Posted by: adventuressetravels | August 26, 2011

Petronio Alvarez: Pacific Pride and Joy

The band started, and as if with one mind the entire crowd started to move, every person undulating, dancing, and shaking to the music.  Hands waving multicolored pañueletas (handkerchiefs), everyone moving their feet, shaking their hips with reckless abandon, and singing along.  In Cali’s hot, humid, night air sweat poured down my face, soaked my shirt, but still I moved.  The electric energy of the night had me in its thrall.

“Ooh eee ooh ahh San Antonio ya se va.” Rarely had I seen such pure joy in my life as I had at the Festival of Petronio Alvarez.  It was like the music inspired a wave of caring, open-hearted, camaraderie.  Everyone wanted to help teach me the steps; it didn’t matter that I wasn’t Afro-Colombian, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t Colombian.  I was there, so I was a part of it – that was all that mattered.

Vendors pushed their way through the dense crowd of dancers, fourteen-year-olds selling Viche, Arrechon, Crème de Viche, tomaseca, and all types of alcohol native to Colombia’s Pacific Coast.   Others were selling chontaduro cake, borojo sweets, and all types of fruits, pastries, and foods I had never seen or heard of before in my life.  I couldn’t believe how little I knew about the culture of Colombia’s Pacific coast.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been to Colombia.  I thought I knew a far amount about Colombian culture, I knew about Cumbia, Vallenato, and music from the Atlantic coast; I loved arepas, bocadillo, empanadas, and lots of Colombian foods.  But all this – the food, the drinks, the music; it was completely foreign to me.

I am, however, not alone in this.  Music, food, and culture from Colombia’s Pacific coast are not well-known even among Colombians.  But this is what the Petronio Alvarez festival is trying to change.  Its goal is to preserve and promote this amazing culture and show the world how beautiful the Pacific coast really is.

The Festival Petronio Alvarez is a breathtaking celebration of Afro-Colombianmusic and the rich culture of Colombia’s Pacific coast.   One group after another takes the rotating stage, demonstrating all types of music from the coast, using marimbas (a musical percussion instrument), cununo (drums), guazá  (a hollow tube filled with seeds), violins, clarinets, and many different types of drums and vocals.  The music and dance are more reminiscent of traditional African music than anything else, and one of the main goals of the Petronio Alvarez festival is to preserve the music and the culture.

In the five days of the festival, almost 100 groups compete, each playing three songs for the judges and an enraptured audience.  These groups have spent all year practicing every moment of their spare time.  Pouring every ounce of their

energy into honing skills to make these three songs the best possible.  Many of these musicians have traveled to Cali by boat from tiny villages on Pacific Coast, trekked through jungles, and overcome great obstacles just to be a part of this phenomenal festival.  Everything has to be perfect.

And perfect it is: as the stage rotates every performer stands frozen in the

position he or she will perform in.  Pretty as a picture, the marimba player’s mallets are raised, the women’s voluptuous skirts stretched out to their fullest, the singer’s microphone is held poised before him.  Ready… ready… and suddenly with a cue invisible to the crowd, the song begins.

The women’s brightly colored dresses swish down in unison, the bright tropical rhythms of the marimbas resound throughout the arena, and the drums make the heart pound … you feel the music in your very soul.  It sweeps you away to a different land; to a world of jungle, ocean, and tropical paradise.   You cannot help but move to the music; keeping your feet still is impossible in that environment of energy.

“Wave your pañueletas!” the singer cries, and the arena explodes into a sea of shaking handkerchiefs.

Outside the Plaza del Toros, restaurants, vendors, artisans, and alcohol vendors line the streets, giving the festival a wonderful energy.  The year 2010 is the 14th of this event to preserve and promote Afro-Colombian culture, and it just continues to grow.  In fact, next year the festival is scheduled to be moved to a larger venue.

After the bands finish for the night, the festival is by no means over.  Flyers for after-parties plaster the arena.  Come to “Mik Asa” (a play on words mi casa, or

“my house”) with drink specials and promotions every night.  Come to this club, or that club, this street party, or the other.  More than simply a music festival, Petronio is a 5-day party, and people from Colombia’s Pacific coast really know how to party.

Whether its infectious energy, amazing music, warm people, or the flowing alcohol, this

is without a doubt the best festival I have ever attended.  As far as I am concerned, the Festival de Musica del Pacifico Petronio Alvarez and culture from the Pacific Coast are some of Colombia’s best kept secrets.  If you are anywhere near Cali, Colombia, mid-August do not miss this free 5-day amazing festival.


  1. One of your best.

  2. lindo Sally, creo que pasamos una experiencia unica en el festival, y se te extraña, gracias por tus palabras, creo que no puede nadie explicar mejor desde la mirada externa de esta cultura, lo que sucede en el festival.

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