Carnivals around the world are celebrated in many ways: from the stylized Venetian masquerade balls taken straight out of the 18th-century to the raucous, jazz-infused atmosphere of New Orleans.
In South America, they are as diverse as the territory itself, and a mix of pre-Hispanic rituals with Catholic symbolism. From Oruro, in Bolivia, to the stomping and gyrating of Rio de Janeiro’s sambadromers, Colombia welcomes the carnival season, with its own cast of players, some more mythical than others.
In a league of its own and a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage listed event, Barranquilla’s four-day Carnaval starts this year on March 2nd, and runs until the evening of Shrove Tuesday (March 5), when Joselito Carnaval is laid to rest. Colombia’s most internationally promoted festival is a city-wide event that transforms avenues into rivers of bling, stardust and hooded dancers.
For Barranquilleros, the characters are so familiar that they stay around long after this four-day party ends, as preparing for the next carnival takes almost a year, and locals who belong to a neighborhood comparsa (dance or music troupe) take great pride in their every move to the sounds of Afro-Colombian beats, vallenato and cumbia.
Carnaval is a kingdom with close to two million inhabitants ruled over by Rey Momo and La Reina. The Queen joins her husband on stage to receive the keys to this port city, which officially orders citizens to go out and party.
In the court of frivolity and jest are the elephant-trunk masked marimondas, one of the most popular carnival characters given their garish checkered suits and floppy ears. Where marimondas go, so too, goes mockery.
Adding gore to the gallantry is a Headless Man – El Descabezado – wielding a machete at crowds seated in the stands and who leads the dancers. El Descabezado joined the carnival in 1954 after the Barranquilla-born painter Ismael Medina envisioned peace reigning over the country at a time of deep political divisions.
With bows in her electric multicolored hair and swaggering in a matron’s dress, María Moñitos is all costeño charm and another central character of the fiesta. María Moñitos has been planting kisses for a quarter century ever since her creator Emil Castellanos decided to paint his lips fire-truck red and flirt with the spectators.
Not quite as accommodating, and definitely more unkempt, is crazy Juana La Loca. In 1989, Barranquillera Ninfa Barrios also ran out into the street, but instead of putting on makeup, smeared her face with the mud of the Magdalena River. Dressed in rags and carrying a stone as if to take a swipe at something – or someone – Juana La Loca is an intimidating and laughable member of Momo’s kingdom.
Then there’s poor Joselito, who every year meets a timely end on Shrove Tuesday, and his coffin carried off to some plot in the centro by marimonda pallbearers. With Joselito’s final breath, the Mayor of Barranquilla gets his keys back, and beer chugging, frenzied drumming and carousing in the streets officially draws to a close.
Well sort of, because in Barranquilla there’s always an excuse to party, and if you find that you won’t be stepping to mapalé with the marimondas, then La Arenosa – as this sandy city is known colloquially – still has plenty of nightlife and bar hopping where you can take to the dance floor without too much elaborate footwork.
The Casa del Carnival in Barrio Abajo is open all year round, and welcomes visitors to meet the costume makers who elaborate the ball gowns, sombreros, towering headgear and ruffled trousers worn in the comparsas. And as Joselito’s departure is only temporary, musicians use the Casa to rehearse, which provides a great chance to hear some of the many genres of music played during Carnaval.
Momo’s kingdom is also an animal kingdom, and while the cast of leading characters may require an introduction, the floats are adorned with representations of local flora and fauna, among them caimans, bulls and donkeys.
Rooted in pagan traditions from Africa and the Caribbean, Barranquilla’s carnival has been in constant evolution ever since King Momo appeared on the scene in 1888. But it was only after the first Battle of the Flowers (Batalla de Flores) in 1903 that the Carnival de Barranquilla consolidated itself as the fiesta at the heart of a growing city that was opening itself up to the world with its port. That welcoming spirit has not changed throughout the centuries and the embodiment of all the wildlife – human and not – that makes this celebration one of the great street parties in the world.