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Colombia celebrates donkeys in annual festival: NPR


During the annual San Antero Donkey Festival, beasts of burden compete in races, a rodeo and a beauty pageant.

Andrés Rios for NPR


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Andrés Rios for NPR


During the annual San Antero Donkey Festival, beasts of burden compete in races, a rodeo and a beauty pageant.

Andrés Rios for NPR

SAN ANTERO, Colombia — Colombians are proud of their culture — and their quirks. That’s why the country has annual festivals celebrating everything from coffee and flowers to a local version of the Jeep, kites, crabs and corn cakes.

But the country’s most bizarre ritual honors the humble donkey.

THE Burro Festival, or Donkey Festival, is a seven-day extravaganza in the town of San Antero on the Caribbean coast over Easter. It’s a mix of music, alcohol and burros adorned in outrageous costumes.

During the last celebration last month, some of the donkeys were dressed as corrupt politicians and local celebrities. Another wore shoes and socks on his clogs as well as lipstick, eye shadow and earrings, all topped off with a flower in his mane.

At one point, their owners paraded hundreds of pack animals through the streets of San Antero while bands played marching music and residents, sitting in lawn chairs and drinking beer and rum, applauded for the most extravagant costumes.


A donkey’s owner makes last minute adjustments before the costume contest at the annual Donkey Festival in San Antero.

Andrés Rios for NPR


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A donkey’s owner makes last minute adjustments before the costume contest at the annual Donkey Festival in San Antero.

Andrés Rios for NPR


People spend days and a lot of money making costumes for their donkeys. This family builds a small bus to place on their donkey for the costume contest.

Andrés Rios for NPR


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People spend days and a lot of money making costumes for their donkeys. This family builds a small bus to place on their donkey for the costume contest.

Andrés Rios for NPR

“San Antero is the land of donkeys,” exclaimed Eno Garcés, as he prepared his burro to participate in the festival’s beauty pageant.

All this fuss began a century ago in San Antero during a solemn Easter procession. It consisted of a single donkey carrying an effigy of Judas Iscariot, which was then burned in the town square for betraying Jesus, says Eustorgio Díaz, one of the organizers of this year’s festival.

Eventually, the event turned into a tribute to the donkey himself. Throughout Latin America, they serve as sure-footed beasts of burden for farmers who cannot afford trucks or motorcycles to transport their crops and supplies.


As the festival grows, people parade hundreds of donkeys through the streets of San Antero.

Andrés Rios for NPR


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Andrés Rios for NPR


As the festival grows, people parade hundreds of donkeys through the streets of San Antero.

Andrés Rios for NPR

“They carry our plantains. They carry our yuca,” Garcés says. “Donkeys are our vehicles.”

Another farmer, Leonardo Macía, adds: “They are like your children. You love them.”

Colombians even wax poetic about donkeys, which sometimes appear in the novels of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez.

Díaz, the festival organizer, takes out a sheet of paper and reads aloud one of his own poems, written from the point of view of a donkey who feels underappreciated.


The owners of this donkey attach a model of a Colombian bus to the top of their donkey for the costume contest.

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The owners of this donkey attach a model of a Colombian bus to the top of their donkey for the costume contest.

Andrés Rios for NPR


A mural for the 34th annual Donkey Festival held during Easter week in San Antero.

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A mural for the 34th annual Donkey Festival held during Easter week in San Antero.

Andrés Rios for NPR

“You only give orders that I must follow,” the donkey complains to his master in one of the verses. “Why can’t you be nicer?”

Roman Catholic Church officials have sometimes complained that the noisy, alcohol-fueled party made a mockery of Holy Week. In 1999, Mgr. Ramón Molina, bishop of Montería, the nearby provincial capital, chastised the mayors of several towns for participating in the Donkey Festival rather than religious services, and demanded that the date of the event be changed. He was ignored.

Díaz says there is a spiritual connection, pointing out that donkeys sometimes appear in the Gospels, such as when Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. “He didn’t ride horses or camels,” Díaz explains. “He took a donkey.”


The Donkey Festival attracts legions of tourists to San Antero, which has erected a statue in honor of the animal.

Andrés Rios for NPR


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The Donkey Festival attracts legions of tourists to San Antero, which has erected a statue in honor of the animal.

Andrés Rios for NPR

Another reason to draw attention to these animals is the impending shortage.

Industrialization and mechanization of agriculture reduced the demand for donkeys and led to a significant decline in the animal population in some parts of the world during the 20th century.

Animal rights organizations say the world’s remaining burro herds are now under threat from China, where the collagen in their skins is processed into a gelatin substance called ejiao, used as traditional medicine and in beauty products .

According to the UK-based organization Donkey Sanctuary, 5.9 million burros, mainly from Africa, Asia and Latin America, are slaughtered each year for China’s ejiao industry.


One of the highlights of the annual Donkey Festival is the costume competition.

Andrés Rios for NPR


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Andrés Rios for NPR


One of the highlights of the annual Donkey Festival is the costume competition.

Andrés Rios for NPR


Spectators at the annual Donkey Festival in San Antero watch the donkey races.

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Spectators at the annual Donkey Festival in San Antero watch the donkey races.

Andrés Rios for NPR

Colombian government agencies did not respond to NPR’s requests for data on the country’s donkey population. However, a 2021 investigation by InSight Crime, a research center focused on organized crime in the Americas, found that donkey skin trafficking was thriving on the Caribbean coast.

To help increase the animals’ numbers, Colombian scientist Juan David Montoya is working on a project to artificially inseminate female burros, known as jennies. Because of their reproductive physiology, the success rate is extremely low, he says, but he emphasizes that it is important to increase Colombia’s donkey population.

“Colombian agriculture is mechanized in flat areas, but many small farms are built on mountain slopes that are too steep for agricultural machinery,” he says. “You have to use traditional methods, and that involves donkeys.”


The owner of this donkey cuts his animal’s mane with scissors before the donkey beauty contest.

Andrés Rios for NPR


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The owner of this donkey cuts his animal’s mane with scissors before the donkey beauty contest.

Andrés Rios for NPR

Indeed, when the San Antero Donkey Festival begins, legions of farmers ride into town on their trusty burros after long days spent in the fields. They compete for cash prizes in events that range from a “donkey fight” contest to a braying contest in which owners imitate the sounds of their animals.

There is also a competition to name the most beautiful burro. Owners spend hours trimming their donkeys’ manes, clipping their elongated ears and brushing their coats before leading them down a dirt road in front of hundreds of spectators.

This may all seem a bit exaggerated.

But because they work hard, San Antero farmers insist that even the donkeys deserve their day. Or, in the case of Donkey Festival, a whole week.

NPR News

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