Carnaval de Barranquilla: the forgotten carnival


The carnival of Barranquilla, held in February, is the second largest carnival in Latin America after Rio de Janeiro, a great source of pride to its city of origin in Colombia, and an occasion for visitors and locals to share an intense cultural experience together.

The carnival of Barranquilla is held from the 10th to the 13th of February. It is both the biggest folk event in the country and the oldest of Colombian festivals. It is a rare time of year when it is possible to see foreigners in the Colombian city, as the carnival brings together the folkloric and cultural events of more than 50 municipalities gathered on the banks of the Magdalena river. In 2008, the carnival was included in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, but yet it has not received the same media coverage as its older brother; the very famous Carnival of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil.

Increasing attendance

According to the figures of the Chamber of Commerce reported by Publimetro.colombia, 1.6 million people participated in the 45 events organized throughout the city during the carnival in 2016. The exact figures of the attendance of the 2018 carnival are not yet known; however  Carla Celia, the director of Carnaval S.A.S, a company involved in the organization of the carnival in partnership with the city council, said  on 6th February to expect the attendance of 2.3 million peopleor rather 22% more than in 2017, including a clear-cut rise in the number of foreign tourists.

On 13th February in 2018, Juan Jaramillo, District Secretary of Culture, said that, during the carnival’s “high point”, there were up to 5 million participants in total, scattered throughout the city. These figures, however, need to be  be taken with a pinch of salt, because they have not been formally confirmed. However, they indicate an upward trend in the attendance rate at the carnival, both by the “costeños”, the coastal people, and by the non-locals.

The impact of the increased attendance on the economy is tangible: according to Juan Jaramillo, the 121 public events of the 2018 carnival would have generated no less than 32,000 jobs; particularly in the musical field. Similarly, some hotel executives reported a 34% increase in foreign tourists compared to the previous year’s carnival; a considerable increase.

In order to attract even more Colombian and foreign tourists, on 8th February in 2018, the Barranquilla City Hall broadcasted a video on the city’s daily newspaper, El Heraldo’s, website, welcoming thousands of visitors to come and enjoy the carnival. The video, entitled “Where joy is the law”, aims to promote the carnival among tourists. As a matter of fact, this period is the city’s only chance to appeal to the tourists, who otherwise prefer the neighbouring cities of Cartagena and Santa Marta.

Finding a balance between economic revenue and authenticity

If the city aims to welcome more tourists each year, UNESCO warns of the risk of “growing commercialism” that could “pose a threat to many traditional means of expression “. The challenge is for the city to find a balance between undeniably significant economic revenues and preserving the identity of the carnival: people coming together and expressing their traditions and folklore, something that should not be neglected. worth preserving.

For a country so divided, both in terms of politics and identity, it is important to maintain this type of manifestation of common traditions and cultures. The carnival unites, gathers and, beyond that, is in itself a means of expression. The challenge is therefore to prevent this testimony of union and solidarity from being managed as one would a business brand. It is here that choices will have to be made: to give ground to the spontaneous and traditional aspects in preference of economic considerations, or to limit the easy appeal of the money to try and best preserve what is the true strength of the carnival: its identity.

Consequent safety arrangements

We at the Journal International questioned a policeman, who was on duty during the carnival. He explained that “there are no particular problems during the carnival, with the exception of mugging “. However, this is not why the innumerable over-equipped riot police – ESMAD – are on site. When asked about this, the same policeman told us that the police take advantage of the influx of people in the streets to “practise”. More than 2000 police officers were deployed during the 4 days of the carnival of Barranquilla to ensure its safety.

Source: National Police of Colombia.

It must be said that the attack perpetrated by the E.L.N against a police station in Barranquilla on 27th January in 2018, that resulted in the death of five police officers andthe wounding of more than thirty,  did not do much to reassure people on the eve of the carnival. This may have created a different atmosphere at the 2018 carnival than at previous ones. Whatever the case may be, , we know that the security arrangements are never taken lightly, which is demonstrated each year by the City Hall’s publishing of a specific document on the security terms for each element of the carnival, with details on the security arrangements put in place. The city’s Public Policy Committee  had also expressed its satisfaction in 2017 in seeing  the number of homicides and injuries having decreased compared to its big brother in 2016. The figures are carefully reviewed and are the subject of many follow-ups.

Some more conventional operations are carried out by the police forces on the side-lines of the carnival: for example, this operation reported by the police on its official website, about the shutting down of merchants who had prepared and intended to sell watered down liquor during the carnival.


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