If you are thinking of visiting South America next year, and you find yourself in Colombia in early January, you MUST make your way to the far south of the country, to the tiny city of Pasto, for the Carnaval de negros y blancos. It’s a chance to experience some wild, amazing traditions in a little-known place, all while behaving like a mischievous 12-year-old boy with a bag full of water balloons.
Getting there is just the beginning of a thrilling few days: The city is located high in the mountains, about an hour and a half from the border with Ecuador. I swear that the airstrip you land on is about as long as my driveway, and the most terrifying thing is that it’s located on a mountain plateau, so when you are 30 seconds from landing and look out the window, there is NO GROUND UNDERNEATH YOU. But no worries… the pilot can indeed see the ground, I assume.
In town, we were lucky to have a decent hotel room; make sure you book early! Thousands of people from Colombia and around the world come to this festival every year, but the cool thing is that it feels as authentic as if you were the only “non-Pastuso” there. We dropped our stuff in the room and went out to watch the coolest parade ever. It went on for so long—group after group of colorful musicians, dancers, puppets, floats, you name it.
And intermittently, the people around us—participants in the parade, spectators, even the police officers would start slinging flour, paint, or this special carnaval foam spray that is more like really sturdy shaving cream than you’re probably imagining.
Our minds were boggled. The tour books say that there is a particular day for parades, and then a “Blacks Day” where everyone goes around painted up in black paint, and then a “Whites Day” where everyone goes around painted in white paint and wearing white clothes. And perhaps that was originally the idea. The history of this festival varies widely depending on where you read about it (and I welcome any additional information about it! I keep finding different stories, even from people AT the festival!) The basic idea is this: a couple of different celebrations from different influences in Colombian culture all coincided around the first week of January. An indigenous festival celebrating harvest, a “day off” for black slaves, and the Catholic feast of Epiphany all evolved into this joyous, MESSY event.
We had heard that people dressed all in black one day, and then all in white the next, and that there was paint involved. What we didn’t know was that if you weren’t covered head-to-toe in paint, flour, AND foam, then you were a target. “A target for your friends?” you ask… No. Perfect strangers, from little old ladies to punky pre-teen boys, will come up without warning and smear you with paint, or run by and douse you with a handful of flour. And the whole “black one day, white the next” thing? Out the window. Try blue, and green, and all the colors ALL THE TIME. I think if it had been a longer festival I would have left with a nervous condition. We even painted our faces all pretty-like the second afternoon, so that maybe people wouldn’t feel the need to launch an all-out assault on the obvious gringas. Nope.
In short? It. Was. AWESOME.
Here I am (in the middle), all prepared to join the festivities.
Some advice, though:
1. Take clothes that you can throw out or donate when you’re done; those things are NEVER going to come clean. And bring a handkerchief or something like that for your hair—the ungodly PASTE made up of paint plus flour plus foam won’t come out for a week, and Colombia is not known for its plentiful hot water.
2. Definitely allow for an extra day to go visit the Santuario de Las Lajas in Ipiales, right on the border with Ecuador. It is astoundingly beautiful, and will give your nerves a day to rest in between all the color-warring.
3. And lastly, get ready to get MESSY!
And this is the “After” picture . I’m the one in blue paint.