As if Colombia’s vibrant port city Barranquilla needed any more zest, this Saturday kicks off an extra special edition of the self-described “Most Colorful Carnival in the World” celebrating the 200th anniversary of its official denomination as a town.

The annual celebration, for which the city begins preparing months in advance, features stage performances, beauty pageants, cultural presentations and, most famously, a series of show-stopping parades. Not coincidentally, the International Bureau of Cultural Capitals named Barranquilla this year’s American Capital of Culture.

Colombia’s largest and most important festival draws thousands of spectators from around the world each year, swelling Barranquilla’s steamy streets with hordes of revelers and a palpable energy.

Four days of fiestas

Perhaps no other festival more clearly displays Colombia’s rich and profoundly diverse cultural heritage, as traditional costumes and dances weave seamlessly together European, African and indigenous backgrounds.

The main events occur over four days, starting on Saturday with the “Battle of the Flowers,” one of the Carnival’s oldest traditions, dating as far back as 1903. A celebration of peace, the Flower Battle began in commemoration of the end of the Thousand Days War, during which Panama gained independence from Colombia.

Sunday brings the “Grand Parade” a showcase of traditional dance and musical performances, while Monday’s “Orchestra Festival” features even more performances as musicians and dancers compete for the “Golden Congo” award. Monday also begins the Carnival Queen’s mourning of the death of “Joselito,” the festival’s symbolic king of gaiety and exuberance.

Things wrap up on Tuesday with Joselito’s multiple funerals, held throughout the city, while the feasts of the “Monkey King” mark a final splash of indulgence before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian season of Lent.

This year, the carnival begins on Feb. 9, but like any respectable Colombian festival, the party starts about a month early. Festivities kicked off in January as Carnival Queen Daniela Cepeda Tarud called on Barranquilleros to commence the (organized) chaos in a lighthearted and cheeky speech known as the Lectura al Bando.

More than just a party

While the raucousness of the queen’s edict might suggest that the main purpose of the carnival is hedonistic abandon, the annual celebration also helps pass age-old cultural expression from generation to generation.

Colombians take so much pride Barranquilla’s Carnival that Congress declared it a National Cultural Masterpiece in 2002, an honor overshadowed only when UNESCO declared the celebration a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity the following year.

Supporting the prestigious denomination, Colombian author and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez famously noted that, “in a country affected by violence, this Carnival is an exceptional space of peaceful coexistence and cultural diversity.”

But Carnival is more a time for celebration than introspection, and the festival’s tone will undoubtedly remain overwhelmingly exuberant, a goal entrusted to the carnival’s two chief revelers, the Carnival Queen and the Monkey King, both of whom are chosen each year to represent the festival’s highest (and often wildest) ideals.

Carnival queens, elected through a complicated and highly political process, start preparing a year in advance for their substantial duties as hosts of the festivities.

In fact, the Carnival Queen’s impressive dedication and cultural importance so fascinated English photographer Chris Kewish that he composed a photo essay centered around 2011 queen, Marcela Davila. The photos were part of an exhibition during last year’s Carnival, a selection of which are included in the photo gallery above.

“I was impressed by her engagement with her people,” said Kewish of Davila’s decision to use her platform to support people who lost their homes to flooding the previous year. “She and her family opened the gates for me to gain all the knowledge and experience about the Carnival.”

Of course, the best way to experience Barranquilla’s Carnival is seeing it live, and those lucky enough to experience the festival in person can take to heart the guarantee that “those who live it, enjoy it.”


Photos by Chris Kewish. For more information