Colour in the Streets
That gushing “spsssttt” is my intro to El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Blacks and Whites’ Carnival), a five-day party held in January each year that also happens to be the world’s biggest foam fight. This carnival is the loudest, longest and messiest festival in southern Colombia, and a real celebration of cultures.
To be fair, at the time the trigger is pulled I’m distracted by street vendors yelling, “Some goggles for you, senõr? A sombrero, cheap?” Now I understand why. Of course, in true horse-bolted fashion, I purchase a ridiculously oversized sombrero and a ‘foam-proof’ poncho to protect myself.
Post-splatter, I sheepishly make my way back to the hotel. The security-conscious manager, Jamie, is waiting behind a locked door. Letting me in with a chuckle, he looks at me with pity. “You got shot on your first day?! Bienvenido a Colombia!”
After cleaning myself up, I cautiously head towards Plaza del Carnaval, the main square of Pasto and the centrepiece of all things Carnaval. My peripheral vision is working overtime – it seems like every second person is armed with a carioca, an aluminium foam canister, cocked at the ready. Squeezing in next to a family, I proudly introduce myself in halting Spanish, adding “Viva Pasto!” as if it is some sort of protective cloak.
We are jostling among the thousands who have gathered to celebrate La Familia Castañeda – a colourful family who, when they arrived in Pasto in 1929, walked smack-bang into the middle of a horse parade and started randomly waving to the crowd. The Castañeda family became so popular they now have a dedicated parade in their honour.
The vibe is electric. We cheer on the performers dressed in 1920s attire as they dance and sing their way past the masses, their vibrant costumes lighting up the parade like the hot Colombian sun.
The performance is barely finished before I am hit with foam again, but this time it gets me in the mouth. In an attempt to escape, I hurtle down the main street and find myself at a security checkpoint to a concert, being patted down by a member of the policia. What an entry to Colombia I’ve made. I decide to take it all in my festival-stride and finish the night with a chorizo and a few local Poker pale ales.
The next morning Jamie intercepts me as I’m leaving to hit the streets on day four of the Carnaval. “Hey, you got Vaseline?” he whispers. It seems like an oddly personal question. “Huh?” I reply. “Your face,” he says, “the Vaseline, to get grease off.” This is his not-so-subtle way of warning me that it is Dia de Negros (Day of the Blacks). This event marks the day African slaves were freed, and it’s now celebrated with partygoers taking to the streets with black paint smeared across their faces as a sign of respect, symbolising the unity between all ethnicities.
Paint decorates the faces of the masses, and before long I realise I should have taken his advice and packed the Vaseline. My own face gets smudged and I’m greeted back at the hotel with a shake of the head and a smile from Jamie sending a telepathic ‘I told you so’.
The pinnacle of the Carnaval is the Grand Parade that falls on Dia de Blancos (The Day of the Whites). This is the cause of all the foam, flour bombs and talcum powder, but before the war starts, a spectacular kaleidoscope of floats takes to the streets.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The floats are covered in colourful and intricate details, and showers of confetti and streamers rain down as tiers of performers dance atop the four-storey-high structures. Cumbia rhythms blast from massive speakers and mechanical heads roar and bob about to the beat alongside the larger-than-life costumed characters who dance along the streets lined with an enthusiastic crowd.
I feel a hand close around my arm and I’m pulled towards a woman. It’s La Llorona, the legendary ghost who steals children, and she is not to be denied. As I do my best not to look uncoordinated, we salsa Cali-style, spinning and twirling throughout the parade to the sound of laughter, cheers and applause from my fellow spectators.
After five hours the show finally comes to an end. Looking around, there is now more white stuff on the ground than in any episode of Narcos. The foam battles have already started up again so I’m pretty grateful there is only 200 metres between my hotel room and my location.
Not close enough, it would seem.
The powder hits me square on the ear, and it’s impossible not to grin from that one to the other.
United Airways fly to Pasto via Los Angeles and Bogota.
Hotel Boutique Casa López, a beautifully restored colonial home, is situated in the city centre between Plaza del Carnaval and Plaza de Nariño. The hotel features a restaurant on site, free wi-fi, friendly staff and a relaxed atmosphere. Four nights will cost about US$270.
The Carnaval de Pasto website has a detailed itinerary of what to expect at the festival each day. For more information about travel in Colombia, visit the country’s official website.
El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos is held in Pasto, Colombia, at the beginning of January each year and is free to attend. Your hotel manager can arrange local guides to explore the city – but you don’t need one for the festival. Make sure to get there early and, if you’re not keen to stand for hours in the hot sun, you may want to buy a plastic stool from the vendors.