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It was February 2009, and within just a few weeks of arriving in Medellin, I forced myself to leave for Carnaval, one of the country's biggest annual celebrations. Billed as the 2nd largest Carnaval celebration after Brazil's parties, I knew it was an event I had to experience firsthand.
I took the metro to the Caribe station, which is connected to the northern bus station, and with a little hand gesturing and patience, managed to buy an overnight bus ticket to Barranquilla, the large host city on the Caribbean coast. The one way ticket cost was about $40.
Countless other travelers passing through the hostel had already confirmed for me that the long-range buses were safe and comfortable. I booked a return flight on Avianca thanks to a promotional fare of just $53 (about half price).
The seats were amongst the most comfortable of my entire trip, and the air-conditioning quickly began to blast us. In preparation for the cool temps, Colombians had brought blankets with them, while I found warmth during the 13-hour ride in a hoodie I'd brought.
Stepping out of the cool bus the following Friday morning, I was immediately greeted with the heat and humidity of the Caribbean coast. The sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in sight.
I lucked out in the city center, obtaining a private room at a budget hotel for just $20 a night.
After a shower, some rest, and TV, I took a walk around the neighborhood which was bustling with street vendors selling Carnaval-related goods like vueltiaos, the traditional woven hats, colorful t-shirts, cheap sunglasses, and specially formulated shaving cream among other things.
The mood in the street was positively upbeat. Carnaval is the city’s claim to fame, and its annual chance to showcase itself to the rest of Colombia and Latin America.
In the evening, I went out for dinner and a few beers with some Irish travelers I met in the hotel lounge. It was a relaxing way to warm-up before the main event.
Early Saturday afternoon, a group of us headed north in taxis to see the parade. I bought a vueltiao, paying too much because I didn't shop around and didn't want to hold off due to the intense midday sun.
We found a great spot in the shade of a building to spend a few hours spraying each other with foam and drinking beers, rum, and Aguardiente.
I was surprised to find Carnaval was a family affair – little kids were everywhere, along with moms, dads, and older folks. It was difficult to see the parade, except for the people on floats, because I'm short and a lot of people arrived much earlier than us to get a good spot.
I didn't move too far from our pack of Aussies, Europeans, and Americans, however I would've liked to have met more Colombians in the crowd.
Actually, despite looking like a complete fool in my woven hat and bright blue Carnaval t-shirt, a cute architecture student named Marcia started talking to me in English at one point. She invited us to a party she was hosting a few days later.
After the parade, it took some walking and patience to get a taxi. Even when I got one, it seemed to have trouble finding my hotel despite the exact address printed on the business card.
Later that night, we took taxis to an area recommended by the hotel staff. It was a city block with bars on both sides, loud music playing, and everyone hanging out on the patios and sidewalks.
People continued to spray each other with foam, and slap talcum powder on one another (regardless of whether you knew the person). Most people reacted well, but I did my best to avoid the messiness at that point. And I left my camera at home so I wouldn't have to worry about it.
It was a fun night, but I longed for a more authentic experience -- to be hanging out with Colombians, not just other foreigners.
On Sunday, we set out to watch the parade from the same spot as the day before. Unfortunately, it took us two hours and three taxis to find the spot. By the time we arrived, the crowd was thinner, as it was later in the afternoon, but the atmosphere was still great.
It was at that point that we met a friendly pair of Peruvian girls with whom we made plans to meet up with later that night. In addition, a Colombian guy offered to be our guide for the night. We weren't sure about his motivations, but with strength in numbers, we made plans to meet up with him as well.
Later that night, we regrouped with our new Colombian guide at the hotel where the Peruvians and Europeans were staying.
We headed out on foot toward a park where there had been a party during the day, but it had long since ended. And then it happened. Walking up some random street, we came upon a Colombian home blasting music, while the residents and friends were dancing in the street. It was a site I'd seen all over Barranquilla since I'd arrived.
Crashing a random family's party was exactly what I was looking for. We could've gone to a discoteca or bar in any city, but to hang out with some festive and friendly Colombians outside their home was a unique experience. And they welcomed us immediately.
We danced, we had a few drinks, and we got hit with plenty of shaving cream and talcum powder.
It was perfect.