The Other Side of Colombia


Every trip I’ve ever made to Colombia has always elicited the same reaction from most people upon my return. “Isn’t it dangerous there?” they ask, waiting to hear tales of guerillas, kidnappings, and car bombings. Considering my relationship to the destination — my family is originally from there — my take is always much more nostalgic.

A recent journey to the three “pearls of the Caribbean” (Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta) situated on the northern coast of the country, began in my parent’s hometown, Barranquilla, a tropical locale that boasts the first airport in South America. As soon as I enter the city, I always get hit with a medley of smells, some immediate and others anticipated: the beach, car exhaust, and fresh-baked bread come to mind. My senses are reawakened by the constant bustle on the streets and the hot, humid weather that makes my skin dewy on contact.

Known as the “golden gate” of Colombia, Barranquilla is a big industrial port city that might not seem attractive at first sight. (The initial ride from the airport is filled with noisy traffic, unpaved roads, and street vendors). But once you get to know it and its inhabitants you fall in love with the warmth, festive personality, and irreverent sense of humor that characterize the city. After all, this is the place Gabriel Garcia Márquez was partly inspired by when he created Macondo, the mythical fictional village in his Nobel-winning oeuvre One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The sultry destination, which boasts good weather throughout the year, is the land of magical realism. My friend Ernesto McCausland, who chronicles the city’s many tales in a weekly column for El Heraldo, the local paper, has shared many a story.

Sweets made with coconut, pineapple, papaya and other natural
photo: Grace Bastidas

There’s the one about Evaristo Baena-Molinares, who owns a peculiar business — through one door of his house he runs a funeral home; through another he rents a “pico” (a huge sound-machine used to play salsa, merengue, and other Caribbean rhythms at parties). There’s also the account of the 16-year-old girl who pretended to be pregnant with sextuplets by tying a ball of old clothes and sheets to her waist. She wanted to get her boyfriend to commit and in turn triggered a lifetime of jokes aimed at her unsuspecting beau. And for a select few, like Benjamin Garcia, Barranquilla is the Transylvania of Latin America. Garcia used to dress up as Dracula for the city’s yearly carnival. The custom ended tragically after he bit a few women. These stories may seem outlandish to some, but not to the man who lives in a tree house in Fundadores Park, one of the biggest green spaces in town. He talks to the birds, washes cars for a living, and only leaves the area to travel to a mysterious place, where he is working on a secret formula to make gold.

No one can ever accuse Barranquilla of being dull — in personality or looks. I once met a couple of guys from Michigan, who were visiting on business, at a now-defunct dance club. I couldn’t help noticing the three sunburnt blondes, each with a cerveza Aguila in hand, mesmerized by the beautiful long-haired girls who had gotten on the bar to dance. When I heard them speak English, I approached them and asked what they were doing here and all they could say was, “We love this place!”

Rich in different cultural traditions, “this place,” has an African heritage that is felt in the music (cumbia, mapale, and porro) and seen in the people (most costeños are mulattos). There is also a Lebanese presence that is visible in the Middle-Eastern restaurants that dot the city and the Muslim-style buildings that flank El Prado, a neighborhood worth strolling in.

All these different cultures are at its most brilliant during carnival season, which consists of 96 hours of nonstop partying — in the form of parades, dances, house jams, and sidewalk revelry — before the beginning of Lent. In 2003, the United Nations declared the carnival a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.” As a native, participation in the four-day event is a must — otherwise, you might as well not leave home. And as a tourist, it’s a treat that rivals that of Rio’s — or so I’d like to think though I’ve never experienced the latter.

Palm-greeter: A streetscene of El Prado
photo: Grace Bastidas

A few years ago, I took part in the season’s Batalla de Flores (Battle of the Flowers) parade, under the guise of Miss Manhattan, a faux title that gave me another perspective of this incredible rumba. Wearing silver leather Jane-of-the-jungle type attire and a large plumed headdress, I rode along with ten neighborhood queens (each had beaten a slew of other girls for the privilege to represent their nabes) on a slow-moving float for more than five hours. As I stood on four-inch heels shaking my shoulders and shimmying my hips to Afro-Caribbean sounds, I realized that I should’ve rested, had plenty of water, and done a strict cardio regimen for the weeks prior to carnival, because in Barranquilla partying is an Olympic sport that continues, as residents say, “until your body can resist.” José Mangual Jr. even wrote a song, “Barranquillero Arrebatao,” as an homage to natives for their dancing skills and contagious spirit.

And Joe Arroyo, one of my favorite rumberos, dedicated “En Barranquilla Me Quedo” (“In Barranquilla I’ll Stay”) to this “great society” that’s “beautiful” and “enchanting.” After a lifetime of going back to visit friends and family, this is also where a little part of me stays.

Up next: More of Colombia when we travel to Cartagena and Santa Marta.