6. Don’t watch the road when you’re in a taxi
Most travel guides say that San Gil is the thrill-seeker’s Mecca in Colombia, but I beg to differ – try taking a taxi through Barranquilla at rush hour. It’s cheaper, less time consuming, and guaranteed to leave your heart pounding more than any bungee jump or white water rafting.
As the price is usually agreed when you first get into the taxi (there still aren’t any meters in Barranquilla), it really is in the driver’s interests to get you to your destination as fast as possible. Whilst most people would brake if they saw a car pulling out in front of them, these taxis will actually accelerate with their horn screaming to deter anyone from getting in their way. And why bother using lanes if you can squeeze through two cars by going in between them? This talent for knowing the width of their vehicle down to the nearest millimeter will leave you pathetically darting your head from side to side in an attempt to dodge the traffic yourself, whilst helplessly scrambling around for a seatbelt (don’t bother, it’s like searching for buried treasure without a map). And they manage to do all this whilst recording whatsapp voice messages to their mates confirming where they’re going to watch the football later.
I can’t decide whether they’re among the most skillful drivers in the world or just incredibly lucky, but touch wood I haven’t been in any crashes so far. The most bizarre thing of all, however, is how vehemently they insist on you closing the door gently when getting out. “I need to take care of my vehicle”, one driver complained to me (after several near misses and having driven the wrong way down a busy one-way street). “Please respect that this is my livelihood”. Oh the irony!
7. Leave plenty of time to pay if you’re going to the supermarket
I used to decide which checkout queue to join by gauging how many people there were and the number of items they had. However, things aren’t always as they might seem in Barranquilla. A significant lack of urgency among most shoppers, coupled with a tendency to bump into friends they don’t seem to have seen for years at the checkout, can make the experience a rather lengthy one.
You might luckily find a queue with just two people in front of you, the last lady only having a loaf of bread – jackpot! But once it’s her turn, out of nowhere her husband appears with a huge trolley packed to the brim with questionable amounts of random sales products – namely sufficient fabric softener to last a lifetime and enough toilet paper to wipe the backsides of the whole Caribbean.
Once this is eventually all scanned through, the husband standing with his arms folded as if it hadn’t crossed his mind that bagging up the items might speed things up a bit, they then realize they don’t actually have any washing powder. The husband reluctantly wanders off, not to be seen for a good five minutes as we all wait in frustration, and returns with one small bag of detergent (very confusing proportions). When this has been scanned (still nothing has been put in a bag at this point), his wife then pulls out three sheets of paper – bills. Yes, bills. This lady seems to be paying off all sorts of things as the man at the checkout furiously types in a series of long numbers before requesting a large amount of cash that she painfully counts out, note by note. He then starts to bag up the endless amounts of fabric softener and loo roll as the couple look on, using a new bag for each one (ironically none of the Éxito supermarket staff appear to have seen “Magia Salvaje”) and tying a knot so tight at the top that they’ll be lucky to ever get the items out.
It’s finally your turn and you’ve been waiting so long that, out of pure necessity, you’ve already eaten a bag of peanuts and drunk a bottle of sprite you bought (everyone seems to do it here). When you rapidly bag up your own shopping as the man scans each item, he starts to tie knots in the top of the bags for you too (why would you do that?!). You ask him not to but, whilst getting cash out to pay, he starts blindly tying up the same bags again. “Perdón, es costumbre” (sorry, it’s just habit), he exclaims, unable to explain any kind of logic behind this strange ritual. You eventually give up battling to undo knots the Boy Scouts would be proud of, adding the bags to a growing pile of unopened impenetrable shopping when you get home.
8. Beware of arroyos i.e. flash floods
It may be hot and sunny most of the time, but flooding is a severe problem in the city. When it rains here you can be soaked from head to toe in a matter of seconds, and it’s advisable to avoid travel if possible. Whilst the streams may look shallow, they can be incredibly strong and sweep cars away with ease. Some people see this as a good opportunity to get rid of any unwanted furniture/clutter in their houses (very frowned upon!), but carelessness still continues to lead to tragic deaths.
In July a 16 year-old girl was on her way home from school when the arroyos struck. As she waited for the flooding to subside, standing casually with her feet at the edge of the flowing water, the current suddenly dragged her away to the shock of bystanders. Her body was discovered 24 hours later, some 60 blocks from where she fell into the stream.
Work is being done to try and solve this drainage problem (half of Calle 84 has been dug up since I arrived four months ago), but it remains a dangerous issue that must be taken very seriously.
9. Be patient with local bus routes
Buses can be very confusing when you first arrive here, and the lack of route information online can mean the best source of information is often word of mouth. Despite fairly recent app developments to help commuters in Barranquilla (see previous article: http://barranquillalife.com/mobile-technology-evolving-barranquillas-way-to-commute/), this technology isn’t always reliable as updates can lag behind route changes.
This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if barranquilleros admitted when they didn’t know which bus you needed, but this isn’t always the case. If it isn’t their daily route, nobody seems to know which bus to take – but everyone has an opinion. When asking someone how to get somewhere, especially if it’s slightly off the beaten track, before you know it you’ll be surrounded by a crowd of eight or so locals all giving varying advice on how to get to said destination:
“It’s the bright red bus. You need to catch it from five blocks down that way.”
“No no no señor, I think it goes straight past here. And it’s blue.”
“Ah yes, well it’s red and blue. But you might be waiting a long time.”
“Not at all, it passes every 10 minutes. But I haven’t seen one yet today.”
“Maybe because it’s Sunday… I don’t think they run on Sundays.”
“Have you thought about taking a taxi?”
When you realise they don’t have a clue, it’s usually best to thank them and slowly walk in the direction they told you (before sneakily changing direction when their back is turned and running the way you thought it was in the first place). I’m already half a block away and I can still hear them debating which bus it should be, which will no doubt continue long into the night.
I now usually resort to getting on a bus that’s going in the right general direction and desperately trying to count the number of calles/carreras we’ve passed (it’s impossible to read the road signs when standing on the bus). Besides, there’s no better way of exploring a city than getting lost in it!
10. It might not be the country’s number one tourist destination, but it’s a great place to live.
When I arrived in Barranquilla, I must confess I was worried there wasn’t much to do here. Living in central London last year I was constantly bombarded by live entertainment, new bar openings, museum exhibitions and massive cultural events – to the extent that it was hard to leave a weekend free to just relax and unwind (except when I was broke, of course). However, when I first asked many Barranquilleros which places I should visit in the city, many simply replied: “Buenavista es chevere”. Don’t tell me I’ve come all this way to spend my weekends in a shopping center?!
Nonetheless, once you dig a bit deeper Barranquilla actually has plenty to offer – and at a much more affordable price than in London. Often dubbed “La capital del Caribe”, over 1 million people live in this city. The main difference is that you have to do a bit of research here – the entertainment won’t simply come to you! But once you get to know some locals, you will discover a whole host of fun activities: kayaking on the Magdalena River, “Cine a la calle” (outdoor cinema screenings), music festivals in the open air, group bike rides (see previous article: http://barranquillalife.com/activities-biela-quilla-healthy-and-fun/) and dancing salsa at La Troja (this legendary bar deserves an article of its own) to name but a few.
“Tiene un encanto único, ¿cierto?” (“It has a unique charm, doesn’t it?), one local points out when asked why he loves his hometown. For all my sarcastic remarks, I too have fallen in love with the place after just a few months. The people are so friendly here, and their sense of pride for their city is infectious in itself. It may have gaping holes in the roads, men patrolling the streets yelling “¡aguacate!” in your face (honestly, the first time it gave me such a shock I thought I was being attacked), and elusive buses that are older than my granny – but what it lacks in infrastructure, it certainly makes up for in character!
Joe Arroyo, I’m with you on this one – ¡En Barranquilla me quedo!