Bulls, Booze, and Pumpkins: The Devil's Carnaval Returns to Colombia

The biannual six-day festival includes a lot of drinking, a lot of parades, and a lot of extremely dangerous encounters with bulls.

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Jan 13 2015, 7:12pm

The devil is everywhere in Riosucio, Colombia. He walks the streets in broad daylight, his pink-tipped dreads falling over a blood-red cape. At night, she sits barefoot on a corner, playing her Andean flute and sipping chica—a murky, artisanal corn liquor—from a two-liter Coca-Cola bottle. And in the lower plaza, next to the church La Señora de la Candelaria, he looms 20-feet high astride a black, serpent-tailed bull, presiding over his subjects with a great golden trident.

It's Tuesday night, and for another day, at least, the devil will enjoy total dominion over this small town on the eastern slopes of the Andes' Western Mountain (or Cordillera Occidental). This, after all, is the Carnaval del Diablo—the Devil's Carnival—and from the menacing, toothy look on his face, His Majesty the King very much likes what he sees.

Locals assure me that tonight marks a low point in the biannual, six-day festivities. Much of the crowd has left, returned to their mundane, God-fearing lives in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and beyond. Those still remaining are drained from countless hours of music, dance, and almost perpetual excess.

"Before, the rumba never used to stop—ever—not even so that people could sleep," one elderly resident told me disapprovingly.

Photos by Mcleoud unless otherwise noted

Maybe so, but an off night in the Devil's Carnival still drags on until after the sun has come up the following morning. The cuadrillas—extravagantly costumed carnival troupes—are still out and up to no good, albeit in reduced numbers. Craftsmen and street vendors from across the country still line the main plazas, selling books, popcorn, bead jewelry, knit clothing, paintings, toys made from scrap parts, chorizo sausage, flower seeds, and, in one case, baby rabbits and chickens. Musicians still lead salsa and cumbia parades down the dim side streets. The guarapo—made from fermented sugar cane—and chicha—from fermented corn—still flow with abandon. And public fornication, if not altogether encouraged, is at the very least not frowned upon.

"That spirit, which is pure love and joy, you have to obey it, you have to serve it, you have to live it in your soul and in your body," Nicolas Lerma told me. "That's the only way to please His Majesty and bring His peace to the people."

Lerma would have good reason to know. As a matachín—a carnival jester—he is one of a host of mortal servants enlisted to ensure the continuance of this sacred and time-honored tradition. The carnival itself involves six months of ceremony and ritual preparation before the actual six-day festival, and a central organizing body—including a president, mayor, and other functionaries—and small army of round-the-clock cleaning and logistical personnel are all called on to pull off what has become one of the more famous cultural spectacles in a country whose calendar is overflowing with them.

The Devil's Carnival traces its roots back to 1819, before there was such a thing as Colombia, according to the organizing council's website. At the time, Riosucio consisted of two distinct, antagonistic mining communities, one descended from Africans and one indigenous. As a result of a peace accord negotiated by the communities' respective priests, the two towns built their main plazas within one block of one another and began hosting an early version of the carnival, which loosely coincided with the Spanish Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings' Day).

Riosucio—comprising the city itself, the dozens of informal settlements that surround it, and the Cañamomo y Lomaprieta indigenous reserve—has maintained much of its ethnic makeup and traditions. In its fusion of African, indigenous, and Spanish myth and custom, the Devil's Carnival is a celebration of "brotherhood, peace, and happiness" and of the unique history of this tiny corner of Colombia's impossibly diverse cultural landscape.

It is also a sweeping sacrament to the universal magic of booze. Traditionally used as a drinking instrument, the gourd, or calabaza, is the carnival's other major symbol. At the closing ceremony, it's laid to rest alongside its master in the hopes that both will soon return. Presiding over the rite, the vice president of the organizing committee eulogizes, among other things, the "exquisite, celestial taste" of the "burning, aromatic, and sensual" cane liquor that is guarapo, legendary for its exuberant drunk and proportionally demonic hangover.

The Spanish influence is most obvious in the correlajas, or bull-runnings. Unlike in Spain or parts of the Colombian Caribbean, where the bulls for the Devil's Carnival are shipped from, there is no official matador. (The bulls don't die or suffer serious injury, either.) Instead, residents come down with their families to the makeshift bamboo arena on the outskirts of town to drink aguardiente and jeer while successive bulls are unleashed, one at a time, on anyone brave or stupid enough to jump in the ring with them.

Photo by the author

A 24-year-old was killed on one of the first days after a bull impaled him through the groin. But that didn't stop the town from showing out for the next two days. The Riosucio gentry, many of whom, I'd been led to understand, are big in the local gold-mining industry, held prime seats in the shaded upper deck, fanning themselves in the mid-afternoon heat and throwing empty beer cans at the bulls when they passed while offering up harsh critiques of the runners' bravery. The rest of the town picnicked on the neighboring hillside or crowded behind the cage walls, which runners climb desperately whenever the prospect of lethal goring seems imminent.

Nicolas Lerma, the carnival jester, was there, decked out in full matador garb as he was led, stumbling, through the rink by fellow jester Hector Mario Ramírez and shouting slurred proclamations to his adoring public. The two of them, Ramírez being the straight man to Lerma's buffoon, would be back in new costumes later that night, this time in the upper plaza at the front of the devil's funeral procession.

Satan's reign on Earth, or the small patch of it that is Riosucio, Colombia, is a brief and tragic one. The carnival, ushered in with pomp and lavish frenzy, ends with a somber, if drunken, parade through the streets.

"Devil, how could you leave us?"

"Devil, stay with us. Please, stay with us. We beg you."

" ¡Que dolor tan hijodeputa!"

These are some of the cries that punctuated the steady chorus of salsa emanating from the plaza. Behind the ceremonial calabaza marched a hooded sect of apparent Satan worshippers and weeping "widows," chanting dark prayers into the warm night. At the head of the line, ringing a large funeral bell carried on a post by two satanic minions, Lerma and Ramírez called out to heavens, accepting occasional shots from onlookers impressed by their performance (as judged by the jesters' ability to produce genuine tears).

"Why, Devil? Why? Does it seem fair to you that after five nights with us, you leave us for no reason? Why?"

The devil didn't offer an explanation for his sudden, albeit not unexpected, departure. But he did deliver a lengthy closing speech reinforcing the values of joy and love just before his likeness—along with that of one of his wives, a 30-foot yellow demoness—went up in a billow of flame and black smoke in the heart of the town square.

"I may be gone," said the devil, speaking through yet another vassal. "But I inhabit each of you. And I will return."

Steven Cohen is a freelance journalist based out of Colombia and former editor of Colombia Reports.

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