Outsiders may know Barranquilla as the home of Colombia’s free-for-all carnival and talented, curvy stars Shakira or Sofia Vergara. But given its choice location at the tip of the mighty Magdalena River, the Caribbean port is one of the country’s most important cities.
Now that the 2017 carnival has passed, the city has been relegated back to a middle child status. Sandwiched between hippie enclave Santa Marta and a world-famous Cartagena, most travelers skip this humid metropolis of air-conditioned malls, passing quick judgment and mentally reaffirming the view of one popular guidebook. “There’s little reason to visit … your experience of Barranquilla will simply be of its bad traf- fic,” states a recent edition of the Lonely Planet guide.
While Barranquilla does lack the immediately visible charm of nearby cities, you wouldn’t be at a loss for pausing to say hello. Why? To get away from the foreigners. To eat deliciously. To dance ridiculously. So give Barranquilla a fighting chance and check out how the proud locals live, starting with this list of seven things not to miss.
The Mouth of Ashes
For an amusing and historical experience, take a taxi toward vibrant Las Flores. Stop there for delicious seafood, and then continue on to the sandy spit known as Bocas de Ceniza (“Mouth of Ashes”) where the muddy Magdalena meets the azure Caribbean. A canal built in the 1930s separates the two bodies of water, and here you can ride the old timey trencito with a dysfunctional trolley that trudges along the very narrow, often corroded track. If it falls off — which is inevitable — the driver finagles with a handy-dandy stick that puts her back in place.
Play at Las Vegas or Muvdi Park
One place to mingle, or unlock latent talent, is Las Vegas Recreaciones Club. The traditional Colombian game of bolo criollo played here is essentially “caveman bowling.” For the sport of tejo, think “exploding cornhole.” Both are thrilling, skill-based endeavors that grow easier after a rounds of cold cerveza. For an outdoorsy experience, head over to the newer Muvdi Park that features camping sites, a turf football court, and BMX track that is planned to host a national tournament series in 2018.
Duck into a mall
Without the occasional breeze off the Caribbean, the heat in Barranquilla can be utterly suffocating. Do what most locals do and escape into a mall. Buenavista, Villa Country, and Viva are the most popular. Viva, opened last year in December and is a welcome shelter. Shop at the nearly 180 different stores or seek out alternative entertainment in Zero Gravity, the only trampoline park in Colombia, or Alaskan Nieve, an all-year ice park that lets you pretend you’re in a wintry northern U.S. state.
Dine cheaply and plentifully
The mobile food industry of Barranquilla has exploded in the last year as more young entrepreneurs are trying to break into the foodie scene. One of the latest additions is The Containers Food Court, a series of storage containers that have been arranged into a rainbow-hued food lot. Try a gourmet arepa pocket at Q-Arepa for starters, then walk it off and dip into Fierabrás Cerveza Artesanal, a brewpub featuring an excellent pale ale and porter along with a set list of classic rock tunes.
Shake like Shakira
Barranquilla takes dancing very seriously. If you fancy salsa until the wee hours of the morning, the brightly lit La Troja reigns. For a more authentic experience, follow the locals into the La Ocho in the south of the city. This area includes a string of bars and restaurants crowded along Carrera 8 (in a dodgier part of town, so it is best explored with a group), where dance clubs play a range of music genres from the currently booming reggaeton to traditional favorite vallenato.
Rent a chiva
An open bottle of whiskey and an open-air bus. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, all aboard the chiva. These buses, once used for public transportation back in the day, are now up for rent: rustic, brightly colored, and pulsating with Colombian beats. Three hours of chiva use goes for about $240,000 pesos, with as many stops and starts as you desire. The best part of the chiva, besides the florescent lighting, are the jams. Nothing beats a sing-a-long as drivers below stuck in traffic turn their attention to the party bus monstrosity rolling by full of bad singers.
Traditional sweets with a spin
Arroz con leche (rice with milk) is a traditional dessert across Latin America, and while the original is plenty tasty, in Barranquilla it is served with melted costeño cheese and guava jelly. The women at Bendito Arroz have added a twist: arroz con leche made with unique flavors such as Oreo, mango, or one of the other 14 flavors offered each month.