two are selected a year in advance so that they can prepare all things Carnaval, and preside over all festivities. Their job is to be enthusiastic, dance insane amounts, and look good.  Barranquilla has its Reina and Rey Momo, but most municipios also have their own. There is also another set of Reinas who are the Reinas of their neighborhoods.  You know how Miss Colombia was Miss Universe for a hot second in 2015?  These women don’t mess around with pageantry.
  • Declaration of Pre-Carnaval, which is read by the Reina and Rey Momo to kick things off; they basically tell people not to stop until they drop
  • The coronation of the Reina and Rey Momo, which is preceded by a looooooong dance show. The shows are impressive, filled with all of the traditional dance numbers and numerous costume changes.  The Reina herself joins in on some of the numbers.
  • Guacherna, which is a nocturnal parade and bridges Pre-Carnaval to Carnaval
  • Batalla de Flores, which is a parade filled with different floats. I don’t know what the floats in Barranquilla consist of, but in the neighboring municipio’s Batalla de Flores, the parade feature floats with all of the neighboring municipios’ Reinas on them, as well as floats run by businesses.  It was like Minneapolis’s Pride parade (very commercial, but colorful) mixed with Spooner’s Rodeo Parade (with the rodeo queens).  However, unlike the Rodeo Queens, the Reinas dance the duration of the parades.  In intricate costumes and 4” heels.  On hot sunny afternoons.
  • Other parades. So many parades.
  • Festival de Orquestas, in which various bands of different styles of important music compete
  • It all wraps up on Tuesday with the burial of Joselito Carnaval. The story goes that Joselito Carnaval came to Barranquilla and partied his heart out for 4 days.  On Tuesday, exhausted from too much intoxication and dancing and romancing, he died, and with him died Carnaval (for the year).

Other things to know

Black face is commonly used in costumes here.  As are wigs that mimic kinky curls.  More on some of this later, but it’s a very discomforting component.

Many people have been asking what’s on my face in pictures. For years and years people have been throwing maizena (cornstarch) on each other and rubbing it on each others’ faces during Carnaval.  Recently espuma was also added – some genius realized a great opportunity to drum up some sales.  Neither of them hurt, although some sensitive people like me do turn red due to some sort of allergy from the espuma (foam).

More to come!

Since Carnaval is such a rich cultural expression, look out for my next two posts in which I will share some information about commonly-seen costumes and dances, as well as information and personal pictures from some of the events that I attended.


If you liked this post, subscribe to get e-mail notification for when my blog is updated!

About the author

One thought on “What is Carnaval?!”

Comments are closed.

Mountain View

A little about me!

Hey! I'm Brianna Hope, a born & bred midwesterner embarking on an adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia. I am clumsy, I spill a lot, and I share most of my interests with 6 year-olds.

Follow me on Snapchat: alabrianna


The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Colombian Government.


Subscribe for blog update

* indicates required