Colombia is one of the countries in the world with the most national public holidays, with some 20 days spread throughout the year. The Colombian calendar is also peppered with a large number of carnivals and festivals, which bear witness to the national love of celebration.
As a Catholic country, the most important celebrations are those held around Christmas and Easter time. Admittedly, the religious elements of such celebrations are fairly minimal. December is one of the most widely celebrated months, with the very onset of the month energetically celebrated in Medellín with fireworks and all-night parties. Semana Santa, the Easter Holy Week, is also another important time, with a large proportion of the local population using these public holidays to visit domestic tourist sites.
The festivals and holidays which attract the greatest number of domestic and international visitors include:
The Black and White Festival showcases a mixture of indigenous Colombian, Spanish, and Afro-Colombian traditions
Black and White Festival, January – A 3-day carnival held in the city of Pasto, in southeastern Colombia, showcases a mixture of indigenous rituals, Spanish colonial, and later Colombian and Afro-Colombian traditions and customs. The pre-carnival stage begins on 28th December from which time there are widespread impromptu water fights throughout the city. Celebrations begin in earnest from 4th January, with a large parade commemorating the arrival of a family of legendary travelers to Pasto in the 1920s. Activities on the last two days of celebrations are what give the festival its name. On 5th, the assembled crowds all paint each other with black cosmetics or dress in black, and on the following day large quantities of white talcum powder are thrown about covering all those in the city.
Manizales Festival, January - This week-long festival is held annually between the first and second weeks of the New Year, immediately after Cali’s Festival. The Spanish and European influences in the festival are particularly evident in events such as the bull-runs during the week. These traditions are mixed with uniquely Colombian ones, drawing heavily upon the coffee industry which dominates the area. The height of the festival is a beauty pageant in which the ‘International Queen of Coffee’ is crowned.
Barranquilla’s four day carnival is one of the biggest events in the Colombian social calendar
Barranquilla Carnival, February – One of the biggest events in the Colombian social calendar, this 4-day festival has been awarded the status of a “Masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity" by UN cultural body UNESCO. The event features various days of parades, music, drinking and dancing in a city already famous in Colombia for its active party scene. It is arguably the second biggest and best annual celebration in Latin America's carnival calendar, falling only slightly below the levels of hedonism witnessed at the street parties of Rio de Janiero .
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Easter Processions, March/April - After the hedonism of Barranquilla's carnival comes the more sombre Easter festival in the small historic city of Popayan. A religious procession sees wooden carvings of the passion of the Christ, his crucifixion, death and resurrection, carried along a 2km route round the city, every night during holy week. This long-standing tradition attracts a large number of visitors to the city each year, but the event remains a sober affair.
World Salsa Festival, August – Cali, the world capital of salsa music, plays host to this 8-day music festival in August. A total of over 4,000 dancers, musicians and artists, and approximately 20 national orchestras, participate in the various events planned throughout the week. These include shows, workshops, talks and practical salsa lessons for attendees.
Medellin’s Flower Festival features a booze-laden parade of more than 6,500 locals on horseback
Flower Festival, August – The city of Medellin witnesses a massive influx of tourists in August for the Feria de las Flores. The festival is a multi-day event featuring a large number of different concerts, shows, parades and celebrations, very few of which have any link to flowers. Some of the largest and most popular events traditionally include: the cabalgata (a booze-laden parade featuring more than 6,500 locals on horseback); the parade of the silleteros (locals carrying large ornate flower displays on their backs); the fondas (a selection of traditional bars representing each region of the country, assembled along the riverbanks); and the classic cars parade. From 2014, the festival has not featured the cabalgata, due to disagreements between event organizers and authorities over how to limit the disruption traditionally associated with this event.
Pacific Coast’s Folklife Festival, August - Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast plays host to this festival, celebrating the artistic and cultural diversity of the region. The inhabitants of this part of Colombia are Afro-Colombians providing a rich mixture of dance, music, food, literature and poetry and other traditions less evident elsewhere in the country. All feature heavily in this festival, held between 25th and 28th August.
Cartagena's Independence Celebration and National Beauty Pageant, November – A celebration of Cartagena’s independence from the Spanish in 1811, featuring music, fireworks, a huge boat party, traditional dances..and plenty to drink. The crowning event of the festival is the beauty pageant from which Colombia’s contestant for the Miss Universe competition is selected.
Festival of Cali, December – A five-day festival held between Christmas and New Year, boasting an inaugural concert attended by approximately 60,000 people. As with Medellin’s Flower Festival, the numerous events held include a cabalgata and parade of classic cars. Cali’s festival generally has a greater focus on music concerts, and often attracts high profile Latin music stars. In 2014, headline acts included salsa singer Marc Anthony and pop artist Don Omar.