“Mangos! Papayas! Melons!”

carnival in Barranquilla
onlookers in carnival
Marimonda costumes
Waking up to Carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia


“Mangos! Papayas! Melons!”

I wake at around 6.30am to the chatter of birds, the cackling voice of the neighbour’s parrot and a salesman in the street calling, “Papayas! Melons! Limes! Mangos!” followed shortly by another calling “Avocados! Avocados!”. I lie in bed, a light sheet over me. The nights are still bearable, without a fan or air-conditioning, at 24ºC and with a cool breeze.

“Avocados! Avocados!” I imagine the wooden cart full with large ripe green avocados trundling down the street pulled by a hard-worked donkey. Or the fruit cart with its canopy to protect the fruit and the customers from the blazing sun when it’s parked up on a street corner.

People here in Barranquilla may not have much money but as they say here there is no lack of food. On the street corner for a few pesos you can buy a bag of fresh sliced mango with limejuice, salt and pepper – a healthy and delicious snack. Or perhaps coconut juice from a large green coconut cut open on the spot with a sharp machete so you can drink it with a straw. Once finished you can ask the seller for no extra to split the coconut open and scoop out the white flesh to eat.

The doorbell rings. Sounds of the housekeeper drawing the bolts on the heavy front door, then unlocking the padlock and drawing the bolts on the wrought-iron gate which is always kept bolted for security but allows the air in to cool the house. Then she goes down to unlock the front gate in the tall wrought-iron fence; there to prevent unwanted visitors. The wealthiest live in the north of the city on quiet private complexes with security guards controlling who enters and the poorest live in very basic brightly painted housing with the doors and windows always open. In the middle the doors are open but the gates are high and locked.

A neighbour has called round. People talking. Parrot Cackling. Mangos, Avocados. Avocados, Papaya. Door bell. Locks. Barking. Telephone. Shouts. No point in trying to get any more sleep. This is Barranquilla, Colombia, and I’m here to experience carnival.

The city has been buzzing since January with the pre-Carnival activities and this year is the bicentennial as well as being the 10th anniversary of it being declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. I’m fortunate to have a press pass as the only other ways to see the opening Battle of the Flowers parade (Batalla de Flores) are to pay for a seat in one of the stands, or to take part in one of the groups in the parade. The police have cordoned off the side streets and we have to show our passes again to enter the street where the parade is due to pass. Walking up towards the press stand we are bombarded by music blasting out from the graded stands on both sides of the street that are gradually filling with people. We come to the judges’ stand where we meet a couple of Colombian photographers who suggest staying there as we will have more freedom and less competition from other photographers and the participants will be performing their best for the jury. Smart move.

Apart from the dawn chorus things generally aren’t very punctual here and the parade, due to kick off at 11am, doesn’t set off until around 2pm and reaches us an hour later. Poor folk sitting in the stands opposite us who have no respite from the sun; during the afternoon orange jacketed medics stretcher away a number of people who’ve collapsed from the heat.

A few lone performers drift down the road animating the waiting crowds. Men in drag showing their knickers, the Carnival drunk, stumbling around showing her knickers and behaving outrageously… And at last the main parade reaches us lead by the city's cleaners in uniform dancing in unison with their brooms to traditional Colombian folk music. I’m already caught up in the atmosphere and the crazy nature of it all under the scorching sun.

[This is the introuction to a Travel article I wrote about carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia, first published in WildTomato, Nelson and Marlborough's magazine, in October 2013]


Written by

Charles Olsen

11 Nov 2016