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San Basilio de Palenque is a small Colombian town about 100 km south of Cartagena. Founded in 1603, this little-known UNESCO recognized site is the home of the first free town of the Americas. While it may not be the most popular tour around the Instagram paradise that is Cartagena, it is certainly an important one to recognize Black and Afro-Latino culture. Taking a Palenque Colombia tour is a unique cultural experience!
As our van drove the quiet roads, I imagined what it would have been like for enslaved people to flee bustling Cartagena and make their way through the inhospitable mangroves. The road signs warned us to watch out for an eclectic mix of animals crossing the road: snakes, lizards, cows, caimans (alligators) and anteaters.
But yet, it was from this environment Palenque was able to survive and persevere. More and more formerly enslaved people found their way here, and the town became an oasis of African traditions and cultures, even while the surrounding area became what is now Colombia.
At one point in time, there were various palenques (Palengues) in the Cartagena region. Women from these towns would come to Cartagena to sell fruit and eventually became known as the iconic and photogenic Palenqueras. With a bowl of fruit on their head and a ruffled blue, yellow, and red dress, they are easy to spot. And no, no one actually dresses like that in Palenque. It’s all just for the tourists and you’ll be expected to pay for a photo with them.
Palenque is not a place to see famous monuments or enjoy great scenery. Instead, it’s a celebration of a unique culture that has persevered. It’s a celebration of resistance.
The moment we stepped off the bus, we were greeted with a party atmosphere of loud music that clashed with our expectations for a quiet Sunday morning. My feet started tapping, but looking at the 8 foot speakers, I wished I had brought earplugs!
The Palenque Language
We met our guide in Palenque and after a bit of obligatory dancing to the thumping music, he told us about the Palenque language. Because the people that lived here originally spoke a variety of African languages, these mixed with Spanish, Portuguese and French (the languages of the slave traders and of business in Cartagena) to create a new creole language. It is the only Spanish-based creole in the Americas. If you listen carefully, you can hear the Spanish and Portuguese influence.
The Palenque language was once endangered, partly because it wasn’t a written language. Nowadays, there is some revitalization and it is being taught in schools. Judging by the number of times our guide quizzed us and asked us “cumo kusa ta?” during the tour, it was clearly important to him to help keep it alive.
In 2005 after Palenque was declared a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, tourism and international development experts came to Palenque to develop the tourism industry and train tour guides.
Besides the palenqueras, another famous palenquero is Antonio Cervantes Reyes, AKA Kid Pambelé. He was born in Palenque and became Colombia’s greatest boxer and two-time world Junior Welterweight champion. We visited the gym where he trained and even got to put on gloves and get a hands-on boxing lesson in the ring.
The flag of Palenque is blue, green and black with an image of Benkos Biohó, the founder and self-proclaimed king. Biohó led the rebellion of enslaved people against the Spanish government and won recognition from the crown, making Palenque the first free town in the Americas. Years later the Spanish broke their promise and betrayed Biohó, executing him when he came to Cartagena.
Music and dance in Palenque
Drumming and dancing is an integral part of the cultural fabric of Palenque. Every year the Palenque Drum and Cultural Expressions Festival draws musicians from all over Colombia and the Caribbean to perfect their technique and celebrate. It has become a point of pride for Afro-descendentes in Colombia.
Champeta is the dance of the Cartagena region, made famous world-wide when Shakira danced her own version in the 2020 Super Bowl. We were treated to a performance by a small group of girls that could really move it. They giggled as they invited me to join them and politely tried to teach me without rolling their eyes. I asked one with long braids, “how did you learn to dance like this?” She shrugged and smiled, and her proud response was one that must have been said for many generations “Eso viene en la sangre”. It’s just in your blood.
The generational roots run deep here, with many still practicing spiritual beliefs that originated in Africa. The medicine man explained to us the many healing plants that are used in teas and how certains things are used in houses or on the body to protect against evil spirits. For those who chose to buy an overpriced bracelet, he performed a short ceremony, anointing the bracelet and the wearer with oil.
For lunch, we were led through a small house where a shirtless man lounged in front of the TV while numerous women loudly prepared our meal in the kitchen. We waited on the back porch and were brought typical costeña fare of fresh fish, rice and fried plantains. It was delicious, and we even ate soup with a totumo shell spoon!
Finding a tour
Visiting Palenque is an easy and inexpensive half-day tour from Cartagena. I paid $43 US for the Palenque Colombia tour, which included lunch. Tours don’t run very often, though, and all of the other tour groups we saw in Palenque were single families or small groups of friends. I was told by the operator in fall 2021 that they are currently only running Sunday tours because of the pandemic. The upside of Sunday tours means that traffic isn’t an issue, which was nice.
You can book a tour through a number of operators on Viator. Make sure to ask exactly what is included and what you’ll see, as another traveler I know went on a different palenque tour a few weeks later and it seemed quite different. You may pay less if you book within Colombia with a local operator. It’s always a good idea to make sure your tour has local guides and your money will be going to support the people of Palenque.
No matter what tour you do, you’ll enjoy seeing this eye-opening town and its amazing story of resistance!