Here’s What It Was Like Attending Colombia’s Craziest Festival
All the babies are crying, and an old lady starts yelling hysterically. As an enormous burst of turbulence turns my stomach sideways, I catch the eye of a man who looks like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He gives me a gruff nod and half-smile, as if to assure me that the landing is always like this. I’m not convinced. Looking out the windows on both sides, men shout distances up to the cockpit, as if they were helping a neighbor parallel park. “10 meters!” “15 meters!” They are estimating the distance between the wingtips and the green peaks of the Andes. And the numbers they’re using are disturbingly small.
Though it wasn’t in the brochure, this is my introduction to the three-day, non-stop adrenaline rush that is the famous Carnaval de Negros y Blancos. Shaking a little bit, I step out into the one-plane airport of Pasto, Colombia, very near the Ecuadorian border. Now that they no longer herald a death stung by bits of fiery fuselage, the Andes are really quite beautiful. I even start to relax as I pass through the tiny terminal to the taxi stand. But there’s an ambush in place outside the airport. A group of teenagers cackle as they strafe the line of expectant family members and private taxi services, each armed with two cariocas, the basic-issue armament of the Carnaval participant. They are long, narrow aluminum cans containing something akin to shaving cream. I duck behind an old woman who takes the brunt of the fire. This will prove to be the only time I feel ashamed about using the elderly for protection. With their broad frames and slow movements, they really do provide the best cover.
After a harrowing hour-long taxi ride down a one-lane highway cutting through the mountains, where cars break through into oncoming traffic at blind turns with total impunity, I am finally in Pasto. The city itself, though small, is incredibly beautiful. Couched in the green mountains, under the watchful eye of an enormous dormant volcano, it has been a pilgrimage site in the area for hundreds of years. It’s full of historic churches, and this day of the carnival celebrates this element of the region’s culture. January 4 is the day commemorating the arrival of the Castañeda family, a pack of oddballs who passed through on their way to the Las Lajas sanctuary to the south. There’s a parade packed with men dressed as schoolgirls and women dressed as barbers prancing about as floats depicting confused children celebrate the general weirdness of people who pack up their families and walk hundreds of miles to look at a church.
It’s getting dark as I step out of my hotel to take place in the nocturnal revelries. I’m wearing my nice shoes and nice jeans, and don’t even think twice about it. I’ve read the Wiki on this thing. Today there’s a nice parade, tomorrow we’ll paint each other black, and the last day we’ll throw talc and foam and make a mess — the assault on the airport was an isolated incident. Tonight should be good clean fun.
Like all good festivals, the Blacks and Whites’ does not abide by its own rules.
I’m no more than ten steps outside my hotel when a family with two children eyes me head to toe in bemusement — we’re early in the carnival, and most tourists won’t arrive until the 6th to see the great parade, and even then they are not often American — before they each whip out the cariocas from behind their back and douse me from head to toe. While I’m desperately trying to clear the foam from my eyes, nose, ears and mouth, a window rolls down from a passing car and a talc-bomb catches me square in the chest. The doorman of my hotel laughs devilishly as I look around, trying to figure out what just happened.
One block further and a group of concerned-looking teenagers approaches me. Seeing how unprepared I am, they take pity and buy me my own carioca as well as a pair of sunglasses — the foam can sting your eyes, they explain to me. “No shit,” I tell them in my best Spanish. I follow them on their route, glad for the protection a few extra bodies can afford.
But their good nature is short-lived, or maybe entirely a ruse. They accompany me like bodyguards for a short time, leading me into the middle of one of Pasto’s two large squares dedicated to the carnival. As we push through throngs of people, I try to memorize the way back to my hotel, constantly wiping foam off of my sunglasses. Just when we reach the heart of the beast, the kids loudly call attention to my gringo presence. I will never see them again, as it takes nearly ten minutes to de-foam and de-talc myself, blindly stumbling through thousands of people to find shelter. This is the nature of warfare in Pasto.
The next day, the 5th, is the Blacks’ Day. I’ve planned a route for a morning stroll, hitting many of Pasto’s beautiful cathedrals and sanctuaries and also scouting out a good spot to view tomorrow’s Great Parade. I wear the same clothes, my battle gear, which will become impossibly ruined. With some paranoia I skulk about, peeking around corners, keeping an eye out for adolescents with cariocas. But they are still asleep, and the first to rise are the kind ones, the elderly and families with young children, who want to enjoy themselves before the mayhem starts.
I take a moment to breathe the cool, mountain air. A group of Colombianas, giggling, points me out. They turn around, conferring, then one of them slowly strides up to me. I stand stock-still; my conception of the carnival was more or less receiving undue attention from beautiful Colombian girls while parades and parties took place in my peripheral vision, and it seems to be coming true. She comes in for a kiss, cradling my face in her hands. There is a cold, oozing sensation, and as she pulls away before making contact I realize that her hands were overflowing with black paint. The 5th is officially in full swing as each of her friends more or less slap me with a handful of the same.
Later in the afternoon my cousin and photographer Jordan arrives in town. His wide-eyed expression and foam-covered bag communicate that he’s had a comparable experience to my own arriving into the city. We stroll around, paint and get painted, drink beers and talk with various groups, and enjoy warm Andean hospitality. Then, suddenly, the debauchery switches on. We come to realize that all the descriptions of the festival are true until about three in the afternoon, when the fabric of society dissolves under the chemical duress of 20 tons of shaving cream. Street vendors who have been hawking cold beers now change to aguardiente, the local anise-flavored liquor. The painting changes from delicate strokes by attractive women to more intrusive attacks. A boy no more than 12 years old sneaks up behind me and gets my whole nose and mouth with blue paint, which I will taste for a week. And then the cariocas come out.
Back at the hotel, we ask the security guard if it can get any crazier. He has worked outside the hotel every Carnaval for five years, which makes him a sage old veteran deserving of his epaulettes. He laughs at us. “Oh, that’s nothing, compared to tomorrow. You’ll want to buy a mask for your nose and mouth.”
And he’s absolutely right. The next day, the 6th, is the Whites’ Day and also the day of the grand parade, which starts early and goes for five or six hours under the hot sun. In Spanish it’s the Gran Desfile, which reads to American eyes like the Great Defiling, which is more or less what it is. Aguardiente hits the streets before the sun, and people who have grown impatient waiting for the parade to start get in massive carioca, flour and talc fights. Clouds of white massive enough to blot out the sun become a regular affair. It’s a study in the chain reaction — one sour look, one misfire of a carioca and suddenly a whole city block looks like the local Gillette factory had an accident. Tourists and the police patrolling the cordons are particular targets, though with so many people packed into such tight areas it is difficult to aim accurately.
Finally, the parade arrives. This is the reason why the festival is commemorated by UNESCO as a masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage, and it does not disappoint. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of colorful floats that have been the whole year in the making pass by, gradually increasing in size from enormous heads mounted on the shoulders of grunting, sweating men to converted buses and sixteen-wheelers. These are punctuated by musicians, dancers, circus performers, and scantily clad Colombianas.
There are nearly half a million people taking it all in, packed tighter than sardines, hanging from second-story balconies and sitting on towels wrapped over razor-wire walls. 50-pound paper mache political candidates box one another while KISS cover bands play local Andean music and women distribute smooches and candy. Marquez, who passed earlier this year, receives special attention with two or three large floats in his honor. The people are amazingly kind — people buy us beers wherever we go, Jordan and I finally get our Colombiana kisses, and we enjoy short-lived celebrity status. Mothers take pictures of us holding their babies. We each acquire about a dozen penpals. It’s paradise, until the sun starts to dip. Everybody knows what that means, including us. The rules that hold this fragile peace together will soon crumble. The apocalypse is coming.
Fearing the end of days, we spend our last night at a salsa bar three stories above the main plaza. Looking down, we can see nearly 50,000 people, which puts my first night of terror in perspective. Live concerts of a salsa-reggae mixed genre blare out at a hundred decibels. Generally, a salsa bar is a good place to hang out off the beaten track in Colombia. All the girls want a dance, and we embarrass ourselves thoroughly — “Remember, it’s just one-two. Don’t get fancy.” Occasionally, we lose sight of the crowd as a dusty white cloud permeates the square or a snowball of foam manages to make it up 30 feet to our position. But that’s the Carnaval. Cover your ears, your eyes, and your drinks.
And with that, the festival is over. We creep out on the 7th in our battle gear, expecting the same no-rules surprise attacks as the previous three days, but we look like fools. Everybody is dressed in business clothes and nicer casual-wear, nobody has sunglasses, and most of the destruction has already been washed away in an ever-swelling river of chalky talc and flour. An old woman leans up against a tree, bracing herself — she has an actual fire hose over her shoulder, and she is power-washing the façade of her fabric store. Her stream joins the rest of the white water, which will flow downhill into the ravines of the Andes, carrying away the last trace of the confluence of blacks and whites until next year.
Jordan A. (left) works as a web manager for Deseret Digital Media in Salt Lake City, Utah. He studied journalism and political science at Utah State University. Ski Krieger (right) is a physicist and writer based out of Providence, Rhode Island. When working or not, he’s steadily warbling as he prepares to compete in throat-singing competitions in Tuva.