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Barranquilla, Colombia

Mickayla Bacorn

UMBC Faculty-led: Spanish Language Immersion in Colombia 

Major: Biochemistry, Spanish

12 August 2019

Cartagena: A City Between Time

This past Friday, we left Barranquilla to experience the wonderful city of Cartagena. Our Friday classes were canceled, and the bus picked us up around nine o’clock. The bus ride was two hours, so I popped my earbuds in and listened to my favorite Colombian band, Morat. Their music is a marriage of traditional folk music and modern styles of Latin pop. As I listened to their music, I observed an environment and life that reflected that same idea. Colombia has a stunning balance of old and new in everything: music, traditions, food, architecture, etc.

We arrived in the busy city of Cartagena around eleven o’clock. We stayed at El Hotel Baluarte in el barrio Bocagrande. The hotel was stunning. Upon walking in, it felt like a movie set. It was Roman Holiday, and I was Audrey Hepburn taking it all in. Through the lobby, down the main hall, you pass a circle of rocking chairs and a large fish tank. Visitors calmly rocked in the wooden chairs that had Colombian art stamped into their leather accents. The vibrant fish were pleasant to watch from the chairs as they darted around the spacious tank.

Cartagena is typically hot and humid, so the architecture must utilize shade and open areas to moderate temperature. Entering the breakfast dining area, you would believe that you stumbled upon a garden in the center of the building. There was no ceiling in this section of the hotel (a staple of coastal architecture). Looking up, warm sunshine peaked through the thick, waxy leaves of tropical trees. The tiled area had almost as many trees as tables. Bright, hand-carved, wooden parrots were stationed in every tree to greet visitors. The tables were small with few chairs. It was an intimate and welcoming environment, similar to a cozy cafe.

My roommate and I followed the spiral staircase to our room on the third floor. Each floor and room had unique art and styles. Our room was blue with a beautiful tile inlay. Bright sunlight fell through the large window onto the white tile floor. Its warmth radiated through the entirety of the room and welcomed us. In short, the hotel was designed impeccably. The architecture in Colombia does not possess artistic elements, instead it is art itself.

After gawking at the beauty of the hotel, we took a city tour around Cartagena. The tour began in the most modern parts of the city and ended in Old Cartagena. The first stop of the tour was along the urban harbor. The street was full of life; there were locals going about their business, tourists taking photos of everything under the sun, and vendors shaking maracas as they attempted to capture the attention of buyers. It seemed that all paths converged at the harbor, the heart of the coastal city. In the afternoon light, an advanced and urban city reflected in the bright blue water.

Shortly after our first stop, the driver took us to el Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a historic castle close to the harbor. Surrounded by skyscrapers, the castle proudly stands with incredible prestige. The juxtaposition of old and new peaks on Carrera 17 between the castle and developed hotels. The castle was enclosed and protected by a series of walls, which provided protection from pirates during the 1500’s.

Our final stop was Old Cartagena, a reminder that Cartagena is a city living between past and present, with its cobblestone streets and colorful boutiques of modern fashion. I know that I am constantly commenting on the colors of Colombia, but it is impossible to stop; I am endlessly stunned by the vibrant colors displayed on every surface in this country. Wooden doors of vibrant hues were the entrances to shops and housing. The pastel walls of buildings contrasted with the bold colors of the flowers that grew on them. The colors were strong and present without being loud or overbearing.

A particularly beautiful part of Cartagena was in el barrio Getsemaní on Calle Angosto. The alley with colorful umbrellas hanging between the buildings attracts both locals and tourists. The black shadows cast by the pink, green, blue, purple, and yellow umbrellas have a magical quality to them. It felt like a setting from a Gabriel García Márquez story (Colombian writer famous for his stories of magical realism, more about him in my post about Santa Marta).

Our Saturday was spent on a private island with a beautiful beach. From a harbor that reminded me of Baltimore, I took my first, very windy boat ride which lasted forty-five minutes. The salty air made my hair flap behind me like a ribbon on a kite. It felt amazing and refreshing, a blessing after two weeks of intense heat. Upon docking at La Isla del Encanto, we were greeted by a musician and wonderful fanfare (Colombia’s warm welcomes are unmatched). The clear, shallow water revealed bits of seashells and coral mixed with fine grains of sand. The island had many activities to enjoy, including kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling in the ocean. It was a lovely day at the beach.

Overall, the weekend was incredible.

25 July 2019

After a week in Barranquilla, I can confirm that it is not exactly what I expected. If I am honest, it has exceeded every expectation. The people are almost intimately kind. I say intimidating because people are less outgoing and friendly in the US, so I am surprised and overwhelmed by the warm welcome I receive everywhere I go.

During the first week, I have already become accustomed to most of the major changes. I am used to the wild style of driving. If there is space on the road, a car or motorcyclist will fill it. I know I am adjusted to the heat because today I commented “it is going to be a bit cold, I should bring a jacket”. The forecast low was 80F. The food is amazing, and I am well fed so I have no complaints.

Three highlights of the week are: going to the beach for the retreat, guiding an iguana across the street, and our visit El Museo Del Caribe.

The day after we landed, we went to the beach in Barranquilla. The beach had a restaurant on it which we ordered our lunch from. I had the mojarra roja (fried fish), an iconic Colombia dish. It was served with fried plantains and creamy coconut rice. It was incredible. The fish head was served along with the rest which was a first for me.

The Uninorte campus is beautiful and full of life. There are fruit trees, flowers, scrubs, and cats everywhere. But most importantly, there are iguanas on campus! When our group went to take a photo, I saw an iguana across the street, and I wanted him to be in our photo. I walked up to the iguana and asked him to come with me across the street. To everyone’s surprise, the iguana began to cross the street. I got him to cross the entire street but then he crawled into the gutter. However, he did follow me across the street.


During the week, we went to El Museo Del Caribe. It is a museum dedicated to the culture, history, and celebration of Carnaval. They showed us the wooden masks that people wear during Carnaval and explained the significance. They also demonstrated traditional Carnaval dances. The museum itself was incredibly beautiful. Every surface seemed to be covered in colorful art. It was vibrant and beautiful (much like the culture). After the tour and demonstrations, they played music and let us dance. After becoming more comfortable, almost everyone in the group was dancing and having a lot of fun.

My two classes here are excellent. Profesora Hernandez from UMBC teaches the culture class. We have focused mostly on music and celebrations in Barranquilla. As I learn about the rich history of the region, my desire to explore and learn more increases.


My Spanish professor is Prof. Miguel. He is friendly and from the more central region of Colombia, which means his accent is a lot clearer in my opinion. For the most part, I can follow what he says during class. He focuses on making his students use Spanish. Prof. wants us to apply our knowledge and increase vocabulary. I feel most comfortable reading and writing in Spanish, so I am glad that I am being pushed to focus on my reading and writing.

14 June 2019

Hello, I’m Mickayla!


When I was applying for college, I wrote in my essays that I hoped “to culturally educate myself through spending summer(s) abroad to experience other people’s lifestyles and culture.” Even though I wanted to study abroad, I didn’t think it was practical as a double major of a STEM subject and language. During the fall semester, I got an email about winter study abroad and followed it to the summer abroad programs. Once I saw the Barranquilla Colombia program, my doubts changed. As I researched this program more and more, my excitement grew. I felt in my gut that it wasn’t “I want to go” but “I need to go”. That said, I’m thrilled and terrified to be leaving the familiarity of home in 30 days. (I have a countdown on my phone screen that shows how many days until I fly out; so, yeah, I’m really excited).


First, here’s why I’m terrified. I’m a little nervous about flying because I’ve never flown out of the country. I’m also nervous that I will not be proficient enough in my Spanish speaking skills. I know that I am much better at reading and writing in Spanish. I have less experience speaking Spanish so I know that I will struggle with verbalizing my ideas and needs while abroad. Additionally, the program is five weeks, which is a long time to be away from my family and friends.


However, all my fears seem insignificant in comparison to my great excitement. From what I’ve researched and heard through friends, Colombia is a beautiful and vibrant country. I look forward to connecting with the people and culture there. I can’t wait to learn new dances and the rich history of the region. I am looking forward to the diverse cuisine of the coastal region. I have a friend that lived in Barranquilla for five years and she loved the food.


In the past, I have always learned best through “trial by fire”. In Colombia, I know that I will improve my Spanish by speaking through my communication blunders. Fortunately, I’m going to be with other Spanish-learning students from UMBC that can share their knowledge and experience with me. Additionally, according to most linguistics, Colombians speak the clearest and best Spanish so it is the perfect location to learn more.


I’m doing my best to prepare before I leave. We have had two meetings with our faculty member, Profesora Hernández. She introduced everyone, helped us find plane tickets, and discussed some basic adjustment information. Most importantly, she has prepared us for one of the biggest adjustments: the heat! Today in Maryland, the “real feel temperature” is 74 F. In Barranquilla, it is over 100 F. I am stocking up on sunscreen and light colored clothing. Additionally, I have been reviewing my Spanish a little every day. I found a Colombian television show recorded in the region of my program. I hope that my review and listening practice will help me adjust to the language change faster.

However, not all of my preparation is going as smoothly as I’d like. Most of my Spanish professors call me “Michaela”, the Spanish equivalent of “Mickayla”. During my preparations, I thought it would be cute if my host family has children and the kids call me “Mica”, easy to say and short for “Michaela”. Upon further research, that was a terrible idea! In Colombia, “mica” is slang for “potty”. If I didn’t check that before I left, I would have given people permission to call me “toilet”!


Everything is moving so quickly. My excitement is growing every single day. Last week, I took the written Spanish placement test. Tomorrow, I will complete the oral interview online with a professor from La Universidad Del Norte. At the beginning of July, we have our final group meeting before the program begins and our blackboard classroom opens. I can’t wait.