I visited Colombia over new year 2017, and one of the first things I did in 2017 was visit the town of Mocoa in the south-west area of Colombia. The main reason I went there was that my boyfriend (who is native Colombian) has family there, and his uncle was building a huge float in preparation for the biggest local festival of the year – the black and white carnival (el carnaval de los blancos y negros). This is also celebrated more famously in Pasto, Nariño.
The black and white carnival happens every year on the 5th and the 6th of January. We arrived in Mocoa on the 3rd at night, so our adventures started on the 4th.
Day 1: ‘El Fin del Mundo’ waterfall
We took the day before the carnival started to go on a bit of a hike. The waterfalls are at the top of a mountain, which is about a two hour hike at a moderate pace. The scenery when you get to the top is really incredible – crystal blue waters, calm watering holes and spectacular waterfalls. Of course, the main attraction of ‘El Fin del Mundo’ is the huge waterfall which is like a long DROP over a cliff and also doubles as a place to practise adventure sport!
The best part about this place, for me, was that after a hot, sweaty ascent you can swim once you get to the top. The water is ice cold but it is so perfect after the work out, and so clean and inviting!
The only downfall of this place I suppose would be the crowds – the place was absolutely packed with Colombian tourists enjoying (I imagine) a few days off over the new year. Seriously, it was the busiest hike I’ve ever been on – people in every corner. We got there around 10am, and thought it was full then, but as the day went on it just started to fill up more and more, until you practically couldn’t move with all the people around.
Nonetheless, this is still a beautiful piece of nature and another special gem of Colombia’s!
Day 2: Day of the Blacks & Parade Preparation
We spent most of the day helping my boyfriend’s uncle and basically the entire family make their impressive float. His uncle is one of the top float-creators in all of Mocoa and has won the prize for the best float in the parade several times over the years (this year was no exception and the float ended up coming in second place).
So, after a long hard day of work and lunch on an outdoor barbecue, by about 5pm it was time to head to the carnival.
The carnival is celebrated over two days. The first day is known as the ‘day of the blacks’. This involves dressing in clothes you’re willing to ruin and going out to throw paint at everyone you see!
There is no escape from these paint showers, and there is no “safe-zone”. If you went out on the streets on this day, especially in the town center, you would instantly be covered by wet hands painting you all over.
For us, it was especially crazy because a lot of people realised we were foreigners and went for us even more, yelling ‘GRINGOS’ while they pelted us with paint.
The best way to combat this is, of course, to get involved in the action. There are street vendors taking advantage of the festival (of course – it is South America) by selling paint pots everywhere for 1.000 COP each (about 30c USD). Once we had our paint pots, that’s when the fun really began!
There is, however, a concentrated area where people congregate to listen to music on an open air stage, dance, drink and (of course) try and make each other as black as possible.
‘The day of the blacks’ is not strictly black. In fact, by the end of the night I had green in my hair, red on my shoes, blue on my face. But there is no denying that they did a great job in painting me black!
Day 3: Day of the Whites & Parade
The second day of the carnival is the most important, because this is the day of the parade; the day that everyone gets to showcase the floats they have spent so many months working on. It was certainly an exciting day for my partner’s family, as everyone had been so involved in the creating of this gigantic, magnificent float. There had been several sleepless nights for them coming up to the big day.
The parade was supposed to start at 10am, but unfortunately heavy rain pushed it back, so everyone waited anxiously until it finally started around 1pm. The float was a huge, colourful animal kingdom – with a gigantic eagle at the back, a terrifying leopard at the front and some dolphins on the sides. The plan was for my boyfriend to sit with another guy in the float and spread the huge eagle wings as the float moved down the street. There were three other guys working various other controls on the float. The rest of our group would walk alongside the float on the street.
Just as the parade was about to start, my boyfriend looked down at me from where he was sitting in the float and smiled at me, beckoning me to go up and join him. I did, and that was how I ended up being the face of the float, smiling and waving at everyone that I could as the float passed the crowds watching the parade. I can’t describe what I felt in those moments: I would wave and I would see a group of people notice me and everyone would start to wave back. It might sound silly but I feel like I made a genuine connection with every person in Mocoa that day. It was so lovely to see little kids’ faces light up to see someone waving at them, or to see the smiles start to spread across people’s faces as they returned mine.
I don’t think I stopped smiling for the entire hour that the parade went on. The float we were on was really magical, brightly coloured with amazing details. People stared up at it in awe. Later, my boyfriend’s uncle thanked me for spreading the joy from his float and drawing more attention to it.
The second day of the festival also involves the ‘day of the whites’. As you might have guessed, this day is celebrated by basically trying to get everyone else as white as possible. Everyone dresses in clothes they are willing to throw away and throws flour and sprays white foam at each other. As with the blacks day, there is no escaping from it, and here it is even more dangerous because there is the risk of flour getting in your eyes. Goggles are necessary for this day, unless you want to be blinded from the flour showers.
This day is a lot more uni-coloured than the day of the blacks. It is only white: everyone and everything covered in white. The ground gets mushy from all the wet flour as people throw more and more into the crowds of people. We had so much fun this second day; a group of ten of us would plan an attack, and then we’d all rush to a random group of people and go at them all together in a blur of foam and flour, then retreat. More often than not the victims would retaliate and it became a war of white.
This festival was great fun and it is awesome to see people so happy and carefree, going out and enjoying a good time – and how the whole town joins in! It was amazing to see how much effort they put into their outfits and their floats and decorations for the parade, and how much a whole town comes together as a community to celebrate the event. It was truly an incredible experience, so if you ever have the chance to go to a blacks and whites carnival, I definitely recommend it.
Mocoa Landslide Tragedy
Mocoa is a beautiful town with beautiful people, and it is definitely worth a visit if you ever get the chance. As you may be aware, these people who were so friendly and carefree when I met them have recently experienced a terrible tragedy in their small town, when landslides covered a portion of the town in the middle of the night.
I was planning anyway to write a blog about Mocoa and the awesome things to do there at some point, but I am writing it right now to talk about the disaster because I think more people need to understand how catastrophic this has been, and because I want to give people a legitimate way to help.
Not only have hundreds of people been confirmed dead and hundreds more missing, but the conditions that the survivors are living in now are devastating. No shelter for the thousands of people left without homes, not enough food as the only road that connects Mocoa to the rest of Colombia has been closed off from the landslides; no clean water; children and pets left without families, and parents without children. There is no way out of the town and the only help comes in helicopters.
My boyfriend’s family that live there are thankfully all alive and unhurt. They are trying to help the people who have been less fortunate than them but they are running out of resources themselves.
The problem with Colombia is that, it is a beautiful country but the government is too corrupt to help out citizens when they really need it, even when it is an official state of emergency. Millions of dollars have been donated to Colombia’s government or major charity organisations from brands and other countries’ governments. The people suffering in Mocoa have seen very little of this aide and are struggling to get by and find a way through this. Now that it has been almost a month since the disaster, media is reporting on this less and less and the donations are dwindling.
How you can help Mocoa
My trip to Mocoa was probably the highlight of my whole trip to Colombia, mainly because of the lovely people there that made the experience unforgettable. In my mind I keep replaying the day that I was on top of the float seeing everyone’s smiling, laughing faces and I wonder what these same people must be going through now. Maybe some of the people who waved at me are dead, or paralysed, or trapped under rubble? Maybe some of those little kids I waved at have been left without a home, without parents? And for those who have survived, it is still so heart-breaking to know that they are now living in such horrendous conditions. I feel so helpless, but I want to do something to make a difference.
That’s why my boyfriend and I set up a page for donations on Give a Little. We are lucky to have a connection to the town which means we can ensure all the money that is donated goes to the right place. The money raised will be directly spent on food and fresh water supplies, and my boyfriend’s uncle will then use these to do a barbecue and distribute hot meals and water to everyone who is in need, so no corrupt governments involved – 100% of the money we raise will go to the people who need it most. The more money we raise, the longer we will be able to feed them until a way out of this mess is decided.
They have already suffered a mindless tragedy, let’s not let more people become ill or die in the aftermath.
Please consider donating to our page to help feed the survivors of the Mocoa tragedy. Every little bit helps!
Please note: if you are not in New Zealand, you can only donate using a credit card. If you want to donate but don’t have a credit card, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can work something out.
I will keep updating my social media and blogwith what is happening with the money so you will see exactly where it will go.
11/5/2017: The donating page has now closed. Thank you to everyone who donated or helped spread the message around! If you still want to donate (as there are still a lot of people in desperate need), feel free to email me at email@example.com.
The GiveALittle fundraiser raised $790 NZD which will be processed and sent through in mid-June
1/9/2017: Here are some pictures of our contact in Mocoa handing out care packages to people in need in Mocoa. These care packages were put together from the money we raised!
The problem is ongoing and there are still people in need so if you want to know how you can help, please send me a message!
Please share this article to spread the word and help us reach more people.
To everyone who has taken the time to read this, and especially to the people who have reached into their hearts and donated something, thank you.~