Sweat glistens and vibrant skirts flare in the moonlight as hips and feet move in a hypnotic rhythm that’s almost too fast to see. Perhaps it’s the pull of the congas and the claves tapping out the beat, or perhaps it was that last shot of aguardiente that the pretty young waitress insisted you swallow, but you feel your hips moving as if of their own volition, and soon your feet follow. You’re immersed in a sea of gyrating bodies, one with the beat, the rhythm, and a motion as irresistible and old as time itself.
This is the World Salsa Festival in Colombia’s third largest city, Cali. It is only one of 80 or more festivals that take place in Colombia every year, making this one of the most culturally vibrant and exciting countries in the world. Intrigued? Hold on tight while we take you on a quick yet thorough tour of Colombian festivals. ¡Vamos, pues!
Festivals in Cali, Colombia
Since you’ve already had a taste of Cali’s colorful culture, we’ll start there, in a city also known as the world capital of salsa. This region of Colombia is known for a warm, reasonably dry climate that lends itself well to outdoor festivals, parties, parades, and dancing in the street. There is more to Cali than music and dancing, however. A few of the most popular festivals in and around this city include:
Feria de Cali
The people of Cali – caleños – value this Colombian festival above all others because it celebrates their rich Colombian traditions, history, culture, art, and, of course, dance. The week-long celebration kicks off on December 25th with a 7-hour parade that exhibits thousands of dancers, wildly decorated floats, live music, and entertainment. A few other attractions that bring over 2 million people to this festival include:
- SuperConcierto (Superconcert) – This large-scale live music performance includes famous artists from all over Colombia.
- Delirio Salsa Circus – Exactly as it sounds, Delirio is a strange and wonderful fusion of circus performers, salsa music, and dancing.
- Old Cali Parade – This unique spectacle serves to illustrate the rich history of Cali, from the days of indigenous tribes to the present, by way of costumes, performances, and decorated floats.
- La Cabalgata (Horse Parade) – Not to be easily dismissed, the horse parade demonstrates the talents of Colombia’s unique breed of pasofino horses that dance, prance, and perform under the adept hands of local cowboys.
World Salsa Festival
Whether you prefer to watch or perform, Cali’s World Salsa Festival is the place to be for anyone who appreciates the art of dance. Held each September, the 4-day dance party offers large-scale competitions for professionals, as well as teaching workshops and amateur competitions for the rest of us. Most competitions offer free entry to spectators, and the locals keep the spirit alive each night with impromptu street performances and parties in parks, clubs, and public spaces around the city.
If you’re a birdwatcher, you may be aware that Colombia boasts more diversity of bird species than any other country on Earth – over 1,930 different species. Some 850 of those species can be found within the department called Valle de Cauca where Cali is located. In 2015, someone finally had the bright idea to take advantage of this, and the BirdFair was born. Every February, birdwatchers and animal lovers the world over flock to Cali for guided bird watching tours into the forests and rural areas of Valle de Cauca.
Festivals in Bogotá, Colombia
Colombia’s capital is the center of its commerce and government affairs, but the city has also become a thriving hotspot for theatre and cinema. There is culture to spare in Colombia’s most sophisticated city:
International Ibero-American Theatre Festival
Boasting the world’s largest celebration of the performing arts, this 17 day theatre extravaganza attracts performers from over 25 countries to act, sing, dance, and perform in every way imaginable. This bi-annual Colombian Festival takes place in March and includes a huge range of activities such as:
- Inaugural Parade – Colombians like their parades, but this hours-long spectacular could be the parade of all parades with thousands of performers in full costume practicing crafts of every theatrical genre.
- Theatre Performances and Competitions – From full-scale stage productions to small companies of three to four actors, visitors can choose from over 100 plays throughout some 30 different theatres in the city.
- Street Performers – Every street corner and city park is a stage during the FITB. The city comes alive with free street performances throughout the city on a daily basis.
- Workshops and Talks – Professionals from around the world offer acting workshops and talks to adults and children alike.
Bogotá International Film Festival
Another event that attracts participants from every corner of the Earth, this relatively-new annual festival takes place every October. In contrast to similar festivals in the United States and Europe, this event is flavored by a decidedly Latin appeal, with submissions and premieres originating predominantly from Central and South America.
International Book Fair
Ideal for book lovers, publishers, editors, and writers alike, this April event is the premier of its kind in Colombia, if not all of South America. Featuring newly released and limited-edition publications, as well as workshops, talks, and entertainment events in a variety of languages, the Bogotá Book Fair is a cultural event that is sure to please visitors of any nationality.
Festivals in Medellín Colombia
Medellin, The City of Eternal Spring, has a lot more to offer than mild weather. A year’s worth of events and festivals take place in this region, but we’ll highlight a few of the major ones:
Feria de Las Flores – The Flower Festival in Medellin
This temperate city lives up to its nickname in so many ways. Balmy temperatures, frequent rainfall, and flowers of every size, shape, and color. The Flower Festival, held for one week every August, is a time-honored Colombian tradition that celebrates not only the beauty of its flowers, but also the culture surrounding the people and farms that bring them to vibrant life. A few of the events you can enjoy at this festival include:
- Parade of Silleteros (Desfile de Silleteros)- The stars of the Flower Festival, the silleteros are traditional flower farmers that use their crop to decorate large-scale wooden frames in a wild variety of intricate designs. The farmers then proceed to mount the creations upon their backs and carry them throughout the city for all to see.
- Horse Shows, Car Shows, and More – Colombia’s famous pasofino horses put on an impressive show at the annual Flower Festival Cabalgata (Horse Parade). There are also parades and shows featuring antique cars (decorated with flowers, of course) and even parades for children and pets.
- Music – Along with free live performances in many parks and public venues on a nightly basis, the Flower Festival always closes with a ‘Concert of Concerts’ that features major pop stars from all over Latin America.
ColombiaModa – A Colombian Festival Dedicated to Fashion
Colombia’s version of Fashion Week takes place every July and is considered one of the major fashion-setting events in Latin America. Two days of fashion shows release trendsetting new styles from major designers of Colombia and beyond. The event has captured the attention of international fashion critics and is attended every year by more major fashion designers and publications.
Alumbrado de Medellín
Navidad in Medellín is not a festival, as it were, but more of a month-long multifaceted celebration of all things Christmas. Although the city offers a multitude of events for the Colombian holidays, from religious reenactments to music and dance performances, the crown jewel of spending the holidays in Colombia is the massive display of holiday lights. From the magnificent installation that lends blazing color and illumination to the Medellín River, to the less-ostentatious displays that adorn every town square and church, the alumbrados of Medellin are like nothing you’ve ever seen. Did you know that Medellin is actually on National Geographic’s list of Top 10 places in the world to see christmas lights?
Caribbean-Coastal Colombian Festivals
By far the most sought-after of tourist destinations in Colombia, the cities along the Caribbean coast are famously breathtaking and entertaining. This region has far more to offer than sand and sun, however; it is also the site of some of the country’s most popular festivals.
Carnaval de Barranquilla – The Mother of All Colombian Festivals
Yes, Barranquilla is the home city of Shakira, and it’s likely she learned her legendary moves at the Carnaval. Second only to the Carnaval of Rio de Janeiro, the 4-day long February fiesta is a commemoration of Colombian traditions, folklore, music, and dance that attracts over a million participants. Here are a few of the exciting things you’ll find at Carnaval de Barranquilla:
- Battle of the Flowers – To kick off the festivities, the city presents the Battle of the Flowers, which is actually (you guessed it!) a parade. This one features the carefully chosen and venerated Queen of Carnaval and her entourage of flower-laden floats, live bands, and street performers.
- Folkloric Parade – Considered by many to be the most significant contribution to Carnaval, the Folkloric Parade is made up of historical folkloric performers as well as traditional musical performances and dancers.
- Festival Orchestra – For lovers of latin music, this concert is a smorgasbord of Colombian genres, including tropical, vallenato, salsa, merengue, and more. It has been known to go on for over 10 hours, from early afternoon until the early hours of the following morning.
Cartagena International Music Festival
There’s no end to the pure, unadulterated culture to be soaked up at the classical music festival that is held in Cartagena every January. Along with over 40 professional concerts conducted by some of the world’s most accomplished orchestras, the festival offers workshops, lessons, and lectures on classical music. This festival is also a unique way to experience the beautiful cityscape of Cartagena as the concerts are held in various parks, amphitheatres, churches, and historical sites around the city.
Santa Marta’s Festival of the Sea
Located about 2 hours north of Barranquilla, the smaller city of Santa Marta is a hidden gem of crystal blue waters, white beaches, and festive attractions. The Festival of the Sea is a truly unique diversion every July, featuring not only the usual parades and live music, but also watersports, beach games, and even a beauty pageant to crown the ‘Queen of the Sea’.
Other Off The Beaten Path Colombian Festivals & Events
Of course, not all of Colombia’s extraordinary cultural celebrations take place in major cities. Some of the country’s most popular events take place off of the beaten path:
Festival of the Vallenato Legend
Nestled between two mountain ranges near the Venezuelan border, the town of Valledupar is known for two things – heat and vallenato music. Vallenato is a strain of traditional Colombian folk music that originated near Valledupar, created by cattle farmers with an odd yet interesting medley of instruments.
Taking place in April each year, the Vallenato festival celebrates the folk music and its roots in every way possible, with concerts, competitions, parades, and workshops. The event, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors from all over Latin America, culminates in a competitive battle of accordion players who play against each other to earn the coveted title of King of Vallenato.
Carnival of Blacks and Whites – Pasto
One of the oldest festivals in Colombia, this Colombian tradition in the southern city of Pasto has a history that’s a bit, well, colorful. With roots set deep in the days of Spanish rule, the Spanish slave owners set January 5th as a day of freedom for people of color, allowing their slaves to revel and make merry through the streets of Pasto. Allegedly, the Spanish wanted to join in and so painted their faces black to take part. The black population, in turn, began painting their faces white and a Carnival was born.
Today, the festival is presumably a celebration of diversity and local culture, but has transformed into a raucous 6-day party in which festival goers joyously douse each other in silly string, shaving cream, talc powder, and black paint. In between these warlike exchanges on the street, dedicated culture hunters can search out the usual parades, concerts, and dance parties.
Feria de Bucaramanga
In a rousing celebration of Colombian culture, this 17-day festival has everything you could possibly ask for in a cultural festival. Various art and innovation exhibitions display the latest from local artisans and designers while street fairs provide many more outlets for craftspeople to offer their wares.
Of course, it wouldn’t be traditional Colombian festival if it didn’t also offer multiple parades, live concerts, and dance performances designed to showcase local Santander tastes and styles.
The Devil Carnival in Rio Sucio
Definitely one of the stranger festivals in Colombia, the small Catholic community of Riosucio transforms every year into a horde of devils. The Devil Carnival began when a long-standing family fued between two neighboring communities was brought to an end. A statue of a devil that had been erected between the two communities became the effigy of the annual celebration.
Now, the carnival manifests itself in cavalcades of costumed devils, demons, and fiends that take to the streets in January for 6 days of parades, music, and overall revelry.
Other Colombian Holidays and Traditions
Besides the abundance of festivals and celebrations listed above, Colombia is also known for its unusual plethora of national holidays. With a grand total of 18 traditional holidays in Colombia, the country boasts the 2nd highest number of national holidays in the world. Suffice it to say, traditional Colombian people like a good reason to celebrate! Here are a few of their favorite Colombian holidays and traditions:
New Year’s Holiday in Colombia
While the young and single will find plenty of New Year’s parties in clubs and restaurants, New Year’s Eve is more often celebrated among close family and friends, with a few bottles of fine aguardiente, of course. Many Colombian families gather at fincas (country homes) to shoot fireworks and light a bonfire on New Year’s Eve. Most natives will tell you that eating twelve grapes at midnight will bring good luck and make your wishes come true for the coming year. The most notable Colombian tradition on New Year’s Eve, however, is the burning of “El Muñeco” – a straw dummy that is stuffed with fireworks and often dressed as a well-known celebrity or politician. At exactly midnight, the muñeco will be lit on fire in a delightful eruption of fireworks as the crowd looks on and cheers.
Colombia’s Holy Week
According to the Colombian tradition, Easter is not just one day. Semana Santa is 5 days long and most citizens are off work Thursday through Sunday on Easter weekend, prompting a large-scale migration into the countryside and pueblitos to enjoy Easter the old-fashioned way. Although there are no mythical bunnies or colored eggs to be seen, the Easter holiday in Colombia is celebrated with hundreds of religious parades and processions that take place in every city, neighborhood, and village. Crowds follow along as church officials tow larger-than-life sculptures of Biblical figures and crucifixes; some participants even dress up in period-correct costumes to reenact the Biblical events surrounding Easter.
The Day of the Candles
Known as El Día de las Velitas, this holiday in Colombia marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Each family takes to the street with handfuls of wax candles which are lit at dusk and set along the roadside to celebrate the official start of the Colombian holiday season. Oftentimes a festive dinner follows with plenty of drinks and the singing of traditional Colombian Christmas songs well into the night.
Smaller Celebrations and Colombian Festivals
Although the above list constitutes the major festivals of Colombia, there are many, many smaller celebrations that take place in countless towns, or pueblos, across the country. A few that you may want to research include:
- Feria de Manizales
- Marinilla Festival of Religious Music
- Jardín Festival of Cinema
- Colombian Film Festival in Santa Fe, Antioquia
Are You Ready to Embrace Colombian Tradition?
Do you feel your hips moving yet? Surely your feet can’t remain still after feeling the rhythm of Colombia’s Carnaval! A world of dance, music, culture, history, and entertainment awaits you in the flourishing heritage of the Colombian festival. Will you be left standing on the outskirts, or will you join us on our next adventure?
Have you experienced one of the exciting Colombian festivals or traditions of Colombia listed above, or perhaps one of the countless smaller celebrations in a Colombian pueblo? Fill us in on your own personal adventures in the comments below.
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