“Ha. You realize any accommodation has been booked out for months, right?”
This was the moment that I decided to finally give couch surfing a try. The biggest Carnival in Colombia and self proclaimed “most colorful in the world” had slipped by my Colombia research until four weeks prior to the big celebration and I just HAD to find a way to get there.
After several back and forths that eventually led to unanswered emails by either myself or the host, I found myself in Cartegena, just about an hour outside of Barranquilla. There I was lucky enough to meet two girls, also trying to couch surf for Carnival. Suddenly it was the day of departure and our weekends still hung in the air with the threatening potential of falling through completely — although we still managed to spend the morning more focused on our colorful Carnival outfits than actually sorting out boring logistics, like beds.
With one confirmed couch out of three, several up in the air requests, and no way for me to call the girls once we parted ways unless I borrowed a phone, we planned to meet at the one confirmed address and set off on our separate routes — three faces full of doubt and confusion and just enough excitement to keep us moving forward…
With a hastily scribbled location, I hopped into a cab after the two hour bus ride to Barranquilla and literally closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best. There were too many things that could go wrong here. I wouldn’t find the girls, or we wouldn’t be able to get in touch with any of these hosts, or this cab would break down and they’d wait and wait and wait for me until finally giving up and heading to the party and I’d be stranded at the stoop of an empty apartment with no friends…
The cab dropped me off at an apartment complex and handed my sweaty scrap of paper to a group of little boys playing soccer in the driveway. They excitedly dragged me up the stairs, chanting the address I was looking for like it was the name of their team mascot. I found myself folded into a very suspicious and pessimistic protection mode — assuming the worst as they pulled me up the steps. These kids were going to rob me and they were too darn cute to even object…
After eight little hands rapped on an apartment door, one of my friends answered and we both collapsed into laughter and relief.
Moments later, the father of the house was offering space for all three of us to sleep there, even though he had only expected one. We emerged from our host’s bedroom (a girl our age who was already out partying) to find two extra beds made up in the family’s cramped living room — an unbelievable act of hospitality from a total stranger.
I find this type of scenario happening again and again. As travelers — especially as solo female travelers — we’re so used to the process of constructing our guard and keeping it up, remaining conscious and borderline suspicious of our surroundings and of those we meet. It’s a tactic that’s meant to keep us safe, and I don’t doubt its a necessary defense mechanism at times — but then I always feel a little guilty when everything works out beautifully and everyone I come in contact with has my best interests at heart. From the cab driver who wouldn’t leave until the boys showed me exactly which door I was looking for, to a family offering up their home to three strangers, the first night was full of overwhelming hospitality and the pattern continued through the weekend.
We attended the first night of Carnival in full-on Barranquilla fashion. We were doused in foam and flour, tugged at for endless offers to dance, and celebrated by every Colombian we met. They all seemed genuinely thrilled to share their local custom with travelers and we were just as thrilled to experience it with them.
By the second day, our hair was crusty, our feet were black, and we crawled out of bed at 8 am to secure our viewing spots for the big parade. We somehow survived an afternoon of oppressive heat, picked ourselves up with a brief intermission for coffee and air conditioning, and continued on to another night of foam attacks, rum, and endless dancing…
I wouldn’t advise approaching your plans for Carnival as last minute as we did. I would also not advocate consuming both Ron Medellin rum and Aguardiente in one evening — even if it is Carnival. I would, however, highly recommend attending Colombia’s Carnival and spending your time there with as many foam-wielding Colombians as possible. They really know how to show travelers a good time. I’d also recommend using CouchSurfers.com for accommodation when attending Carnival. We spent the entire weekend with our host and her friends and they all knew exactly where to go and what to do. They were so kind and helpful and it made the experience much more enjoyable and authentic than it would have been had we navigated the weekend on our own. Experiencing the hospitality and genuine kindness of the people in this country — especially in their home — is an opportunity that should not be missed, and if you’re visiting during Carnival when hostels and hotels double in price, its the perfect opportunity.
We bid Barranquilla farewell after two days, allowing our host and her family to reclaim their couch and living space. It was time to scrub the foam and powder out of our hair and the filth off our feet, but the experience — the kindness, hospitality, and the passion for celebrating Colombian culture will remain with us even after the hangovers are gone.