Carnaval de Negros y Blancos in Pasto

Desfile Magno
Thousands of people, pressed against the parade path, watching the colorful display.

PASTO — The bus rolled into town when Friday was only 3 hours old and the city was quiet, at least my part of the city, and I could only wonder what I would see the next day.

Would it be like San Agustín on New Years Eve? Better? It had to be better, right, because this is a carnaval — Carnaval de Negros y Blancos, the Blacks and Whites’ Carnaval, a huge party in this southern Colombian city every Jan. 2 to 7.

I had wanted to go to this event ever since a former roommate told me about it, about how wild it is, how people paint their faces with any black substance they can find, how they douse each other with any kind of white powder they can find.

He didn’t tell me about the spray foam, but after the Feria de Cali, I figured there would be a healthy share of it in Pasto too, and yes, there was.

Carnaval de Negros y Blancos
Even the police couldn’t stay clean at Carnaval de Negros y Blancos.

I noticed a hint of it Friday afternoon, when I walked a block to get a cheap set meal at a nearby restaurant, and then I got the full brunt of it that night, when I went to the Plaza de Carnaval to see a big stage, a live band, and thousands of people.

Andres, one of the managers at Hotel Venecia Confort, a comfortable and economic option near the bus terminal, told me I shouldn’t take my camera with me at night. So I didn’t, hence, no photos of the show.

I didn’t stay long anyway. I think the Feria de Cali, and the wedding and New Years celebration in Huila, zapped my energy, and my objective was to see the Desfile Magno, the biggest parade of the carnaval, not the nightlife.

It was on Sunday, so on Saturday I stayed in and caught up on some sleep. I woke up early the next morning then ate some breakfast before walking over to the Plaza de Carnaval.

Carnaval de Negros y Blancos
Even two hours before the parade started, thousands already packed the Plaza de Carnaval.

I was not early enough because the place was packed and there was no way I could get close enough to get any good pictures. I had to be innovative, had to find a way to get a good vantage point, had to think like a journalist, the title I held for more than decade.

After looking around for a bit, I noticed a hotel more than 8 stories high across the plaza and there were some people on the roof. I snaked my way through the crowd, to the front doors of the hotel, which were closed and locked, and pretended to be part of a group of guests who were about to enter.

It worked!

As the dancers and floats and people behind large masks, in costumes or on stilts began to make their way down the parade alley, I could see it all, clearly, which allowed me to get a clear view.

A group of dancers, entertaining the crowd.
A group of dancers, entertaining the crowd.

Three hours later, I was back at the hotel, editing the shots I took, and thinking more about how lucky I was to experience such a historic event.

Its roots are in ethnic diversity, in a story that started with the Spanish coming to Colombia and displacing Indians and enslaving blacks they brought from Africa. The carnaval pays homage to the progress that has been made, to the harmony that exists among these different people, a range of people from black to white and everything in between, with African music a staple of the celebration.

But it is the brilliance of the colors at the Desfile Magno that really radiates.

One of my favorite caricatures at the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos.

That night I stayed in to relax. I ate at the hotel restaurant, to take in one of their delicious set meals and the friendly service — so friendly, one night, after they had already closed and the manager was leaving, she offered to reheat my soup for me because she felt bad that I didn’t know the end of business hours.

This time, I had another friendly encounter, with a New Yorker named Dan. We had met two days ago, when Nelly, Andres’s wife and the other hotel manager, called my room and asked me to come downstairs to translate what she was saying because Dan doesn’t speak Spanish.

Wow, I thought. My Spanish is good enough that I’ve been asked to translate something, a good feeling because speaking Spanish has long been a goal of mine, but I admit that I’m still working to perfect it.

This was yet another chance to do that, to practice, so I explained to Dan that Nelly told him there were two wi-fi options, one in the restaurant and one in the rest of the hotel and that the password for both is the same.

Guinea pigs
“Guinea pigs roasting on an open fire…” Oh, it should be, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”? Well, not in Pasto.

At dinner, we had the chance to talk a little more and we decided that the next day we would go to the Festival del Cuy, the Guinea Pig Festival.

There are two types of guinea pigs at the festival: the ones that roast and the ones that run. Most of them roast. Guinea pig is a popular delicacy in Pasto and the department of Nariño, and Dan and I knew we had to try it.

It was good, kind of like rabbit, although Colombians, who love their salt, use a little too much so I couldn’t eat much of the skin, even though I liked its crunchy consistency.

I’ve heard a lot of jokes in other parts of Colombia about the Pastusos, the friendly people from Pasto, because they eat guinea pig, and it’s easy for me to empathize with them.

In Hawaii, we eat spam and people from other parts of the states make jokes about us but we don’t care because spam musubi — spam fried in oil and a little teriyaki sauce, with a thin layer of egg, sandwiched by rice and wrapped in dried seaweed, or nori — is one of the best things you will ever eat.

Festival del Cuy
El ganador! (The winner!)

After the unique lunch, we went over near the entrance, where a crowd had gathered. Guinea pig race!

I’m short, so I couldn’t see the race, but I saw the owner of the winner and how he beamed with pride as he held his guinea pig. I wonder if the furry little guy realized he easily could have been on a spit instead of in front of the news cameras.

With a whole afternoon remaining, we needed something else to do, something that included enjoying the natural beauty of the surrounding area, so we went to Laguna de la Cocha.

It’s a beautiful lake. You take a shared taxi to the shore, about 45 minutes east of Pasto, for 15,000 pesos per person (about $8).

Next is the ride on a little boat to an island where a quaint and ornate church sits, then you take the quick 10-minute ride back, including a spin around the small island. Try to ride with at least a dozen other people on the boat, to keep your cost down to 4,000 pesos (about $2), and bring a jacket. It’s cold.

Making my way to Laguna de la Cocha, I had to ask the taxista to stop, so I could get this photo of the lake and its little island.
Making my way to Laguna de la Cocha, I had to ask the taxista to stop, so I could get this photo of the lake and its little island.

There is a similar place two hours west of the city at the base of a volcano, Laguna Verde, but I didn’t have time, I just had to put it on the list for next time, always next time.

My last day in Pasto, a Tuesday, I took a walk downtown, past the Plaza de Carnaval, among the people who were back at work after the festivities and the holiday weekend.

The ground was dusted with white, and every time a car drove by or a gust of wind blew through, a cloud of powder would burst into the breeze, about chest high, then evanesce into the air a few seconds later, until another instance of inertia injected life into it again.

Some people were outside their businesses, pouring water on the sidewalk, to rid it of the white substance. It’ll be a while, before they start thinking about next year’s party.

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