The Barranquilla Carnival is one of the world’s great celebrations—it’s the biggest folklore celebration in Colombia, and it's often called the most colorful carnival in the world. Held before the beginning of Lent, the carnival brings the city to a halt, as street dances, music, masquerade parties, and parades become the center of attention. The Congress of Colombia designated it as a Cultural Masterpiece, and UNESCO lists it as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The traditions for this folkloric celebration go back to the nineteenth century and feature European, African, and Indian influences. It was the Spanish who first introduced Colombia to the tradition of the carnival, and from there the Catholic festivities blended with indigenous ceremonies and those created by African slaves and their descendents. As a result of this blending of ceremonies, Spanish colonial authorities began to look down upon the carnival celebrations in Colombia and elsewhere throughout the Americas, and at one point they moved to censor such celebrations, particularly those held in major power centers like Cartagena and Bogota. Thus over time, the carnival celebrations of smaller towns, such as Barranquilla, had the chance to flourish and become the renowned carnival that today draws thousands of people.
The 2016 Carnaval de Barranquilla, as it is known locally, is one of the largest carnival celebrations in the world, and some in South America say it’s second only to the epic Rio de Janeiro carnival. While there are various smaller carnival celebrations held over the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, the primary Barranquilla carnival events are held in the four days preceding it. The official start is on Saturday, with the Lectura del Bando, the reading of the official carnival proclamation, which states that everyone must dance, party, and enjoy themselves, and followed by the extremely colorful Battle of the Flowers. This traditional float parade is the most important event of the Barranquilla carnival, and it lasts six hours and includes dozens of exquisitely detailed and colorful floats. Led by the Carnival Queen, who is chosen at the end of the previous year so she has time to prepare for the festivities, the parade also includes dancers, marchers in costumes, musicians, fire breathers, and a variety of other performers.
The following day, which is the final Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the Great Parade takes place. Unlike the Battle of Flowers parade, the Great Parade does not feature floats. Also, performers in this parade are more apt to wear masks, and there is a dance contest to see which dance groups get to participate in the next year’s Battle of Flowers. Monday has the Orchestra Festival, in which bands that specialize in Latin and Caribbean music fill the city streets with pulsating rhythms, and complementing it all is the colorful Fantasy Parade. The Tuesday events include a parade as well, but it’s not as long or lively as the others, as the people attending mourn the coming end of the carnival. On this day, carnival-goers observe the burial of a character called Joselito Carvajal, who is resurrected each year for the carnival and dies at the end of the festivities. The parade includes “happy widows” who shed tears over the character’s death, and that night a humorous litany is said to bring the year’s carnival to a close.