Photos by Rachel Flemister and Stephen Meyer
The guidebooks don't have much to say about Barranquilla other than: Don't go.
Unless it's for Carnaval. And even then…do you have to? Barranquilla is one of Colombia's largest, most strategic industrial port cities and even Lonely Planet gives the place a measly half-page, they despise the town so much. It's just not recommended. That very half-page, however, details what you would go to Barranquilla for, which is, as mentioned, Carnaval, the week-long, masqueraded blow-out celebrated by every nation lining the entire Caribbean every February. Apparently, Barranquilla's is only second to one. (Rio de Janeiro's).
So we touched down in 'Quilla and followed the music. A distant rhythmic clamoring led us to the baggage claim where a live band replete with accordions, a horn section and one hell of a clarinetist played to a dancing crowd of post-passengers. What's the opposite of jet-lag? It was hot and loud and merry-as-f–k and I immediately thought to myself, "I could get used to this." That, and the Lonely Planet doesn't know shit.
Then just when I thought an entrance couldn't get any groovier, while stepping outside to hail a cab, an old Honda Civic with the hatchback flung up coasted into the pickup zone playing Colombian cumbia music at a volume level I did not know was physically possible for eight large sub-woofers in the back-half of a Civic to produce.
The car halted to a stop still blaring the music and three people in the front tumbled out to pick up their long-lost passenger, screaming and crying and rejoicing and dancing right there in the pickup lane among the grinning cops and blasé cabbies. Decibels that made my heart rattle in its cage and my hips involuntarily sway.
And again, I thought, "I could get used to this."
SURFING's done trips to Colombia before. Actually, just one, and mostly on a boat along the vastly inaccessible Pacific coastline. Like Barranquilla, not much more than five years ago, if you were traveling to Colombia, you were also most likely asked, "Do you have to?" You just weren't supposed to go there — precisely why SURFING mag wanted to. Colombia's always been that dangerous, sexy, steamy forbidden fruit, and goddammit it was time for a taste. My mouth was already watering in baggage claim.
Plus I'd heard a few Shakira songs and recently watched Narcos on Netflix, so I figured I was versed and ready to go.
Indeed, the country's still recovering from a 20–year-old stigma. Escobar. Cocaine. Cartel. Plane bomb. Guerilla insurgency. In the 90s, the city of Medellin was murder-capital of the world. But just last year was the country's least violent one in three decades. The backpackers are back. You can play paint ball in Pablo's seized, vacant drug mansions.
My contact, Daniel Olmos, one of Colombia's two pro surfers and Barranquilla native rolls up with his chick and friend Kaloey. Out of the airport and en route the beach, the streets are gritty and dusty but the people seem to be gearing up for something. Vendors everywhere are hawking colorful cowboy hats and Marti Gras masks and locals are buying, already donning whacky costumes with no apparent theme, wearing canteens slung around their necks filled with what I'd later discover was Aguardiente, Colombia's national liquor. Pretty much see-through Jäger.
The sound of marching bands mixed with salsa mixed with reggaeton echoes from a walled avenue beside us. I can see the tops of feathers and hands raised above floats just over the wall and Daniel says, "Don't worry, that'll be going on till tomorrow morning. It just gets wilder all night."
Bypassing the parades and the growing street crowds, we venture toward Playa Salgar, a town on the edge of the grey Magdalena River rivermouth. More specifically, to a beach called Alcatraz. The scenery around us resembles Baja — hazy, arid and trash ridden with a vacant 20-story building half-finished here; an awkward, empty gated subdivision there.
"I don't know why, but there's really no surf industry here in Colombia," explains Daniel. "There aren't any [real] surf shops, no shapers; everything we get here is either ordered off the Internet or brought in my traveling surfers. It's crazy, because Venezuela — which doesn't really have better waves than us — has had a much larger surf culture for so many years longer than us."
"Crazy," because currently, neighboring Venezuela is also far less stable of a country than Colombia with a rep for deteriorating public safety, widespread muggings and a ballooning murder rate. It's virtually stolen Colombia's rep from 10 years ago. No pun intended. Also, Daniel, like many other Colombian surfers, has to go to Venezuela whenever they need a new board.
Perks of an absent industry? According to Daniel, there couldn't be more than 100 consistent surfers in the entire country (both Pacific and Atlantic coasts included) and a "crowd" around his home breaks is, well…like, 15 guys. But Colombia does have a small contest circuit, so it's possible to make a little prize money, plus there's the Latin American pro tour, which Colombian surfers can enter, thus, pursuing a professional career in surfing isn't actually out of the question. Daniel's main sponsor is Corona beer and besides modeling and riding for the company, he coordinates events for the brand around town.
We get to Alcatraz and are ushered into the beach lot by a random dude standing in the middle of the road pin-wheeling his arm like we should steal second base. There's about 100 palapas in a row lining the shore with local families' vehicles backed into them, Sunday tailgating. Out front are rippable righthanders peeling off random jetties — with the odd punchy left — a half-dozen of which protrude from the beach for as far as the eye can see.
We hop out of the car and the sun is how the sun would feel this close to the equator. As if on cue, the family next to us flicks the system on and, yep, we'd be surfing to a soundtrack. In a very short span I'd learned that a car stereo system is to a Colombian family, what Purel is to an American mom. What a tie is to a businessman. Inseparable.
Daniel looks at the waves, shaking his head. "The government keeps building these jetties to contain the sand for beach goers, and sometimes they f–k up a good break and sometimes they create a new one," he says. "Like today — I've never surfed this part of the beach, but this is a new jetty that created a new wave."
I ask Daniel if I get to name this one and he says, "Sure. We'll call it Gringo's."
Kinda walked right into that one.
We surf for a couple hours and the water is warm and dense, the same grey as the nearby Magdalena. Apparently in the rainy season (not now) the currents shift and the water is more of a Caribbean blue. But there also isn't much surf then, explains Daniel.
On the shoreline, though more than one family is blasting their tunes, one in particular — probably, the one with the biggest amp — is a few notches louder than the rest. It's one hell of a playlist jumping from Alpha Blondy to Ricky Martin to Calvin Harris to Kendrick Lamar to Dropkick Murphys with seamless precision that somehow makes perfect sense. There are only three of us out and the DJ's making us feel like we're surfing to parts in a live section-based surf flick. It also could just be a coincidence.
Post-surf we escape from Alcatraz and get back to the city center where the ruckus has intensified. The colors have brightened. The mood has lifted. The music — astonishingly — has gotten louder. A block party has ended the road, which I realize is a crowd dancing between four cars backed into the intersection of a four-way stop. This can't be legal, I ponder, and somewhere in the distance a feeble police siren wails between the beat.
But again, the road is blocked so we are forced to park and join the festivities. Barranquilla, you twisted my arm. And who the hell recommended not to come here, again?