The Carnaval de Blancos y Negros (Blacks and Whites Carnival) is a huge festival celebration (the largest in South America) that takes place in Pasto from the 2nd – 7th of January, although some celebrations start from December 28th. This celebration arose from a mixture of Andean and Hispanic traditions; beginning as an Indian celebration to the moon goddess for good crops, and then adding in traditions from Spanish and African cultures and including special days such as January 5th when slaves were given a holiday from the King of Spain. The modern festival is a celebration of imagination, community, all the various cultures of the people that make up the city, and lots of fun and play. In 2009, UNESCO named it as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.’ AJ and I were incredibly lucky that our move from Ecuador to Colombia coincided with the time of the carnival and we were able to experience this incredible celebration. What’s most surprising is that the Carnaval is nowhere near as well-known as it should be, which makes it a little difficult to find a lot of information on attending it. Therefore, I’ve put together this guide to attending the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros.
- Book Accomodation well in advance
From what I’ve read online and in travel guides, Pasto, throughout most of the year, is relatively quiet and doesn’t get a lot of tourism; people mainly use it as a base for day trips to places such as Las Lajas, La Coche Lake, and Laguna Verde. Accomodation is relatively easy to find and not very expensive. However, around the time of the carnival, accommodation is difficult to find and expensive, especially if you use any of the usual sites to look such as hostelworld or booking.com. We ended up staying in the Koala Inn as we had read that it was relatively cheap and of a decent standard. I would definitely recommend staying there; it’s smack dab in the middle of Plaza de Carnaval and Plaza de Narino, where the night time concerts and parties go on, within walking distance of the parade route, close to a number of cheap eat restaurants (go to Mister Pollo – AMAZING fried chicken!), and is easily the cheapest accommodation we could find. I couldn’t find a website for the place, and it wasn’t on any of the usual booking sites, but I did find it on a website called HostelTrail which is actually a great website for searching for hostels in South America.
- Prepare to get MESSY
Aside from the amazing parades and concerts, the main entertainment and pull of the Carnaval is the daily street war that happens throughout the city; everywhere you go you will find locals and tourists of all ages armed to the teeth with spray cans of foam (kind of like hair mousse but it dissolves much faster) and bags of flour. EVERYONE is a target, from the police, to shopkeepers, to anyone walking down the street. If you are outside, you are a target, so it’s best to be prepared if you don’t like getting your hair/clothes/face covered. Ponchos are a brilliant way to cover up your clothes; you can either bring your own or buy one from the MANY vendors around the town – we got two lovely ponchos for 56COL. If you want to protect your hair, then hoods, hats or scarves are all good options, and again you can get a poncho with a hood, or bring or buy a hat or scarf. Eye protection is a MUST; people just LOVE to spray foam and throw flour in your face, and it doesn’t matter if you’re covered or not (remember you are always a target), so at the very least wear glasses/sunglasses everywhere you go. If you plan on really getting involved in the wars then ski goggles are the protection of choice as there is no chance of anything getting into your eyes, and along with that dust masks are a good way of making sure you don’t inhale a tonne of flour.
- Always bring a camera and at least one spare battery with you
There is always something going on during the carnival, something to be seen and captured, whether you’re simply wandering the streets or attending an event. The best events of the carnival, in my opinion are the parades, which happen most days of the festival, culminating in the final main parade through the city. These are absolutely fantastic events, full of vibrant colours, dancing, singing, chanting, music and insanely beautiful costumes. It seems like the whole town gets involved in them, and there’s a fantastic atmosphere watching them; the performers do their best to entertain the crowd and the crowd make sure to cheer them on. No foam or flour is allowed while the performers are passing through, but of course during the break between groups many mini wars will erupt and then have to be quickly shut down once the next group arrives. Trust me when I say you will want to take pictures and videos of everything you see, so make sure to always have your camera to hand and bring out some spare batteries with you!
- Get yourself into the spirit of the festival, or get ready to be miserable
Unless you hole yourself inside at all times, there is no escaping the carnival and all the madness that comes with it, whether you’re out to throw yourself into the festivities, or just out to grab a bite to eat or do a bit of shopping. While at times it can be a little frustrating to have foam or flour thrown in your face when all you want is to get to Mister Pollo for delicious fried chicken, ultimately it needs to be take in the spirit of the carnival – plus at the end of the day, it can all be easily washed out. If the thought of being constantly sticky and covered in flour fills you with dread, then the carnival is probably not for you.
I will say though that if you want to try avoid the worst of the street wars then you need to avoid Calle 17, Plaza de Carnaval, Plaza de Narino and the road in between them in the evening at night as this is where the majority of people congregate.
- Make sure you stay for the entire carnival
We arrived in Pasto on the second of January for the start of the carnival, but we hadn’t checked the dates and ended up booking our hostel in Cali for the 6th, on the day of the final parade, which was really annoying because we’d been seeing people working on the giant parade pieces throughout the week and I was REALLY excited to see them finished, but unfortunately wasn’t able to. We did see amazing parades and had a fantastic experience, but if I was to go back again, I would check the programme (on the official website) and make sure I was there for the final main parade.
- Don’t bring a bag out with you if possible – be aware of pickpockets
On our first day exploring the carnival, we took out a small shoulder bag with suncream, tissues, camera and wallets. All of our really important items are kept in a small inside pocket that lies against the body so there’s no chance of anyone getting to it. We were walking only about twenty minutes when we stopped to get tissues and found that one of the outside pockets was open and our suncream, hand sanitiser and half a packet of malaria tablets were gone. We hadn’t noticed anyone near us, had only walked through a small crowd on the street, but that was all it took. After that day we made sure to be wearing shorts/trousers with pockets and to only carry what we needed and avoid bringing a bag out ever.
- And above all, HAVE FUN!
The Carnaval de Blancos y Negros is an amazing event full of colour, music, culture, joy and fun. If you throw yourself into the celebrations and aim to experience everything the carnival has to offer, you will have a fantastic time and make memories to last you a life time.
If you find yourself in Colombia at the start of January, or are planning a holiday in January, I would highly recommend checking out the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros; it was like nothing I have ever experienced before.