Carnaval in Colombia

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

North we trundled in the minibus. Our destination? The town of Santa Marta. Or was it a city? It occurred to me, sitting on that bus, that I didn’t have a clue what we were heading there to see; I only knew that nearby Tayrona National Park was meant to be beautiful. Given that we were halfway there, it struck me as about the time where I should be able to answer why and I dug out my big red Lonely Planet. The summary was less than exciting: A city with fading charm as colonial buildings crumble and are replaced by modern concrete ones, mostly used as a stopping point for people doing the five day trek to the ruins of the lost city. Why we were going here on our short time budget was a question that neither Phil nor I could answer and we both laughed at how ridiculous our current scenario was and waited to see for ourselves. Luckily, when we arrived we found it quite a lovely place. We’d booked ahead for the Aluna hostel, new and really nice. They had what is, without a doubt, the most impressive collection of a book exchange I have ever encountered as Patrick, the owner, is very selective on what gets traded. The dorms were clean, spacious, with great mattresses, fast and secure wifi, and beautiful rooftop common areas. Sometimes it’s best to not rely on guidebooks, and this seemed a good case for that argument.

In our room was a hilarious Norwegian guy named Chris but otherwise not much of a social scene to speak of. Then again, it was Carnaval and although the big party is in nearby Baranquilla, there is still plenty of action in the streets here and quite a few were gone there, we suspected. Phil and I went for a walk through town and stumbled on the Carnaval area replete with people whose faces were powdered in white, clown wigs, big hats, and black body paint. Street vendors were everywhere selling snacks and drinks and inside a fenced wall there seemed to be a beer garden of sorts, though more likely it was a place to watch live music later in the evening. Beer gardens themselves have no place in a country which allows you to have beer in the streets. As my camera was already in hand, I managed to catch a couple little boys spray down Phil’s entire left side with spray foam (espuma). I chuckled at it and we were joking about his new skin complexion when the kids decided I was next. They covered me and my camera in white foam but I got what is now one of my favourite photos as they did so, not to mention a pretty funny one through my soapy lens. The camera, with a few minutes of love, was fine after its first Carnaval encounter.

But we were hungry and street food was not going to cut it today so we ducked out of the area and walked to the oceanfront where we were surprised by the number of people out on the beach at dusk and milling around. Santa Marta doesn’t have a great beach (it’s more well known for nice beaches it’s close to) but it was definitely adequate and had a nice island backdrop not to mention a very parky avenue running along the coast. In fact, this city has an abundance of nice, wide, green avenues and we walked along a couple before we finally settled... for street food. Otherwise, prices were a bit too steep, but the salchipapa we had (cut up hot dog, fries, grated cheese, and cabbage) was actually pretty decent. We were planning on heading to Baranquilla for the carnaval so we didn’t end up returning here that night but went back to the hostel, met up with Chris, and had a couple beers on the rooftop terrace before calling it an evening. The plan for the next day was to take a day trip to Tayrona and see what it was all about, but by the time we woke up and talked with an Aussie guy, that plan had been nixed. It was an hour drive to get there and a two hour walk with your stuff to the nice beaches not to mention a pretty hefty 35000 entrance fee and in the end, the math didn’t make sense to do a day trip much less a half day trip. We needed a plan B.

We could hang out in town. We could go to nearby Taganga, a fishing village just outside the park with a decent beach for the day instead. We could go to Baranquilla today and come back to do Tayrona tomorrow. In the end the option we went with was to leave a day early, stop in Baranquilla for a few hours, and then catch the last bus home to Cartagena that evening. So we packed up and trucked out, two hours later arriving back in Baranquilla with no idea where to go. Still, we stashed our bags at a restaurant in the bus station. Hopefully they would be there when we got back – I took my passport and camera with me but otherwise most of my stuff was in there. Finally, we convinced a cab to take us there for 15000 and while we wondered at times if he was taking us all the way to the Carnaval in Brazil, he got us to the place eventually and we were free. I’m not sure if there’s a lent-Carnaval connection, but what it is, basically, is a four day party-holiday for most from Friday to Tuesday with Latin music and dancing and crazy outfits, paints, and so on. As we were walking around the stadium which was filled with roaring people, we saw a big mural for Daddy Yankee and got excited when not one but two scalpers told us that he was playing tonight. Phil and I looked at each other.

The tickets had a face value of 24000 and we paid 30000 for them which also included (through muscle and force of will) the ability to cut through the massive line that was spiralling around the stadium and walk right in. Well worth the extra $3. And we didn’t know it then, but that night would be the best night out we’ve had since, well, I’d probably have to go back to Vang Vieng in Asia or something to top it. We had no hotel, and all our stuff was at the bus station, so why not? The party was over at about 5 AM and we could go to the bus station and just catch the first bus heading back to Cartagena. In we went, a quick search later, coming out of the entrance below the stands to live reggaeton music and the sounds of thousands of Colombians dancing, drinking, and throwing flour and water at each other. Phil and I were smiling ear to ear at this unplanned modification of our heretofore rather ill-planned trip north and without even trying a really friendly Colombian started introducing us to all his beautiful female friends. Now THAT’S hospitality!

Before we got into any more drinking however, we had to get some food in our systems. That was solved by the numerous meat-on-stick with potatoes venders spread around the stadium. Then, large plastic beer cup in hand, we rejoined our new friends and for us, the party began. They were a cool group and Maria Jose (who asked that we call her Majo which is an entertaining nickname) in particular took to introducing us to her many friends that were also there. How we got so lucky as to be included in this group of Colombians is beyond me but I am extremely grateful. Nearby, there was an older guy, probably in his late 40s anyway, who was delighting in childlike mischief. He’d buy water after water or talk the guys with coolers into dumping some into his cup and then start splashing random people. He soon turned his attentions on our group which instigated a full out water war that would flare up time and again throughout the night. I’m not sure if they sold packets or people brought them from home, but the next innovation in Carnaval weaponry was flour all over your face and clothes and hat, and throughout the night I sported white beards and skin grafts of varying size, shape, and density. All of this was a lot of fun.

Of course, the main event at least that day, was the music. They had band after band of live Colombian music and meanwhile the girls would patiently attempt to teach us steps which passed the time really quickly. In retrospect, a bit more drink would have been good as I might have loosened up a bit more on the dancing, but budgeting intoxication for a 12 hour shift with no sleep is difficult at best and all the more so while already intoxicated. I feel like the fact that I did not collapse in a heap on the grass is testament to my skill in this department, but I probably have to give the group credit for keeping us so entertained. We didn’t end up getting to see Daddy Yankee live, which would have been awesome, but we did see a live performance of “Yo No Se Manana” which I was quite excited about and – and this is important – AND we found a new musical obsession to knock “Llamado de Emergencia” to second place in the charts after a very long run. The song? “El Celular” by some Cartagena group, performed live and catchy as swine flu at preschool. This song became a theme throughout the night and by morning we were hooked.

Eventually, it got to be about 2 AM and Grace invited us all back to her house for a house party. First, of course, we stopped at a little restaurant and grabbed a really good mid-party roast chicken meal and then to get some vodka, red bull, and Canada Dry. I’m not sure that gingerale is especially Canadian, but it makes me feel patriotic nonetheless. Then off to Grace’s house which was actually really nice. We had lost the guys who first introduced us which is too bad because we owed him a bottle of vodka all to himself – what a great group of people. I’d had dance lessons galore from Majo and Daniella, and we met a Swedish Colombian girl (!) named Elsa there who took my education into her own hands (or should I say onto her own feet) at the party. The vodka didn’t last long and the red bull was half gone before we’d even arrived but it was enough. Our new song came on several times throughout the evening and we got excited everytime. We partied until 6 AM and then said our goodbyes and headed to the street to find a taxi to the bus station. There weren’t many, and when you look foreign they try to get a good price out of you, but almost four months of travel hadn’t exactly left us new to the game. We negotiated pretty hard with one guy (we already knew what the fare should be) and he drove off but eventually turned around and told us to get in. “How much?” I asked. It’s always important to be clear. He tried one last time to repeat the number we’d already refused and I shut the door again and said no then he caved and said, “OK, 15.”

Watching different people haggle is interesting as everybody has their own approach and I think it largely depends where they’ve learned or if they’ve learned. Some don’t haggle at all, justifying the cost as meaningless to them in their currency but very meaningful to the locals. This doesn’t work if you want your trip to last more than a few days. Others think drawing a hard line is rude and I’ve seen people react negatively to it, but at the end of the day, they won’t sell you something if they’re not making money or it’s not worth it for them. They’re just trying to get the most they can for what they’re selling (in this case, a ride) and on our side, we’re just trying to get the best price for what we’re buying. It’s a bit unfair on our side, if anything, because we often don’t really know what we’re bargaining for. Exactly how far IS the bus station, for example? But for those worried that we’re rude about it, no, not at all. We have our price and a respect for the other person so long as they’re not asking initially exorbitant amounts and though you play the game afterwards all is well. Our driver seemed dejected and like he was making a big sacrifice, but once we agreed he was all smiles. It’s not every weekday morning you get a big cross-city fare I’d guess. We ripped across the city at breakneck speeds, sometimes almost triple the posted limit and when he found out we liked “El Celular” he found a CD with it, cranked the volume, and played it on repeat all the way to the bus station. A great cap to the night.

But it still wasn’t over. We still had to get back to Cartagena, though getting a bus ticket and getting on the bus was not much work at all. Both Phil and I slept pretty much the whole way back to Cartagena and then from there we taxied to the old town again and stayed at Casa Viena. Phil was asleep the moment we sat there waiting for them to clean the room but I couldn’t get back to sleep. I read, I laid down, but I wasn’t tired... just exhausted. So I went around the town on a bit of a walk, grabbed some lunch, and then came back and finally had a two hour nap from 3-5 PM. Phil and I got up and did a bit more walking around the town. Cartagena deserved more time, more photos, and is somewhere I’d really like to return to in the future but fatigue still had me in its grip and after a seat in our usual square and finding Hotel Santa Clara at Maria from Bogota’s suggestion (they wouldn’t let us in!) we went back to the hostel and slept right through until morning. We were going to catch the bus to Medellin at 7:45 AM but nobody would give us the fare we’d researched, which was 70000 pesos ($35). They wanted $55 or 110,000 when we could fly for 81 plus taxes and get there in 4 hours instead of 14. So we got on the internet, booked a flight for noon, and headed to the airport. We had to repack Phil’s whole backpack into mine and his surf bag to save him money on extra luggage but it worked and we were soon in the air and flying south to Medellin.

Carnaval Photos

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