By Ann Randall
Standing on the street, I was already saturated from head to toe with white foam, flour, and the red greasepaint smeared on my face by a passer-by when an angelic little girl took aim with her oversized can of foam and sprayed me with yet more “espuma.” Such is the playful scene happening everywhere on the streets of Pasto, Colombia, from January 2-7 during its boisterous festival known as El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (The Carnival of Blacks and Whites), a designated UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The five-day festival includes the January 5 Dia de Negro, a day when celebrating locals and tourists paint themselves with black greasepaint to honor the Carnaval’s 1607 origins that began with the threat of a hacienda slave revolt. In order to avoid the rebellion, the Spanish Crown gave slaves an annual day off for the Catholic celebration of the Epiphany, which they celebrated by painting everyone with black shoe polish and soot to endow all hacienda residents with a common identity.
Since 1928 additional days have been added to that event, blending together both indigenous traditions and Epiphany activities. January 2 and 3 are celebrated as Carnavelito and the Parade of La Familia Casteneda, respectively — two days of joyful, colorful parades of folkloric groups, musicians, stilt walkers, and dancers from nearby Andean villages.
Those events lead up to January 6 — Dia de Blanco. It’s the most spectacular day of Carnaval — a five-hour parade of super-sized puppets and floats, called enormes carrosas, newly designed and built each year.
The festivities end quietly on January 7, the Dia de Cuy (Day of the Guinea Pig). The foam/flour/greasepaint vendors disappear. Exhausted tourists crowd the airport and bus stations and the residents of Pasto end Carnaval celebrating their tasty “microlivestock” — the guinea pig.
Making the most of your Carnaval trip:
1. Make accommodation reservations early. About 320,000 visitors attended the 2013 Carnaval, nearly doubling the city’s population.
2. Pasto has very limited hostel accommodations for the budget backpacker. One of the city’s least expensive hotels is Chambú Hotel Plaza, Carrera 20#, No. 16-74, Tel.: 7213129-7213645. During Carnaval: $15 a person for rooms varying in size from one to five beds. Basic hotel with restaurant and wi-fi.
Also near Plaza del Carnaval: Hotel Fernando Plaza, Calle 20, No. 218-16, Tel.: 7291432. During Carnaval: $79 a night, including breakfast, for a room with two double beds and a private bath. Wi-fi. Nice hotel with restaurant and espresso café.
3. Bring old clothes to wear on the streets. There is no avoiding the foam, flour, and greasepaint games of Carnaval, which last four of the five days.
4. Vendors on every street corner sell cans of foam, sticks of greasepaint, and bags of flour so you can join in the fun. They also sell sunglasses, brimmed hats, and ponchos that provide some protection from exuberant celebrants.
5. If you can’t be in Pasto for Carnaval, you can get a sense of the festivities by visiting the Carnaval Museum, a permanent exhibition of floats, costumes, and giant puppets along with photographs of Carnaval in its early days. It’s located at the Cultural Center Pandiaco in northern Pasto.
Getting to Pasto:
Pasto’s airport is 45 minutes from the city and many hotels will arrange for taxi service. Avianca and Satena Airlines have regular flights from Bogata and Cali. Pasto is on the Pan American highway and served by regular bus service.
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