From the moment I arrived in Barranquilla, Colombia this past October, up until Ash Wednesday, Carnaval was the word on every person’s lips. As a new member of the United States Peace Corps, the last thing I’d expected was to be posted in the most urban setting in which I’ve ever lived—I was even more surprised to discover that this city hosts the second biggest Carnaval in the world. Proclaimed a UNESCO cultural heritage event, Barranquilla’s Carnaval showcases more sequins, spectacles, and dancing in four days combined than the average person views in an entire lifetime. It’s an awe-inspiring celebration for travelers, and for new Barranquilleros it is a trial by fire!

Barranquilla’s Carnaval is a four-day celebration during which all sin is exorcised prior to Lent.  However, Carnaval -related music, dancing, and parade events begin soon after New Year’s. Never mind the fact that I am a Midwestern gringa who can barely dance the YMCA—let alone salsa. I was thrust full-tilt into the celebration by my enthusiastic coworkers, family, and friends.  During Carnaval I was anointed “Princess” of the public school where I teach, dressed up in traditional cumbia gowns, made to dance Colombian-style in front of over a thousand people, and taken to view hours of magnificent, sunny parades.

In a cumbia dress, with my student Marimonda

After everything, I’m proud to have survived…and to have learned just a little more dancing this formidable land of dance—Barranquilla is, after all, the birthplace of Shakira. The slogan of Carnaval is: Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza – who lives it, enjoys it to the fullest. And so, here are some insider secrets on living Caranaval  in Barranquilla, Colombia:

1)      Each day of Carnaval features a different parade; every parade is the same.  

Although each parade has a different name and ostensible theme, the spectacular music and dance groups, incredible costumes, and brilliant floats that are showcased are almost identical.  La Batalla de Flores is the first and biggest official parade but has also become the most commercial, to the point some of the oldest dance groups are dropping out in protest. The others feature more traditional dance groups without all the advertising. If you skip most of them, you can save your energy for the other music and dance performances around town. (Also, if you opt for the cheap sunny chairs instead of spending 50 dollars per day on shady bleacher seating, beware of massive sunburn!)

2)      It is worth it to learn to dance Cumbia.

Although salsa, mapalé, champeta, merengue, and vallenata are all danced with abandonment, cumbia originated here in Colombia and so is extra-beloved. A traditional courtship dance, the music is comprised of an assortment of African drums, claves or metal rasp, and a piercing reed flute. The women wear gorgeous full skirts and sashay their hips as the man “pursues” them, sweeping his veultiao – Colombian sombrero – in step. Ladies – this may be the only time in this culture you are allotted a personal bubble, as the man is “not allowed” to actually catch the woman, so take advantage!

3)      Don’t be surprised: Carnaval is perhaps a little racist.

Carnaval includes a full cast of traditional characters. From the elegantly attired traditional dancers to the masked, chaos-inducing Merimondas, the characters represent historical aspects of Carnaval. Two historical characters, however, as an American, were more difficult to get behind: the Negros and Negrita Puloys. These dancing characters dress in blackface and wooly wigs. The Negros paint their lips and tongues bright red and strut around waggling their tongue. Their lewd, eye-rolling swagger mirrors the Spanish conquistadors’ historical impressions of their slaves. Although strange to see, here the entire culture welcomes these characterizations with open arms, viewing them as positive, imitable history.

La Reina heads up La Batalla de Flores

4)      Carnaval shuts the city down.

Barranquilla shuts down in every sense of the term for Carnaval…and not just during the four official days. So enthused for the actual event, the city holds preCarnaval events every weekend from New Years’ day, on. Public schools begin mid-January but don’t have class schedules until early March.  Weekend events, held weeks beforehand, send stampeding mobs into the streets and families, children, and foreigners alike turn up their music (even louder) and dance through the city; ultimately, nothing of non-Carnaval importance occurs in Barranquilla each new year until after Carnaval.

5)      The best of Carnaval happens on the side streets.

To experience true Barranquillan culture during Carnaval, find some Colombian friends. These incredibly warm and welcoming people will, five minutes after meeting you, usher you to small barrio parties. Here, families wheel out their personal six-foot-tall speakers (there is no such thing as “noise pollution”), assemble a circle of plastic chairs, and blare traditional music. And then, people aged 2-92 simply dance. In other lands, these folks would be paid entertainers; here, in the birthplace of Shakira, nobody’s hips tell lies. They welcome any and all to join—but be prepared to be thrust into the middle for a dance solo…although you have no hope of matching their skillsets, you will find only friendly faces cheering you on.

Barranquilla’s Carnaval was an incredible testimony to the vibrant, musical, dance-filled culture that is coastal Colombia. For any new citizen or lucky visitor willing to join in, all efforts are repaid by friendliness, reciprocation, and fun tenfold. For me, Carnaval was not only a celebration but a lesson in love of the city and its vibrant culture. It’s strange to live in a world, now, in which Carnaval is not imminent…but as my co-teachers have told me, “Now it’s time to practice your dancing everyday, so that when Carnaval comes next year, you can be not just a princess, but La Reina!”