Err. Where am I?

By Rob Packer

After just over a week in Barranquilla, I now have a map of the city. This seems like a pretty basic thing for a newcomer to a city to have but I was told I wouldn’t need one because the system’s easy, which is why Barranquilleros don’t use them, or know where to get one: I was sent to the geographical institute, then the town hall before falling back on a street-side stall.

Barranquilla is a typically Colombian city based on a grid system in that follows a system of calles (north-south and abbreviated as C) and carreras (east-west and shortened to Cra), quite similar to New York’s system of streets and avenues. A typical Colombian address—coordinates would be a better translation—is made up of nothing but numbers and letters: your house is located on a calle or carrera a certain number of paces or metres, opinions differ, past a cross-street. Unlike New York though, the system spreads out over the entire city and when the roads get to a hill (Barranquilla, Bogotá and Bucaramanga are anything but flat) they follow the contours of the land rather than racing straight up them San Francisco-style. The effect of this is that most streets outside the centre go neither east-west, north-south or in straight lines. However, the numbering system carries on regardless, adding letters and numbers here and there, or missing streets out completely in other places.

A navigation tool in Barranquilla.

For example, I live at the corner of C. 84B and Cra. 42D and was going to meet a friend who lives on what I thought was Cra. 42A at C. 84. It sounded pretty close so I gave myself ten minutes to walk there. Fifteen minutes later I was running on Colombian time halfway down what turned out to be Cra. 42B, when I found number 66 next to number 74 with number 70 nowhere to be seen. It was time to go back to the calle and start again. Complete the sequence: 43, 42H, 42G, 42F, 42D, 42B1, 42B, 42A4, 42A3, 42A2, 42A1.

Colombia’s grid systems aren’t perfect in a country that’s anything but flat, and they lull you into a false sense of security. But as a Colombian friend pointed out: for all its idiosyncrasies, it’s easier than having names.

Barranquilla. Many things, but definitely not a grid.

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