I was warned about getting shot in Colombia. The balaclava, reflective sunglasses and combat fatigues in the southern city of Pasto were a giveaway. I should have just run. Instead, I'm hit twice - not with bullets but with white foam shooting out of a canister by a 12-year old boy shouting “Viva Pasto!”
That gushing “spssstttttttt” was my intro to El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Black and Whites' Carnaval), a five day party held in January that just happens to be the world’s biggest foam fight. The Carnaval is the loudest, longest and messiest festival in southern Colombia, and a real celebration of cultures.
To be fair, at the time the trigger is pulled I’m distracted by street vendors yelling, “Some goggles for you, senõr? A sombrero, cheap?”Now I understand why. Of course, in truehorse-bolted fashion, I purchase a ridiculouslyoversized sombrero and a ‘foam-proof’ poncho to protect myself.
Post splatter, I sheepishly make my way back to the hotel. The security-conscious manager, Jaime, is waiting behind a locked door. Letting me in with a chuckle, he looks at me with pity. “You got shot on your first day?! Bienvenido a Colombia!”
After cleaning myself up, I cautiously head towards Plaza del Carnaval, the main square of Pasto and the centrepiece of all things Carnaval. My peripheral vision is working overtime – it seems like every second person is armed with a carioca, an aluminium foam canister, cocked at the ready. Squeezing in next to a family, I proudly introduce myself in halting Spanish, adding “Viva Pasto!” as if it is some sort of protective cloak.
We are jostling among the thousands who have gathered to celebrate La Familia Castañeda – a colourful family who, when they arrived in Pasto in 1929, walked smack-bang into the middle of a horse parade and started randomly waving to the crowd. The Castañeda family became so popular they now have a dedicated parade in their honour.
The vibe is electric. We cheer on the performers dressed in 1920s attire as they dance and sing their way past the masses, their vibrant costumes lighting up the parade like the hot Colombian sun.
The performance is barely finished before I am hit with foam again, but this time it gets me in the mouth. In an attempt to escape, I hurtle down the main street and find myself at a security checkpoint to a concert, being pat down by a member of the policia. What an entry to Colombia I’ve made. I decide to take it all in my festival-stride and finish the night with a chorizo and a few local Poker pale ales.
The next morning Jamie intercepts me as I’m leaving to hit the streets on day four of the Carnaval. “Hey, you got Vaseline?” he whispers. It seems like an oddly personal question. “Huh?” I reply. “Your face,” he says, “the Vaseline, to get grease off.” This is his not-so-subtle way of warning me that it is Dia de Negros (Day of the Blacks). This event marks the day African slaves were freed, and it’s now celebrated with partygoers taking to the streets with black paint smeared across their faces as a sign of respect, symbolising the unity between all ethnicities.
My peripheral vision is working overtime – it seems like every second person is armed with a carioca
Paint decorates the faces of the masses, and before long I realise I should have taken his advice and packed the Vaseline. My own face gets smudged and I’m greeted back to the hotel with a shake of the head and a smile from Jamie sending a telepathic ‘I told you so’.
The pinnacle of the Carnaval is the Grand Parade that falls on Dia de Blancos (The Day of the Whites). This is the cause of all the foam, flour bombs and talcum powder, but before the war starts, a spectacular kaleidoscope of floats takes to the streets.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The floats are covered in colourful and intricate details, and showers of confetti and streamers rain down as tiers of performers dance atop the four-storey-high structures. Cumbia rhythms blast from massive speakers and mechanical heads roar and bob about to the beat alongside the larger-than-life costumedcharacters who dance the streets lined with an enthusiastic crowd.
I feel a hand close around my arm and I’m pulled towards a woman. It’s La Lloronda, the legendary ghost who steals children, and she is not to be denied. Doing my best not to look uncoordinated, we salsa Cali-style, spinning and twirling throughout the parade to the sound of laughter, cheers and applause from my fellow spectators.
After five hours the show finally comes to an end. Looking around, there is now more white stuff on the ground than in any episode of Narcos. The foam battles have already started up again so I’m pretty grateful there is only 200 metres between my hotel room and my location. Not close enough, it would seem. The powder hits me square on the ear, and it’s impossible not to grin from that one to the other.