Colombia’s Pacific region of Chocó is perhaps most closely linked in people’s minds to Colombia’s armed conflict and is almost synonymous with the outsider, media-inspired image of Colombia as a vast, lawless jungle, home to drug dealers, freedom fighters and soldiers. However, Quibdo’s San Pacho Festival, named on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, is a fantastic expression of Afro-Colombian culture and passion, both for the music and colours on show as well as the fervent displays of religious devotion.
During my time in Quibdo, I was constantly struck by the incredible contrasts that I found throughout the San Pacho Festival, whether it be the juxtaposition between religious celebrations and full-on parties or the joy and happiness standing alongside startling poverty and desperation.
The festival is in honour of San Francisco of Assisi (who they lovingly call San Pacho), after whom the city was named San Francisco de Quibdo and each night one of the neighbourhoods hosts a verbena, essentially an excuse to drink, host dance-offs, eat and play games that you can never win.
On our second day in Quibdo, the city hosted a flotilla, quite unlike any I had ever seen before. Narrow, small and unstable boats filled with costumed dancers and brass bands who demonstrated almost superhuman balance to be able to carry out their festivities without being thrown into the river.
Each participating neighbourhood had their own boat, each group competing to see who could make the most noise or dance more inappropriately.
Yet while all of this took place, the chirinia music banging against my eardrums, cheering townsfolk watching happily from the malecon, I couldn’t help but notice the children on the banks, standing on piles of rubbish, or the families crammed into their wooden shacks all curiously trying to take a peek at the parade from one small window. For these people, the festival was nothing more than a reminder of their isolation.
The day of the parade threw up yet more intriguing contrasts. Throughout the day, the streets of Quibdo were flooded with a startling array of bright colours, smiling and dancing children, floats with messages of peace and love and seemingly endless supplies of aguardiente. The party continued well into the night, with a big stage on the malecon for live music, yet more dance-offs and what to me looked like live sex shows but which was simply people dancing choque.
However, while all of this went on, a few metres away in the cathedral, a mass was being carried out. The rowdy, raucous festival outside provided a curious and unique soundtrack to the solemn mass inside.
There was so much noise outside that the sermon was totally inaudible and when the time came for hymns to be sung the religious music was thrust aggressively out of loudspeakers in an attempt to drown out the drunken merriment of the revelers.
This divergence between the holy and, well, the unholy is something that was ever-present during my time in Quibdo. I spoke to a number of people about how San Pacho’s festivities and drunken partying can live alongside the devotion and religious fervour of many. The most common reply made reference to San Pacho himself, who was an accepting and inclusive man who respected the views and opinions of others. So those who choose to believe and follow the religious aspect of the festival can happily follow their beliefs and not impose them on others, who are happy in their own way.
Equally striking was the way that the city was seemingly divided in two. In amongst all of the celebrations, there is the sensation that this festival is a major uniting force, bringing together people from the whole city in a fun, colourful and devout celebration. And in a way it is, for 20 days and nights (that’s right,
these people seriously know how to party) the city is drowned in colour, music, laughter and food. But not everyone is keen to take part. Many people are not interested in the festival and don’t get involved. In fact, they make special efforts to avoid it, an almost Herculean task given that San Pacho fever seems to take hold of every neighbourhood and street in the city.
And perhaps it would be easy when taking part in this festival to view it as an example of the incredible propensity to party that all Colombians, but mainly Afro-Colombians, carry with them, to look at it as a non-stop party and an excuse for people to let go, celebrate and swing their hips around wildly until they physically can’t do it anymore. But that would be ignoring what is essentially the whole meaning of the festival – a religious celebration of the city’s saint.
This all becomes startlingly clear on the final day of the festivities. While many people are still out partying, or crawling into bed in anticipation of the next day’s raging hangover, a 3am procession begins
from the door of the cathedral, through all of the city’s participating neighbourhoods. For almost three hours, religious music and chanting flows through the battered streets of Quibdo, through the pouring rain, in an astonishing display of faith and devotion.
Later that day, another religious procession begins, this time with many hundreds more participating. In Choco’s baking heat, with their feet sore from 20 days of dancing (and, I imagine, a lifetime before) and dabbing their sweaty foreheads with rags, the people of Quibdo spend four hours singing hymns, chanting, praying and following a giant statue of San Francisco. Such is the love for San Pacho that I caught many people crying in joy as they prayed to their saint. At one point, I was yet again reminded of the incredible juxtapositions at this festival, as some religious salsa was played at maximum volume. I honestly never thought those two would go together.
Yet throughout all of the festivities, I had a nagging feeling that I was missing something. That what I was seeing perhaps wasn’t the whole story. Can there be so much joy without some kind of misery? The colours and sounds seemed to be masking something, it seemed to be a way to forget, a way to show hope and determination in the face of adversity. Yet as the festivities came to a slow, stuttering end, I was given a small glimpse into another side of Quibdo.
Just outside the city, on the edge of a busy motorway, there is a community of indigenous Indians who have been displaced by the war. That the local authorities are not ashamed and embarrassed by the conditions in which they live is beyond me. They have no water, no electricity, no sanitation, no beds and no means with which to cook. Their ‘houses’ are simply wooden platforms with makeshift roofs. I arrived hoping to speak to them about their situation but, unsurprisingly, they were not keen to talk. Furthermore, the chief of the community was not there in order to give us permission to enter. So I left with the strange sensation that the divisions that exist in Quibdo and San Pacho run deeper than I first thought, that the struggle for a decent life oddly enough lives alongside astonishing signs of hope, happiness and religious devotion that San Pacho’s Festival offers.
The festival itself, however, was a resounding success. Whether it’s the reckless disregard for health and safety demonstrated by Quibdo’s seemingly inexplicable obsession with burning and exploding things, the old men playing aggressive dominos in the marketplace, or the mothers dancing around wildly with new-born babies on their shoulders, San Pacho brings together elements of Afro-Caribbean culture that at times seem confusing and incompatible but which, brought together, create one of the world’s most fascinating spectacles.