The first week of the year can only mean one thing in one usually-speaking sleepy city in southern Colombia: total and utter craziness. The town in question is called Pasto and the source for this madness is spelled out as “Carnaval de Negros y Blancos”, or for you non-Spanish speakers out there, the “Blacks and Whites’ Carnival”.
By now you know all the stories about the carnivals in Rio de Janeiro or other Brazilian cities like Salvador de Bahia; unless you managed to sneak away to a different planet during the recent past, it is unlikely that you could avoid hearing of their reputation. Contrariwise, when it comes to this huge people’s carnival in Pasto, Colombia, the likelihood that you’ve heard of it is actually fairly low, unless you are well-connected with Colombian life.
This is a great shame – but also a hidden gem – since this is a wonderfully strange, fun and colourful event, where you as a visitor are just as much in focus as any other of the festive participants. Once you end up in town, it’s actually impossible to avoid being dragged into the carnival-folly, and even if you intend to only be a passive spectator, it’s just not going to work: you will be dragged into a festive mood before you even realise it. Pretty big time even, and things will get messy…
The Blacks and Whites’ Carnival in Pasto today is to be considered as the largest folkloric event in Colombia. The six-day event – celebrated from January 2nd to the 7th of each year – attracts a substantial number of mainly Colombian and Ecuadorian tourists, but its fame is slowly spreading farther afield. If you happen to arrive to this typically peaceful, almost uneventful town during these days, finding a place to sleep will be an almost impossible challenge, just so you are warned.
Pasto is in a region of Colombia which for many years has been isolated from the rest of the world. During the Latin American independence wars, the strongly Catholic region stood on the side of the Spanish royalists, and as a consequence of being on the losing side of the conflict the region became highly isolated. Geography didn’t help either, the area is relatively difficult to access and due to the outcome of the conflict most transportation routes slowly got rerouted. During the 20th century the region got further isolated during the civil war and the armed conflicts that Colombia struggled with over the decades, be it the guerilla or later when the Pasto-region turned into a stronghold for Colombian bandits who terrorised the roads. Until just a few years ago, foreigners were still strongly advised to avoid traveling through the region, but now thankfully things have changed. The will of the people to turn pages is – just as in the rest of the country – strong and a new era has finally reached the region.
During our year-long South-American travels of 2011/12 we ended up in Pasto on the way north from Quito on a late afternoon in early January 2012, quite unsuspecting about what was awaiting us. The three days spent there turned out to be totally unforgettable. While most other carnivals in the world have a tendency to focus mainly on the actual parades, in Pasto – like it or not – you can’t avoid being actively dragged into it as a participant. Probably you will like it, but be prepared, you will find yourself part of a massive foam, flour and paint battle. With a foam gun always in your hand.
The whole existence of the carnival is dictated by the people and the message of tolerance. Pasto is a highly interracially mixed community where white and black have effectively evaporated with time and the mixture of the races. The message during the whole duration of the carnival is clear: it doesn’t matter what your racial background is, we’re all the same underneath the surface.
Since 2009 the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos can also proudly entitle itself as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity site’, a title designated by UNESCO, a fancier way of saying that this is an exceptional event to cherish and care for. The actual celebrations in Pasto kick off already on the 28th of December with the Carnival of Water − the throwing of water in homes and on the streets to initiate a festive mood. From there onwards things will only escalate further.
January 3rd is always reserved for the Carnavalito. What started as a little event to please the children who would imitate their elders, soon enough turned into a party of its own rights. The 4th is reserved for the arrival of the Castañeda Family. But it’s really the next two days that are the ones which make this carnival to possibly the most exciting one on the planet.
¡Que vivan los Negros!
January 5th is always the Blacks’ Day and this is normally the day when things start to really go a little bit messy. The tradition of the day is to commemorate the day in respect to the black population of the city, where everybody turns black by painting themselves with black cosmetics or silicon paint. The whole idea is to symbolise that everyone is the same underneath the mask, be it black or as will be the case a day later, white.
If you show up unpainted, it probably won’t last long. You will be or voluntarily offered to paint yourself, or also likely that some cheeky kids – or grown-ups – will sneak up on you and paint your face.
Tradition has it, that the origin of the day is a result of a slave rebellion in a town called Remedios, the black slaves of the region demanded a day off and the King of Spain granted the 5th of January for this purpose. The tradition reached Pasto in 1854 and somehow in this part of Colombia, the day gained a more significant importance.
¡Que vivan los Blancos!
January 6th is in the day of the Grand Parade, but also of the whites. On this Whites’ Day, things get reversed and everyone is painting themselves white instead. There is again a fair share of cosmetics being used for the painting procedure, but just as much of the white is attributable to bags of white flour which people gladly throw on each other. Thus, coming in your best clothes is not advisable – on this day either…
Parades, parades and more parades
Besides the “painting each other” game for the two main days, the people are just as enthusiastic about their parades. Parades take place starting on the 4th and the day after on the Black’s Day to finally culminate with the several hours long ‘Desfile Magno – The Great Parade’ on the White’s Day. If you’ve been to other carnivals now you will recognise yourself: you will see dressed up people in different themes with their art-crafted carts – some heavier than others, some motorized, others carried around by the strong pastusos along the long stretch of the route. The whole parade is followed by traditional dances and bands from the surrounding villages who descend to town, and in some cases even from the neighbouring countries of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
Being part of a “Carnaval de Negros y Blancos” is a very memorable event. It is a festival that talks to all your senses, the kid hidden in your grown-up body will come out quicker than you realise: you will soon catch yourself chasing ten-year olds around with your foam gun along the streets, while others are cheering on or initiate a chase upon you, while still others will throw a handful of flour in your face while you storm by them. Yes, it’s fun, it’s messy, sometimes maybe even a bit frustrating if you get trapped by a gang of little foam-gunned pastusos who mercilessly spray you until you beg for mercy…. But when you leave from there, you will definitely feel good. Your foam-soaked, paint-heavy, flour coloured hair might beg for a quick treatment though.
The proud people of Pasto are extremely kind and friendly people (of course, you will see examples of the opposite as well, but it’s more the exception than the rule) and you will always be met with a smile, kindness and a hospitality that is almost unusual even on this friendly South-American latitudes. The carnival is still “pure” – in the sense that commercialism hasn’t dug its teeth too deeply into it yet – so if you’re looking for an alternative for the Brazilian over-hyped carnivals, where you usually end up seeing things from a distance, this is where you will need to go. The Pastusos are super-proud of their carnival and you will be treated to a party to remember for life, and likely you will be invited to share a sip of agua ardiente with the locals, at any time of the day or night.
– ¡Que vivan los Blancos! ¡Que vivan los Negros!
This guest post was written by Pal Ujvarosi, my partner at the Art Weekenders, with whom I travelled through Latin America for 50 weeks.