Carnaval is in full swing here in Latin America. Rio of course has the most well-known celebration, but plenty of other towns and cities throw some pretty great parties of their own.
But the first week in January each year sees a different Carnaval take place in Pasto, Colombia. Known as Carnaval de Negros y Blancos, this festival has Pasto double in size from 500,000 people to a million. This year my family and I along with two of our good friends, Bobby and Becca, were able to witness it for ourselves; thanks to the hospitality of our friends Luis Eduardo and Magdalena who live in Pasto.
The festival is a multi-day event. Sunday the 4th of January set things into full swing with a parade full of musical and other performers. It draws a good crowd, but most folks are really waiting for the massive parade that takes place two days later.
In the meantime the city goes wild with EVERYONE participating in a massive war of foam (known as karaoka) and powder. The foam is a fairly harmless substance that is sold in spray bottles. The powder itself is talc. Neither will harm your clothes, but you sure don’t want either in your eyes so most people wear sunglasses, large hats, and a poncho to protect themselves and their clothing as much as possible. There are vendors of all three items all throughout the city, so don’t worry if you forget to bring your own. The poncho really doesn’t work all that well as we were soon completely soaked through from all the foamings!
The interesting part is that despite every person in the city spraying each other with a light shaving cream and hurling fistfuls of powder no one gets angry. It’s all done in fun and a general festive aura spreads through the city. Personally I found it a bit annoying after a time, but it was tough to get too bent out of shape when everyone around you is laughing and even the elderly are participating.
The following day was “el dia de los negros” (the day of the blacks). There are no parades that day but this is when people tour the city looking at the floats being assembled. There are maps available showing where the different float-assembling sites are located. It is astounding how much work goes into each float and it can take up to four months to complete!
Tuesday was the ultimate day of the festival. I was a bit worried about the logistics of watching the parade. I knew that it would be very crowded along the route and that it would be difficult to locate bathrooms during the event. The parade was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. and Magdalena said she would collect us at 7 a.m. so we could set up in a spot in which to watch the show. Standing in one place with kids for three hours didn’t sound too fun.
But, we were in for a huge surprise when Magdalena took us to a building right on the street that the parade came down. Here was her sister’s orthodontics office and there were chairs set up for us, an indoor bathroom which we had free reign to use, and her family even brought food and a Panini press where they made hot sandwiches. We had an amazing setup and it made the wait very comfortable. (I believe we would not have had such an enjoyable time without our friends’ forethought!)
Of course while waiting we joined in with the karaoka wars ourselves. We may have actually over-prepared a bit….
And finally the main event began. There were dance troupes. There were individual costumes consisting of elaborately created mask-type ensembles. There was MUSIC! And of course there were the enormous floats! We watched in awe for four hours as incredible works of art passed us by. It was a dazzling array of color and fantastical creations!
In my experience, Carnaval de Negros y Blancos was one of the most amazing events I have attended. If you’re the type looking for a little adventure or you want the chance to attend a festival none of your friends have even heard of, I highly recommend going. If you don’t like getting a little wet and dirty or dislike crowds, this is probably not the place for you.
If you do decide to go, check out the tips below.
Preparing for Carnaval de Blancos y Negros:
- Book your hotel room early. Like several months in advance. This event is very popular among other Colombians and international travelers. If you wait too long it will be very difficult to find lodging.
- Wear old clothes. Even though the products thrown around are pretty harmless you don’t want to take chances. Also, the foam will dissipate and become wet. It will soak through your poncho and into your clothes. It’s not a bad idea to have an extra shirt with you in a waterproof bag.
- Protect your camera. I wore my camera around my neck and under my poncho. If I wanted a shot I just flipped my poncho back, snapped, and covered up again. During the final big parade most people stop spraying foam and throwing powder while the parade is underway so it was easier to get photos then. I always kept an eye out for any substances near my camera though.
- Arrive at the parade route EARLY! Before the parade starts people walk up and down the street selling plastic stools so you can buy a cheap seat if you’d like to sit. Arm yourself with a can of karaoka and participate in the fun. It will make the wait more tolerable.
- Bring food! The parade itself didn’t reach us until around noon and it ended at 4:00 p.m. That meant we were there for nine hours. Yes, nine hours. Food and water were essential.
- Know your bathrooms. You want to know where the closest available bathroom is and you want to make sure you can reach it. There were so many people packed between the buildings and the metal guards along the road that people literally could not get out. You might want to be in a spot where there is an intersection of roads and more space for people to back up if you need to exit.
Finally, we were very lucky in that we had friends in Pasto who could show us the ropes. If you don’t, consider going with a tour group or finding a guide who knows the city and the event. You’ll see more, have a better experience, and probably be a bit more comfortable than the do-it-yourself traveler.