San Basilio de Palenque is the oldest free black city in the Americas. Located about 90 minutes southeast of Cartagena, this powerful maroon community was founded in 1603 by Benkos Biohó. Born into a royal family in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, Biohó was later kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Spanish colony of Colombia. Given the royal leadership in his bloodline, it is no surprise that Biohó refused to accept his new civil status as a slave in a foreign land. Not only did he escape to freedom, he organized an army of soldiers that helped to free hundreds of other enslaved people. Under his leadership, Palenque was able to successfully defeat the Spanish who continuously threatened their community. Although Biohó was eventually betrayed and assassinated by the Spanish, the people of San Basilio de Palenque maintained his legacy and their land. In 2005, this historic community was recognized by UNESCO.
Palenque is a symbol of power, resilience, pride, and culture. Travelling through the streets of Palenque, I could not only feel the true essence of Colombia but also Africa. As an autonomous community that has been around for over four hundred years, it is a pinnacle of Afro-Colombian culture. Here are the top five things to do on your visit to Palenque:
1. Music and Dance
Experience the magic of cumbia. Commonly referred to as Spanish and Latin, these are in fact African rhythms brought to Colombia by African captives and enslaved peoples. You will find the traditional music and dance being performed by young and old alike. Some community members even sing in Palenquero, their native language.
2. Sweet and Savory Treats
Cartagena is known for palenqueras, the beautifully and colorfully-dressed women who sell fruit and homemade coconut candies. These women originally came from Palenque. In Palenque you will find these delicious sweets as well as savory foods reminiscent of West African and Caribbean cuisine.
3. Street Art
The community is full of houses and buildings painted with empowering mantras that represent the pride and legacy of Biohó. Many of the town’s newest pieces are dedicated to Afro Neto, a proud, young rapper and activist from Palenque.
4. Biohó Monument
You can’t visit Palenque and not pay homage to its founder Benkos Biohó. Located in the town’s center, it shows Biohó’s struggle for freedom.
5. Hair Braiding
For the people of Palenque, hair braiding is not just an African tradition. It was a tool used by their ancestors to escape freedom. Intricate codes and maps would be braided into the scalps of enslaved people to help guide them to Palenque. Amidst a historical climate of Colombia and Latin America’s racism, erasure of black contributions, and anti-blackness, hair-braiding is used as a way to celebrate blackness.
To set up your personalized and authentic tour of Palenque, contact Paletur Tour Company at +57 310 6822091.