Every November, the city of Cartagena, Colombia holds a carnival in celebration of the city’s declaration of independence in November 1811. Featuring a parade, a beauty pageant, and tons of dancing in the streets, the annual November festivities attract visitors from all around Colombia and the world. And it’s a smashing good time. Read on for a guide to the Cartagena Independence Festivities and what to expect during a visit.
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When Are the Cartagena Independence Festivities?
The Cartagena Independence Festivities, known alternatively as the November Festivities or Fiestas Novembrinas, are held every year during the week of November 11, the anniversary of the city’s declaration of Independence in 1811. If the 11th falls on a Sunday or Monday, the November Fiestas are usually held in the week immediately preceding.
History Behind the Cartagena November Festivities
On November 11, 1811 (11/11/11), Cartagena declared itself and the surrounding area to be the independent and sovereign Free State of Cartagena. Unlike the declaration of temporary autonomy (the Spanish King Fernando VII had been exiled after Napoleon’s France occupied Spain) in Bogotá in July of the year before, Cartagena declared absolute independence from the Spanish. (*Read more about Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence here).
The government of the Free State of Cartagena was effectively the first fully functioning fully independent state in what came to be modern day Colombia. The city adopted its present day flag and seal as symbols of the newly founded state. The city’s declaration is considered a decisive moment in the movement for Colombian independence, and undoubtedly sped up the process of full separation from Spain in the rest of the colony of New Granada.
Cartagena’s leaders had declared they would defend their independence to the last drop of blood, and they nearly did, as the city suffered a protracted siege that left much of its population starved during the Spanish reconquest in 1815. It would be one of the last areas of Colombia to be rid of the Spanish for good, only being re-liberated again in 1821, two years after the decisive Battle of Boyacá that liberated much of Colombia.
Today, the Cartagena Independence celebrations commemorate the city’s decisive role in Colombia’s independence. It is also a celebration of the city’s unique Afro-influenced Caribbean culture. And it’s an all around great time. Be sure to read on to find out about all that goes on during this week long party.
What to Do During the Cartagena Independence Festivities
The main attraction during the celebration of Cartagena’s independence is a massive parade. There used to be two big parades, one on Thursday and one on the 11th itself. The last few years, partly because of where the 11th has fallen on the calendar and partly because the National Beauty Pageant was temporarily moved to another time of the year (more on that below), there has just been one massive parade on the November 11th. It appears that will be the case again in 2018.
The main parade(s) goes down the Avenida Santander starting at the entrance of Crespo and along the waterfront to the end of the Centro at Parque La Marina. Tickets can be bought to sit on bleachers in front of the walls in Centro or parade goers can see the action from the streets in Marbella and El Cabrero.
During the parade, expect to see lots of groups dressed in beautiful and colorful costumes that represent Cartagena’s Caribbean culture. You will also see people dressed in costumes representing the Spanish, indigenous peoples, the independence fighters, and assuredly a few odd ball ones, like a geriatric Superman. Finally, there will be floats with the beauty queens. If you get lucky, one may even throw you a rose!
A Note on Safety
This is probably a good moment to pause for a word of warning. The parade can get quite rowdy, and people spray espuma (foam), throw maizena (corn starch), and even rub paint on each other. People also throw buscapies (little firecrackers). You should wear clothes that you don’t mind getting ruined and use closed shoes. I learned that the hard way my first year in Cartagena when I both got burned by a buscapie and had a flip flop fall apart!
It’s also not uncommon for pickpockets to spray someone in the eyes before grabbing what they can out of their pockets. There are also occasionally fights that break out. While the overwhelming majority of people are looking to have a good time, it’s best to leave valuables at home and carry small amounts of cash.
One more word of advice: the whole week there will guys walking around either covered in or with a bottle of paint (or sometimes just nasty water), and threatening to rub it on you if you don’t give them a few pesos, so keep some spare change with you.
This is one of those things where personal preference comes into play. If you hate being in crowds or aren’t willing to get a little (ok a lot) dirty, you are probably better off making good friends with someone who has a sweet balcony on the Avenida Santander or just sitting out the main parade. However, I find the rowdiness of it all a lot of fun. There’s nothing like getting into an epic espuma fight, and well the maizena and paint rubbed in your face is just the price you gotta pay.
Other Parades During the Cartagena Independence Festivities
There are a number of other parades that take place during the week in various parts of the city. There is a LGBT Pride Parade that is usually held on the Friday or Saturday and normally goes through Centro and/or Getsemaní.
Also the Cabildo de Getsemaní is always held on November 11th, and is a parade through the neighborhood of Getsemaní just outside of the Centro, a neighborhood that was incredibly important to the history of independence. It usually has a much more local, historical, and cultural focus than the bigger main parade. (*Learn about Pedro Romero, the important Getsemaní militia leader here).
There may be other parades in different parts of the city. Often there is a student parade at some point during the week. Check the full schedule of events at the Instituto de Patrimonio y Cultura’s website (look under the tab that says cultura). For 2018, you can see the full schedule in this pdf.
The Bando: Reading of the Declaration of Independence
On the morning of November 11th, Cartagena’s Independence Day, there is always a reading (the bando, which means public proclamation) and reenactment of the Declaration of Independence of Cartagena. This reading takes place outside of the mayor’s office at the Plaza de Aduana and is the official kick off of the day’s festivities before the parade.
The Beauty Pageants During the Cartagena Independence Festivities
Beauty pageants are a big deal in Colombia. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a debate I’m not getting into in this guide, but it’s not debatable they are a big deal. Just ask Steve Harvey what Colombians thought of him after his mess up a couple years back in Miss Universe.
During the Cartagena November Fiestas the city crowns a Queen of Independence known as the Reina de Independencia or Reina Popular. Most of the neighborhoods in the city have a candidate, and people really show out to support their neighborhood’s candidate. The candidates will participate in the parade on November 11th and have floats where they can wave to their fans.
The National Beauty Pageant is also usually held during the Cartagena Independence Festivities. The last two years it was held in March due to questions about whether a national beauty pageant detracted from the attention paid to the historical importance of the date and Cartagena itself. Without getting into that debate here either, I would highly recommend a read of this excellent article and partner photo gallery published in the New York Times years back about the two beauty pageants if you are in the mood for some social commentary.
Regardless, in 2018, the National Beauty Pageant is returning to be held alongside the Cartagena Independence Festivities. Presumably the national queens will be participating in the main parade on the 11th this year, although it appears the traditional boat parade, known as the Balleneras, will not be held in 2018.
There are usually a number of events, including a bikini contest and talent show, held in the weeks running up to November 11th related to both beauty contests if you want to get a glimpse of the beauty queens early.
There are often concerts held in conjunction with the Cartagena Independence Festivities. Be on the lookout in particular around the Clocktower and elsewhere in Centro for stages being set up.
The last few years, Club Colombia has done an Oktoberfest with famous musical artists that culminates in Cartagena the weekend before November 11, kicking off the week long festivities. They also usually host a festival with live music the night of the Independence Day Parade.
Enjoy the Party
At the end of it all, the Cartagena Independence Festivities are just one big week long fiesta. While many of the “main events” will take place in the tourist circle around Centro, there will be smaller parties all around as well. Expect a lively atmosphere at any local tienda, as most people will be off of work at least during the latter half of the week.
If you happen to befriend some locals, see if you can get an invitation to a fiesta in one of the more residential barrios, as they are a lot of fun! Especially expect the espuma, maizena, and buscapie action to be heightened, but good natured.
More than anything make sure you’ve got a can of Aguila in one hand and a can of espuma in the other to live it up (or as they say in Colombia, gozala!)
Tips for Enjoying the Cartagena Independence Festivities
- As mentioned above, be sure to wear clothes you don’t mind being ruined as you are likely to end up with paint, corn starch, and grime covering them.
- Be sure to wear closed toed shoes to avoid the buscapies.
- It is not uncommon for crooks to spray you in the eyes with foam before pickpocketing you, and I know a few people who have had that happen to them. Also, there are big crowds and pickpockets love that any time of year. For that reason, it is best to leave all valuables at home and only carry a small amount of cash.
- Finally, sometimes fights do break out during the parade, in particular between gangs. Unless you’ve somehow managed to be inducted into a gang in Cartagena, you should be fine as long as you move out of the fray and don’t decide you’re going to go Rambo style on anybody.
Interested in learning more about the Cartagena’s Independence Festivities?
This is part 1 of an 11 part series on the celebration of and history behind Cartagena’s Independence. Check out the other parts below:
- Part 2: Why Did Cartagena Declare Independence? – Historic Background to November 11
- Part 3: Un Once de Noviembre: Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence
- Part 4: Biography of Pedro Romero: Black, Working Class Hero of Cartagena’s Independence
- Part 5: Cartagena’s Patriotic Symbols – The Meaning of the City’s Flag, Seal, and Anthem
- Part 6: Simón Bolívar in Cartagena – A Critical Look at the Liberator’s Cartagena Manifesto
- Part 7: The Siege of Cartagena – La Heroica Bravely Resists the Spanish Reconquest
- Part 8: Cartagena’s 9 Martyrs – Remembering the Spanish Occupation
- Part 9: The Liberation of Cartagena – La Heroica Rids Itself of the Spanish for Good
- Part 10: 2018 Schedule for Cartagena Independence Week
- Part 11: The Consequences of Independence (coming after the fiestas)
Planning a trip to Cartagena for the Independence Celebrations?
- Be sure to check out our guide to the best areas to stay.
- Check out available properties for your dates and the latest deals from Booking.com below:
*If you haven’t used Booking before, you can get up to $15 USD off your first reservation if you sign up here.
Interested in learning more about the history of Cartagena?
- Check out our Primer on the History of Cartagena or our more detailed, Comprehensive History of Cartagena.
- Be sure to visit Cartagena’s Inquisition Museum and Naval Museum to learn more about independence.
- Check out these books: No Limits to Their Sway: Cartagena’s Privateers and the Masterless Caribbean in the Age of Revolution and Breve Historia de Cartagena