The larger- than-life exuberance of celebration hits Guy Needham from day one.
I was warned about getting shot in Colombia. The balaclava, the reflective sunglasses and combat fatigues were a giveaway and I should have just run. Instead I got hit twice — not with bullets but with white foam shooting out of a canister by a 12-year old boy shouting: "Viva Pasto!"
That "spssstttttttt" was my intro to El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos, a five-day party that turns out to be the world's biggest foam fight. It is the largest, loudest, longest and messiest festival in southern Colombia; a celebration of cultures that settled in the area.
To be fair, when I was shot I'd been distracted by the street vendors — and now it all made sense. "Some goggles for you, senor? A sombrero, cheap?" In true horse-bolted fashion I purchased a ridiculously oversized sombrero and a "foam-proof" poncho to protect myself.
Sheepishly, I made my way back to the hotel. The security-conscious manager Jaime was waiting behind a locked door. Letting me in with a chuckle, he looked pitifully upon me: "You got shot on your first day?! Bienvenido a Colombia!"
After cleaning myself up I cautiously headed towards Plaza del Carnaval, my peripheral vision working overtime. Squeezing in, I introduced myself to the neighbouring family with "Soy de Nueva Zelanda" — as if the words were some sort of protective cloak.
We were jostling among the thousands who had gathered to celebrate La Familia Castaneda — a colourful family who, when they arrived in Pasto in 1929 walked smack into a horse parade and started randomly waving to the crowd. The Castaneda family became so popular they now have a dedicated parade in their honour.
As we cheered on the 1920s characters, they danced and sang their way past the masses.
The vibe was simply electric; their costumes lighting up the parade like the hot Colombian sun.
They'd hardly finished before the foam hit my mouth. Escaping down the main street, I was suddenly stopped. A member of the policia put me up against the wall and proceeded to pat me down. Apparently, I'd inadvertently found myself in a security check to a concert.
Taking it all in my festival-stride I shelled out 2000 Colombian pesos (96c) for a chorizo and finished the evening sipping local cervezas.
The next day started rather oddly. "Hey, you got Vaseline?" whispered Jaime, rather personally. "Huh?" "Your face, the Vaseline, to get grease off." It was his way of warning me that it was Dia de Negros (Day of the Blacks). It harks bark to the days of black slaves, but rather than being a racist 'blackface' event today it's a celebration of all races and cultures being equal, with most people dabbing a little black paint on their cheeks as a sign of respect and inclusion. Jaime was right of course; it seemed that everyone had some mark of black on them, and if they didn't – as I found out – they soon would. This time when I returned he just shook his head and smiled.
The pinnacle of the carnival is on the Saturday, the Grand Parade that falls on The Day of the Whites. Dia de Blancos is the cause of all the foam, all the flour bombs and all the talcum powder. But before war breaks out there are the floats, and they are truly spectacular.
I've been to many a parade but never seen anything like this. The floats were so colourful, so intricate so immense and so artful that it was hard not to be in awe. Showers of confetti and zig-zagging streamers rained upon the parade as participants danced away on floats four storeys high. Cumbia rhythms blasted from massive speakers as mechanical heads bobbed and roared. Not to be outdone, the larger-than-life costumed characters reached into the eager crowd.
Suddenly one of them grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her. It was La Lloronda, the legendary ghost who steals children, and she was not to be denied. I did my best not to look un-co, as she took me Cali-style salsa-ing, spinning in the parade to the sound of laughter, cheers and clapping from my fellow spectators.
After five hours the show finally came to an end and then the battles began. There was more white stuff on the ground than an episode of Narcos. There was only 200m between me and the safety of my hotel room. Then 100m. Too late. The powder hit me square on the ear, and it was hard not to grin from that one to the other.
New Zealanders do not require a tourist visa in Colombia for stays less than 90 days.
Air New Zealand flies to Buenos Aires with connections on partner airlines to Bogota. One-way Economy Class fares are on sale until January 19 start from $1039.