Photo: Colombia Travel/Flickr

The Biggest, Craziest Foam Fight In The World

‘It’s like India’s Holi, Spain’s La Tomatilla, and Rio’s Carnaval rolled into one’

The scene is one of absolute chaos, an all-out war.

Small armies prowl the streets armed with canisters of spray foam and kilos of talcum powder. No one is safe, not even total strangers; anyone that steps outside their door is fair game.

Not even policemen are immune.

I find myself running away from kids who just don’t know when to quit.

And the best part? There is hardly a tourist in sight.

Welcome to the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos, during which the sleepy town of Pasto, Colombia, is transformed into a spectacular urban playground. For one week every January, the city goes wild in a way that’s almost impossible to describe. It’s like India’s Holi, Spain’s tomato-throwing extravaganza La Tomatina, and Rio’s legendary Carnaval rolled into one.

The Carnaval has multiple roots, from an ancient harvest festival performed by the indigenous Quillacinga; to Spain’s declaring January 5th a slave holiday in 1604; to an incident in 1912 when a master tailor ran amok in a brothel, showering everyone present with talcum powder.

Over time, the entire population of Pasto, whatever their ethnicity, began painting their faces black on the 5th, and then white the following day. The tradition is faithfully maintained and has become a powerful celebration of integration — of the rich racial mix that is central to Colombia’s national identity. In 2009, UNESCO declared the festival an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It’s now an almost week-long extravaganza, including a pre-carnival puppet parade, a kids’ day, and the grand finale.

Blacks’ Day basically involves strangers walking up to you and smearing you with black body paint.

After about two minutes on the street, you look something like this.

Then, on Whites’ Day, anything from chalk to talc to flour becomes ammunition. And I don’t use the term “ammunition” lightly. This day is all about the street battles. Here’s how ours went down.

First, I had to get myself some ridiculous-looking eye protection.

Then it was time for camouflage: my friends and I thought it would help to blend in. So we put on t-shirts that said “100% Colombianos.”

Entering the battleground of Plaza De Nariño, we realized that none of our precautions made the slightest bit of difference. Because however hard you fight…

You will end up with a cake on your face…

Oh, and no one cares that you’re holding a camera.

If it all sounds brutal… that’s because it really is. Your eyes will sting from the foam, your lungs will struggle against the powder, and there will be talc everywhere. I was picking chunks of white out of my ears for days after.

I’m sure this guy was, too.

After the battles come the street parades—some of the biggest, noisiest and most colorful anywhere in the world.

The locals, or Pastusos, are incredibly welcoming to the rare foreigner who shows up. We appeared to be the only Asians present, and everyone wanted to have their picture taken with us.

This was by far the best experience I had in Colombia. It’s utter pandemonium, and it brings out a playful, childish side of yourself that you may not have known existed. There’s something hilarious and liberating about dousing a complete stranger with party foam. I still think back fondly of stalking the streets, flour bomb in hand, half-hoping for a powder attack to come from around the corner.

How much did it cost me?

$201 for 3 days.

The breakdown

$44 — Bus from Bogota to Cali (round-trip)
$36 — Bus from Cali to Pasto (round-trip)
$97 — Hotel for 3 nights
$4 — Taxi rides within Pasto
$5 — Weapons (foam canisters & bags of powder)
$15 — Food for 3 days

Prices are per person.

Of course, if you’re flying in, you should make it more than a 3-day trip. After the festival, explore the rest of Colombia or head down to Ipiales to see the stunning Las Lajas Sanctuary.

Yes, there are some places where you can have an amazing time without getting doused in flour and foam…

The Renaissance Hotels are a part of the Marriott International portfolio.

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