In the valley of Sibundoy, located in the mountains of the department of Putumayo, the beginning of February marks a special time of celebration for the region’s indigenous communities—the Camëntsá, a unique ethnicity with a language all its own, and the Inga, the direct descendants of the Incas, whose empire once extended into this part of Colombia.

The festival of Bëtsknaté, also known as “The Big Day”, or “The Carnival of Forgiveness” is a time to celebrate the past, the present, and the future. Marking the beginning of a new year for the Camëntsá and the Inga, Bëtsknaté is also a time to celebrate the unique culture and heritage of the valley of Sibundoy, to give thanks for the bounty delivered by Mother Earth during the previous year, and to come together as a community in the spirit of reconciliation, peace and respect.

Bëtsknaté
The Bëtsknaté festival celebrates peace and forgiveness. (Photo by Gena Steffens)

The indigenous customs of the valley of Sibundoy long precede the town’s foundation in 1534. Over the course of several days, this normally quiet town is transformed into a colorful swirl of activity as centuries-old traditions are brought to life. Thousands take to the streets dressed in elaborate traditional costumes to partake in the music, dance and diverse ceremonies that characterize the festival, which draws to a close on Ash Wednesday.

Despite having been celebrated for hundreds of years, the event only recently gained attention when it was declared Cultural Patrimony of the Nation of Colombia in recognition of its deep cultural roots and commitment to the ideas of peace and reconciliation.

Travelling to this corner of the country is a great opportunity to experience one of Colombia’s least-visited regions. The few outsiders who have visited Sibundoy during Bëtsknaté consider the festival to be one of the most beautiful in the world. The allure is not just confined to the concepts it represents, or the incredible hospitality of the hosts—a large part of the attraction derives from the striking and colorful costumes, crowns, headdresses and instruments that are made by the Camëntsá and Inga, who are considered some of the most talented artisans in the country.

To express appreciation for Mother Earth’s generosity in the previous year’s harvest, the Camëntsá and Inga prepare traditional meals consisting of hominy, potato, corn, and meat in quantities large enough to share among locals, visitors from other communities, and even the few foreigners who find their way to this remote festival. Day and night, the festivities are fueled by thousands upon thousands of liters of corn-based chicha, an alcoholic drink made and enjoyed in diverse ways by indigenous communities all over the continent.

For the Camëntsá and Inga, however, Bëtsknaté is not just a time to dress up, play music, and drink chicha. Above all, it is a time for reflection and the propagation of their culture to younger members of the community. Knowledge and traditions are passed down through generations, with family lineage determining the role one plays in the festival.

Each garment and costume worn during Bëtsknaté carries with it a special significance related to the culture of the Sibundoy valley. The oversized hats of the saraguayes, for example, bear mirrors representing the deceit suffered by the ancestors of the Camëntsá and Inga, who were tricked into trading invaluable riches for mirrors offered by early waves of Spanish conquistadors.

“The mirrors on these hats are to remind us to be careful who we trust”, said William Jamioy, a member of the traditional authority of the Camëntsá.

The main day of the festival begins in a small settlement in the outskirts of Sibundoy. From behind an elaborate red wooden mask, the Matachín, who carries the responsibility of leading the festival, sets off towards the center of Sibundoy, ringing a bell to invite the rest of the community to follow behind. A great, colorful parade filled with music and dancing is formed, winding through the town of Sibundoy and eventually culminating at the central church for a special mass.

Revelers then gather by the thousands in the Plaza of Inter-Culturality, where in between music and dancing, a special ritual takes place between the community and its leaders, known as taitas. In a show of modesty and rectitude, members of the Camëntsá approach the taitas one by one to ask for forgiveness and advice on how to better themselves and their community in the coming year.

The active pursuit of reconciliation and the initiative to move forward as a community are disciplines we should all strive to practice, no matter where we find ourselves. As the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) prepare to sign a peace agreement after more than half a century of conflict, the need to cultivate the spirit of peace and reconciliation in Colombian society is more important now than ever.

To truly forgive—to stop blame and grant pardon—is a task that demands humility and a deep respect for others. Out of the innumerable unforgettable experiences to be had during the days of Bëtsknaté, the concepts of reconciliation and forgiveness that rest at its core are what make this festival so unique and commendable.

Members of the Camëntsá community, such as renowned artisan Magdalena Chicunque, take pride in what their ancestral traditions stand for. “To take critique from others and learn to grow, you have to be strong. That is why during the festival, we take turns asking for forgiveness and for guidance on how we can all improve in the new year.”