It almost doesn’t seem possible. A city responsible for the births of Sofia Vergara and Shakira? Surely, there must be something in the water. (But don’t drink the water unless you want stomach cramps.) However, I can tell you that such a place does exist and offers all the comforts of a modern Latin American city. This very real city is also empty of the scams and aggressive vendors of its coastal Colombian counterparts like Cartagena.
I’m talking, of course, about Barranquilla, which often goes unnoticed by tourists due to its unassuming perch between Cartagena and Santa Marta. But that’s a shame, as this “Golden Gate of Colombia” also boasts the gayest carnival in South America.
1. Barranquilla’s Carnaval includes a day-long LGBTQ+ bash
Rivaling Rio’s Carnaval as the second biggest in the world, Barranquilla puts a lot of pomp and circumstance into its world-famous celebration. As a trip to the popular Carnaval Museum will show, the Carnaval has roots that go as far back as Ancient Rome — and Barranquilla honors those roots in every way possible.
While many Carnavals worldwide ignore the historical contributions of LGBTQ+ people to the event, Barranquilla chooses to be an ally instead. The “Gay Carnaval of Barranquilla” is well-attended by all Barranquilleros, and the city protects it as an essential cultural heritage. So, when you’re not gagging at eleganza, feasting on arepas at the Carnaval-themed La Casa de Doris, or attending afterparties at Phuket or Lives, you’ll feel satisfied knowing that you’re being, like, cultural or whatever.
2. Barranquilla has an exciting culinary scene
Barranquilla is brimming with chefs looking to stake their claim on Colombia’s diverse culinary scene. You’ll never be at a loss for Lebanese food since Barranquilla contains Colombia’s largest Arab population. Sarab is one solid choice for trying kibbeh.
Barranquilla is also an excellent place to try comida costeña (coastal food), such as carimañolas (meat pies) with suero (Colombian sour cream). However, to get your carimañola and dédito (fried cheese stick) fix, try the famous fast food joint Narcobollo. Then, when you’re ready to try elevated comida costeña, you can visit some local haute cuisine establishments.
Meanwhile, Helena is a great choice for Greek, Miura is a top choice for steak, Manuel is a queer-friendly destination with a luxe vibe, and Mimi is a rose-colored fantasy featuring the hottest waiters in town. If you’d prefer to accompany your dinner with a leisurely walk along the river, visit the Caimán del Río, which overlooks the majestic Magdalena River.
3. Barranquilla has a better beach than Cartagena
Cartagena gets more attention than Barranquilla (and even Santa Marta) due to its hypnotic architecture and street art, but the city has no good beaches. If you want the tropical vacation you’ve been craving, you’ll have to rent a boat or find a Colombian willing to take you to a nearby island. And don’t even try Isla Baru: It’s a wasteland of scammers and motor oil-infested water.
On the other hand, Barranquilla lies just a 30-minute Uber ride from a beach with its very own castle. Hop over to Villa Alcatraz or Pradomar for a picturesque beach afternoon in your own cabana. You can even plan to stay one or two nights at Hotel Pradomar if you want to work an extended beach vacation into your Barranquilla sojourn.
4. Barranquilla is great for history and literature nerds
Gabriel García Márquez — the author of Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude — is beloved in his home country of Colombia. You can find tributes to him in nearly every city, often in the form of yellow butterflies, his favorite animal. What literature nerds may not know, however, is that Márquez also made his mark on Barranquilla, where he spent several significant years developing a local arts scene.
That artistic heritage is never more apparent than at La Cueva, a one-of-a-kind contemporary restaurant serving equal parts history, art, and costeño classics. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the crunchy rice with seafood, a modern take on a classic Barranquilla dish. The cocktails are also stunning works of art — a perfect complement to the fascinating historical exhibits sprinkled about the restaurant.
When you’re done eating, you can investigate artifacts from Márquez’s life, take souvenir pictures with Colombian historical figures, and even watch a short film. If you’re still hankering for history, you can visit El Museo Romántico (the Romantic Museum), where docents take you on an imagined journey through the history of Barranquilla — even when the museum is closed.
5. Alto Prado is an excellent neighborhood for working (but hopefully you don’t have to work)
Have we mentioned how safe and clean Barranquilla is yet? That modern luxury is particularly apparent in the upscale Alto Prado neighborhood, where café after impeccable café sits beside an embarrassment of brunch spots. If you’re a remote worker, this neighborhood is paradise since you can rotate between at least five different places every week. Diario specifically caters to remote workers, whereas Dulcerna specializes in superb desserts, and Fit Bar has a truly gargantuan menu that pleases even the healthiest of visitors.
Finally, when you’re done for the day, and you’re dying for dinner, stroll over to La Piazzetta de Flavia & Michel for top-notch Italian, or sample the enormous specialty hot dogs at Dónde Está Javier if you don’t want to spend your entire life savings.
6. Barranquilla is home to some stunning republican architecture (and no, not that kind of Republican)
You’ll hear a lot about republican architecture if you visit the El Prado neighborhood or stay at the El Prado Hotel – but you don’t need to worry. That doesn’t mean that the architecture stans for Trump.
In Colombia, “republican” means a building was constructed after Colombia’s independence from Spain (but before modern times). That translates to a charming combination of Victorian and Belle-Epoque, with just a tinge of je ne sais quoi. So, as you wander around El Prado, remember that you’re essentially traveling through time. Soak it up.
However, if you’d prefer something modern, you can visit the “nuclear bunker church,” more formally known as the Catedral Metropolitana María Reina de Barranquilla, which hides some terrific carvings within its modest, borderline-brutalist walls.
7. So, what are you waiting for?
At the end of the day, you might not have time to visit every restaurant, bar, and museum in Barranquilla – even if you visit during Carnaval and devote a week to it. Ultimately, the important thing is to ensure you include this up-and-coming travel destination in your tour of coastal Colombia. Book a bus, admire the coastal landscape, and prepare to gasp once you see the glowing, rainbow Monumento Ventana al Mundo monument. It marks Barranquilla as the progressively-minded “Window to the World.”
You’ll have to agree once you witness the city’s contemporary charms for yourself.