San Basilio de Palenque

We had four nights/three days in Cartagena so we explored old town, checked out Playa de Bocagrande, the main beach in Cartagena and not worth the visit and then made a day trip to San Basilio de Palenque, the first “free town” for Africans in the Americas.

The free lands of San Basilio de Palenque were founded more than two hundred years before Columbia achieved independence from Spain. To this day their culture and traditions have remained intact which is why UNESCO declared Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.

The exact date of the foundation of the town is not known but it is immortalized by the statue of Benkos Bioho, a West African slave who escaped from Cartagena and with other escapees established their own settlement and were eventually given the right for freedom in a decree signed by the Spanish Crown.

We hired a driver in Cartagena and his fee included a guide in Palenque. It was extremely hot outside and we wandered around dog poop littered roads hearing about the history of this town of 4,000 people.

Many of the cultural practices from music, medicine, social and religeous beliefs have direct African roots that have thrived for centuries. Several walls throughout the village have colorful Bantu/Palenquero words painted on walls. Bantu, an African language has been mixed with Spanish to create the Palenquero language, one of 68 languages found in Columbia and the goal of the the painted walls of words is to keep the language alive and maintain it’s African roots.

Further along our walk through the village we stopped at an old house which was representative of the homes from about 100 years ago. One of the fascinating things we learned had to do with the braiding or cornrows that black women would do to each others hair. What appeared to be just braids served as maps and escape routes and tools of resistance. Benkos Bioho came up with the idea and no one would question or think that one could hide entire maps in their hairstyle so it was easy to to circulate them without anyone finding out about them.

We made a short stop at the local Shamans hut where we were told the village did not experience any Covid cases because all were given a drink concoction of eye of newt, no sorry, of natural herbs and spices grown locally. Like any shamans place there were mixtures and tinctures and drinks and powders for whatever ailed the human condition.

Our last stop was a small monument dedicated to a local boxer, Antonio Cervantes, aka Kid Pambele, a boxing world Jr. Welterweight champion in 1973 and 1976 born and raised in Palenque. A pride of his village and one of three well known boxers to have originated in this town.

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