What to Expect During Pasto’s Carnaval de Negros y Blancos – Colombias Blacks and Whites Festival

It’s well known Colombian like to have fun.

In fact, it is one of the countries with the most holidays in the world!

In addition to many national holidays, nearly every city and town has its annual fiestas or festivals. Some of the most famous are Barranquilla’s Carnaval, Medellín’s Feria de Flores, and, my personal favorite, Cartagena’s November and Independence Festivities.

However, a lesser known one is the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos, which I guess is best translated to English as the Black and White Festival of Colombia or the Blacks and Whites Carnival.

Held annually just after the start of the year in the city of Pasto, in southwestern Colombia, it is a raucous good time, and deserves more international attention than it gets.

Susana and I attended in January 2021 and had a great time.

If you’d like to check out this very fun and under appreciated festival in Colombia, read on to learn all about what to expect during the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos.

Photo of a couple in a colorful picture frame photo during the Carnaval de Negros Y Blancos Colombia.
We got to experience the Carnaval de Negros Y Blancos in Colombia in 2021. Read on to learn all about it and what to expect if you go yourself.

*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. I am a member of Amazon Associates, LLC and other affiliate programs and earn from qualifying purchases made after clicking those links. There is never any additional cost to you. To learn more please consult our Disclosure Policy.

Guide to the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos – Contents

  • When is the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos in Pasto?
  • History Behind the Blacks and Whites Carnival
  • What to Expect During the Black and White Festival of Colombia
  • Where to Stay
  • Getting to Pasto
  • Other Things to Do in Pasto
  • Some Final Practical Tips

When is the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos?

The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos is held annually in the city of Pasto from January 2 to January 6 or 7th.

The two most important days are January 5, the Día de los Negros, or Day of the Blacks, and January 6, the Día de los Blancos, or Day of the Whites.

Photo of a church with a large sign for the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos Pasto 2022 in front.
The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos runs from January 2 to 7, with the most important days being January 5 and 6. There are also some pre Black and Whites Carnival events beginning even before the New Year.

However, there are a number of events that occur before the official start of the Black and White Carnival that could be considered pre-carnival activities.

One of the more interesting Colombian Christmas traditions is the celebration of the Día de los Inoncentes on December 28th. Around the country, people play pranks on friends and family.

In Pasto, it was traditional to head to the streets and throw water on neighbors and passersby. It was in many ways considered the start of the Black and White Festival season.

However, due to water shortages, this practice was formally prohibited, although some still engage in it. Now, the official event is known as the Arcoiris en el Asfalto, which calls for people to draw chalk art on the city’s streets.

Photo of a couple in front of a float showing big figures of people playing instruments for the parade during the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos.
The parades, including the main one on January 6, were actually cancelled in 2022, but the floats were on display. While it stunk to not have the parade, it did allow us to properly appreciate the elaborate floats and get good photos of them! You can see smaller, less elaborate ones in the earlier parades.

An interesting Colombian New Years tradition is the burning of effigies meant to represent all the bad of the old year.

In Pasto, they take this a step further and have a parade of figures meant to represent the events of the past year.

Usually, these are ironic and sarcastic, and there is actually a contest much like for the floats for the main parade that is part of the Black and White Festival. The winning one is burned!

Finally, the Black and White Festival of Colombia formally kicks off on January 2 with the Carnavalito.

Photo of a float for the Blacks and Whites Carnival with figures playing instruments and dancing.
The underlying ideas behind the Blacks and Whites Carnival is to promote brotherhood, unity, and the fusion of cultures in this region of Colombia.

History of the Black and White Festival of Colombia

The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos is considered the most important festival and cultural event in southwest Colombia.

In 2009, it was recognized by UNESCO as an example of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The origins of the celebration are believed to date as far back as 1546 and was a celebration of the interaction, fusion, and syncretism between the indigenous peoples of the Andean, Pacific, and Amazon regions.

Photo of a float made for the Black and White Carnival in Pasto Colombia showing a snake wrapped around a human head with a jaguar head on top.
Really cool floats, and many of them celebrated cultural and natural diversity.

The origin of January 5 as the Día de los Negros dates to a day given by the Spanish authorities to slaves as a day free from work and to celebrate their traditional cultures and beliefs.

This day was established after a slave rebellion in 1607. Since at least 1854, there has been a tradition of commemorating this day in Pasto, often with people painting themselves with black paint.

The idea of the Día de los Blancos emerged in 1912 as an answer to the Día de los Negros. Over time the two days became a celebration of brotherhood and diversity.

The Carnaval de Negros and Blancos as celebrated today began in the 1920s, as different parades were held and eventually became part of one tradition repeated year after year.

However, the main events have always remained the Dia de los Negros y Día de los Blancos on January 5 and 6, respectively. They are both the culmination and the most important days of the festival.

Photo an elaborate float showing several human figures made for the Black and White Carnival Colombia.
Although the floats didn’t get to march in teh parade the year we went, normally you can see the main parade on January 6, the Día de los Blancos.

What to Expect During the Blacks and Whites Carnival

Here, I’ll cover what to expect both in terms of events and schedule and things you should be aware of during the Pasto Carnaval de Negros y Blancos.

I should probably point out that the year we went, in January 2022, due to the upsurge of Omicron, some of the events were more limited and some, like the parades, weren’t held but cancelled last minute.

However, I’ve done my best to research a bit on what to expect during a normal year.

Photo of people standing and looking at a stage with a band playing at the Blacks and Whites Carnival in Colombia.
Besides nice stages, I was overall impressed with the organization of the Blacks and Whites Carnival in Pasto.

I would definitely recommend checking out the Carnaval’s official website to verify events for the current year.

It’s actually pretty well put together, and to be honest, I have to hand it to them for being much better organized and clear on things like schedules than what I’ve noticed for other festivals in Colombia.

Locations With Live Music

This for me was what set the Black and White Carnival of Colombia apart from the other festivals I’ve been to.

There were three stages that had music pretty much from early in the afternoon to late at night. Perhaps it isn’t the same if there are parades, but I was impressed with the number of local, national, and international acts that performed.

Photo of people dancing in front of the stage in a plaza during the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos Pasto Colombia.
I really appreciated that there was lots of live music. While they plazas got more crowded during the day, there was a fun but not overcrowded amount of people in the afternoon.

Again I’d verify on the official site linked above, but in 2022 bands played at:

  • The Concha Acoustica – A small, outdoor amphitheater that had a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere and more local acts.
  • The Plaza del Carnaval – A big plaza dedicated just to this event. It’s a mostly large open place with a few raised platforms. The stage here was big and there were also lots of food vendors and porta-potties here. We spent most of our time here as there was a good, lively crowd, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly packed either.
  • The Plaza Nariño – Despite the names, this actually seemed to be the most popular place to be at least the year he went to the Carnival of Blacks and Whites. There was also a big stage set up and vendors here too. Because the line to get in here was really, really long, we only went in once. It was also definitely more crowded than the Plaza del Carnaval.
Photo of people standing and dancing in a plaza during the Blacks and Whites Festival of Colombia.
The Plaza del Carnaval. This was facing the opposite direction of the photo of the stage above. And yes, that is talc powder covering the ground like snow!

The year we went, you did have to show proof of vaccination to enter and reserve an entrance (it was free).

They had specific entrances and exits for the plazas.

I’m not entirely sure if that is the case normally, so maybe the lines won’t be bad if they keep the plazas open but considering they also checked our bags for weapons and the like, I would think there’s a good chance there are always lines.

So, you may want to get to the plazas a bit early.

Parades and Other Events

This is partly based on our experience, the 2023 schedule, and past schedules.

Here’s what events to expect on different days of the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos in Pasto and the weeks leading up to it.

  • December 28 – People use chalk to draw on the streets and for several years running there has also been a “bicycle parade” where some roads are closed off for people to ride bikes. Some people may also carry on the old tradition of throwing water on people, although it’s discouraged and actually prohibited nowadays.
  • December 31 – Today you can see the parade known as the Desfile del Año Viejo when floats meant to reference events of the year, usually in a satirical way, are marched down the main parade route. If you follow Colombian politics at all, you should get a good laugh at these.
  • January 2 – There are several events on this first official day of the Black and White Carnaval. There is a floral offering to the region’s virgin saint. There is the Carnavalito, or children’s parade, and there is often live music in the afternoon and evening. For example, for 2023, there will be a RockCarnaval featuring rock bands.
  • January 3 – On January 3, there is a big parade that actually serves as a competition to narrow down the dance participants in the main parade on January 6. Only the winners and the runners up get to participate in the main parade. They started doing this to cut down on the sheer number of participants and length of the January 6th parade, and well, to make a new traditional parade. There is also usually live music, usually dedicated to traditional Colombian and Latin American music that night.
  • January 4 – This has to be one of the more curious traditions of the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos. Supposedly in 1939, a family known as the Familia Casteñada arrived to Pasto during the parades and stood out for their colorful dress and personality. Now, there is a parade with people dressed up as if they were this family. There are other dance and musical groups that participate in the parade as well.
  • January 5, Día de los Negros – On this day, people paint themselves in black face. The underlying idea is that by everyone painting themselves they can release their innermost desires while also eliminating class and social differences. There are different concerts and live acts throughout the day and evening.
  • January 6, Día de los Blancos – On this day, people paint themselves white, usually using talc powder. This is also the day of the big parade. Since they didn’t have parades the year we went, we didn’t get to see it, but they did have the floats set up where you could walk and view them, and there were lots of elaborate ones, so this is definitely worth seeing! There will also be live music in the main plazas throughout the day and night.
Photo of a float depicting colorful people and animals for the Black and White Festival Colombia.
I would have loved to have seen the parade, because the floats really were impressive!

Tips for Preparing the Enjoying the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos

First, be prepared to get dirty!

You will pretty much for sure be getting plenty of doses of espuma (foam), paint, and talc powder or corn starch.

It is pretty much inevitable you will get covered head to toe.

Overwhelmingly we felt like this was good natured and good fun, but there may be people who pick on foreigners a little more.

Of course, there is always the possibility a bad actor might spray foam or throw talc in your eyes to rob you.

So, try to limit the amount of cash you carry and leave valuables at home.

You’ll also obviously want clothes you don’t mind getting filthy too.

We picked up some cheap clothes at a store known as Tierra Santa in downtown Pasto. Street vendors also sell goggles if you’d like some extra protection for your eyes.

I definitely do recommend having at least some sunglasses as you will definitely get talc or corn starch in your eyes.

Oh, and do watch out for the big trucks that go by full of people throwing talc from big sacks!

I recommend taking this all in stride and arming yourself with some talc and espuma of your own to get in on the action. If someone comes up and tries to paint your face black, let them do it, then as they walk away be sure to hit em with a big handful of talc.

However, if you do not want to be sprayed, or painted, or get dirty, you are best off skipping this event. And obviously if you feel like someone is targeting your rather to rob you or just being a d*ck, just move somewhere else.

Do, though keep your sense of humor about you.

Pasto is pretty chilly too, especially at night, so make sure you have a good jacket/hoody you also don’t mind getting dirty and possibly even bring an extra layer.

Photo of a guy and girl taking a mirror photo dirty after participating in the Black and White Festival Colombia.
There’s really nothing more to do than embrace getting dirty and get a good laugh about it!

Where to Stay for the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos

I’d say just about anywhere in downtown Pasto is fine. I’d especially say places in walking distance to the Plaza del Carnaval and Plaza Nariño are ideal.

I would recommend making reservations at least a bit in advance.

We stayed at Hotel San Sebastian. It had a great location within easy walking distance to the plazas. It wasn’t the nicest hotel but it was comfortable enough. It appears to have closed though because I can’t find it listed anymore.

Here are a few more ideas for hotels in Pasto that are in good locations for enjoying the Carnaval:

  • Hotel Plaza Carnaval – Well, you can’t get any closer to the action! This hotel is located right on the Plaza Carnaval. Looks very nice too, so it’d be my top recommendation for sure.
  • Hotel Fernando Plaza – A very nice looking hotel located basically right between the Plaza Carnaval and Plaza Nariño.
  • Hotel Cuellars – A nice looking place just a few blocks from both the plazas.
  • Loft Hotel – Another good looking place right by the Plaza Nariño.
  • Hotel Max – This is right around the corner from where the hotel we stayed at was, just a few blocks from the Plaza Carnaval and looks to be a similar decent value.
Photo of graffiti spelling Pasto with some grass in front of itl
I’d recommend staying in Centro, near the main plazas for the Black and White Festival.

Getting to Pasto

We actually backtracked from Ipiales and the amazing Las Lajas Sanctuary on the border with Peru after passing through Pasto on the way there from Popayán.

So, you can easily bus to Pasto from the border, from Popayán, and I think busing from Cali is also feasible.

While you can usually find many more options at the terminals themselves, you can get an idea of prices and schedules, and even book buses ahead of time at BusBud.

Photo of a girl in front of a crowd and a stage behind at the Carnval de Blancos y Negros in Colombia.
Whether by bus or flight, you’ll sure to enjoy the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos.

There is also an airport in Pasto.

You can definitely fly there via connection in Bogotá, or depending on the day directly from Cartagena, Medellín, or Cali.

Of course, you could also opt to fly into Popayán or Cali and bus to Pasto depending on flight options and prices.

You can check prices and availability on Colombian airline Avianca, or compare across different airlines at Expedia or CheapOair.

Photo of a float made for the Black and White Festival Colombia showing a man playing a drum with a sign about the city of Pasto.
You can fly to Pasto or bus there from Popayán.

Other Things to Do in Pasto and Nearby

We came to Pasto pretty much exclusively for the Negros y Blancos Carnaval. So, we didn’t do everything nearby to do, but we did do a few things.

See the Laguna de la Cocha

Probably the best known nearby attraction is the Laguna de la Cocha, a pretty lake about 45 minutes away that’s the second largest lake in Colombia.

We went to a parking lot where you can get collectivos near the Plaza del Carnaval early one morning. However, no one else showed up. So after a while of waiting, we ended up just paying the full price for the two of us ($28,000 pesos) rather than wait for 2 more people.

On the way back, we were able to get a collectivo van up to the nearby town and then a bus back to Pasto, but we did have to wait a while for the bus to fill up enough for them to leave.

On the way there’s a nice mirador that the driver stopped at for a few quick photos.

Once at the lake, there are a bunch of little restaurants and cafes, where you can grab something to drink or eat, including the regional favorite: rotisserie guinea pig, or cuy in Spanish.

I have to say they are much cuter with the fur on! We didn’t try this, but I honestly kind of wish I had.

You can also head on out on the lake on boat rides.

There were a number of different tours at different prices we were offered. We ended up joining up with another couple and doing one that included a short trip out on the water, a stop at a floating platform to view birds, and the small island in the lake where there is a chapel.

All in all, this is definitely worth a half day to a full day trip. While very doable on your own, you can also book a day trip via Viator.

Photo of a lake in the distance surrounded by tree covered hills.
View of the Laguna de Cocha from a distance at the mirador on the way there.

Visit Las Lajas Sanctuary in Ipiales

As I mentioned, we did this before Pasto, opting to stay a couple nights in Ipiales.

However, this is completely doable as a day trip too. Ipiales is less than 2 hours away by bus and even quicker if you do a tour.

This church, set deep in a canyon in the mountains looks like something out of Middle Earth, and makes for some great photos.

It’s also just a short distance from the border with Peru, and it’s easy to cross over into the nearest town of Tulcán, where there is a neat cemetery known for its elaborate hedge sculptures.

Read more about Las Lajas and Ipiales here.

Photo of the Las Lajas Sanctuary church showing a bridge to the church and mountains in the background.
Going to see Las Lajas is totally worth the trip!

There’s a great 4 day tour that includes a tour of Pasto, a visit to Laguna de la Cocha, and a day trip to Las Lajas and Tulcán across the border.

There’s also this great 7 day package during the Carnaval that includes a tour of Pasto, Laguna de la Cocha, Ipiales and Las Lajas, and even a visit to a nearby páramo, in addition to having a guide for the main events of the carnaval.

For those looking to have a bit of help getting around, it might make for a wonderful option for enjoying the Black and White Festival of Pasto. It’s also possible to book it with accommodations included.

Photo of a tall elaborate float made for the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos in Pasto Colombia showing figures riding animals like lions and jaguars.
I thought this was one of the most elaborate and impressive floats! I’ll most certainly be jealous if you go and get to see the parade!

Practical Tips for the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos

  • I can’t stress enough to wear clothes you don’t mind being ruined. We got covered in talc as well as paint.
  • Remember, this is all in good fun, and part of the idea behind carnaval is acting a little crazy and breaking class barriers, as in everyone is a fair target to be sprayed with foam, covered in talc, or surprised with a hand of paint in the face. Try to take it all in stride, get some vengeance with your own talc and espuma, and if do you feel like you’re being unfairly targeted, move to a different area.
  • I also can’t stress how chilly it got in Pasto at night, I’d say similar to Bogotá.
  • There are plenty of ATMs in Pasto, but again, I’d recommend not carrying too much cash.
  • Around the main plazas for the carnaval there should be vendors selling food, snacks, beers, water, and other drinks as well as porta-potties.
  • At least the year we were here, they set up barricades and were taking away espuma from people. However, if you were in the plaza before they set up, they didn’t do anything to stop people from spraying it.
  • The year we were here, there were incredibly long lines to get into the Plaza Nariño, so if there is a band or singer you really want to see performing there, you may want to head there early. In fact, that’s probably good advice for any of the plazas.
Photo of a float made for the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos showing two guinea pigs playing musical instruments.
Ah the cuys, sort of the unofficial mascot of Pasto and the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos, but also a favorite regional delicacy and the subjects of this cute float made for the parade.

Ready to experience the Pasto Carnaval yourself?

There you have it, a complete guide to what to expect during Pasto’s Carnaval of Blacks and Whites. I really thought this was great fun and well put together, especially the number of live musical acts they had.

If you happen to be traveling near this area of Colombia around the start of the year, I definitely recommend checking it out. Just come prepared to get a little dirty!

Cheers and Happy Partying!

Did you like this post?

Check out these others you might like:
Travel Guide to San Agustín
Travel Guide to the Tatacoa Desert
How to Visit the Mano del Gigante Lookout
Things to Do in Bogotá
On Wildlife Safari in Los Llanos and Casanare