With a long history of receiving immigrants, Barranquilla today is a business hub which celebrates diversity.
Barranquilla’s twin city could easily be Liverpool, given its location by a sea, home to port and poets, and a place which has brought people together through song. It could also be Beirut, built with Bauhaus in mind and as one wanders the Calle Real at sunset, one gets lost in a souq of sound and color. Then again, it could be many places, because Barranquilla is about many peoples.
Located where the Magdalena River meets Caribbean blue, this metropolis rises from a tropical delta with its dark-tinted skyscrapers. Open-air shopping malls showcase local design, as this city of eases through time with its costeño charm and business smarts.
Having reached out to the world for centuries, the visitor can stroll the old pier at Puerto Colombia where during the 1890’s immigrants disembarked from Europe and the Middle East in search of opportunities. The red brick railway station which once housed the Barranquilla Railway and Pier Company (founded in London, 1887) is Colombia’s pint-sized equivalent of Ellis Island.
It is no surprise that Barranquilla is a cultural melting pot where tourists delight in dishes from around the world, cooked with the same passion and authenticity as local seafood cazuelas and variation on coconut rice. The fusion of Old World recipes mixed with Caribbean flair boosts Barranquilla’s presence on the gastro scene; making it an attractive destination for travelers looking to combine good food while exploring this Gaudi meets Gatsby place.
For most of the last century this port was home to some of the most important artists in the country, such as Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. Alejandro Obregón illuminated the arts scene from Barranquilla with his paintings. Photographer Nereo and primitavist Noé Leon were members of ‘Grupo de Barranquilla’ art movement, which gained notoriety for their bohemian nights at the local watering hole, La Cueva.
While the artists have moved on, La Cueva, captivates guests with its imaginative take on food. Set in a modest house near the Old Prado neighborhood, the brightly-lit dining room and outstanding décor makes La Cueva is a must do when in Barranquilla. The menu offers traditional dishes from the region such as the steamed crab legs, sea bass and beef glazed with tamarind sauce. Given its proud Lebanese roots, Barranquilla offers some of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in the country. Look for Zahle, Arabe Gourmet and the metal tray buffets of Shawarma House for generous dining.
As the capital of Atlantico department, which extends into the interior with its extensive grasslands and haciendas on the Magdalena, Barranquilla’s restaurants include fine barbecue and steak houses, such as Chez Ernest and Dallas BBQ Grill. After sampling fine cuts, head to La Troja for some dance hall daze, with beers starting at $3,000 pesos. Thursdays is dance night in Barranquilla with a mix of cumbia, salsa and vallenato.
Barranquilla has inspired the words of great writers and is a city known by many names. Locals refer to it as ‘La Arenosa’ due to its sandy riverbanks. The immigrants who disembarked from steamships embraced it as ‘Puerta de Oro’ – Colombia’s golden gate. But it is the Carnaval de Barranquilla, one of the oldest in Latin America and proclaimed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, which turns Barranquilla into the ‘Curramba’ for its late night revelry.
Although the carnival only lasts a week, the festive spirit of the Barranquilleros is a yearlong commitment. Just step into one of the many fashionable restaurants and bars near the Carrera 53 for a late lunch and you’ll find yourself making friends over maracuya martinis and platters of fried calamari. Hospitality is the city’s most endearing feature.
For those who like to measure hemlines, Barranquilla is an important commercial hub. Modern malls such as the Buenavista and Country Plaza beckon with lofty retail space and upscale boutiques by some of this country’s leading fashion designers such as Beatriz Camacho, Judy Hazbún and Silvia Tcherassi. For designer Francesca Miranda, Barranquilla is synonymous with style. “People here want to look beautiful.”
Beauty in Barranquilla is more than skin deep: it can be appreciated in its buildings and collage of architecture. One of the most imposing buildings is the Cathedral Metropolitana. Within close range is another city landmark – the Casa de Carnaval (Carnival House), where dancers and musicians rehearse music repertoires and dance steps months in advance of the celebrated ‘paranda’. For nights of culture and music, there’s the Amira de la Rosa Theatre, with its imposing stone front. For an appreciation of elaborate Republican architecture, head to the Customs building in the Plaza de la Aduana and the lobby of the palm-lined El Prado Hotel.
Barranquilla is best enjoyed outdoors and its proximity to the coast offers the visitor not only stunning views of the Caribbean from look-out points such as the Salgar Fortress, but also beaches for swimming and surfing. For the avid golfer several clubs with views of the sea and challenging courses are open to guests, such as the Club Lagos Cuajaral and Country Club.
The passing of time has been kind to Barranquilla. Despite its drive to modernity, the city preserves an air of elegance and the glory of former days. As one walks among the flowering acacia trees of its neighborhoods, history is ever present. And so too, the majestic Magdalena. Take in that sunset in Las Flores or the local fishing club Club de Pesca, with gulls hovering in the skies above and you’ll be transported to a place where dreams have come true and every day is a celebration of diversity.