Cartagena and San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia

There’s a whole lot to unpack in Cartagena. If you’re coming from the bus terminal, nearly one hour away from the city centre, you’ll pass through what most locals probably see: sprawl, traffic, markets, and your average non-descript Caribbean living situation. Honestly, parts of it reminded me of Guyana.

If you’re coming from the airport like I was (because bussing from Medellín would’ve taken 15 hours), you’ll see affluent suburbs. Follow the road and hug the coastline, and you’ll end up in Bocagrande, a neighbourhood of ritzy hotels (and only hotels) and some city beaches along a narrow peninsula. Seen from afar, you might be reminded of Miami like I was.

If you take a boat tour or come from a cruise, you’ll probably have visited or passed by the white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, with the downside of crowds and touts trying to rip you off for a beach chair, umbrella, drinks, and food. That too sounds a little familiar.

Those are all options though. What everyone comes to Cartagena for are the city walls, the colourful houses and balconies, the sense of being transported to another place… and another time.

Historic city centres have been prominent for multiple cities of this trip now. And like the others, this one’s a UNESCO Heritage Site too. But there’s just a different vibe to the place though, for better and for worse.

Primarily occupied by a walled city, Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533 as a trade port — which it still functions as today. (It was also defended by Castillo San Felipe, South America’s largest fortress, just across the bridge.) Back then though, it was about bringing precious goods back to Spain from places further south, like silver from current-day Bolivia. There was a lot of wealth here, and it’s evident in the well-preserved luxuries and status symbols of the past, from façades down to fancy door-knockers.

Of course, the Spanish were also bringing something into Cartagena besides rich people: religion and slaves. Holding one of the few Latin American courts of the Inquisition, Catholicism was imposed on the indigenous and African populations. The beautiful Palace of the Inquisition, now a museum, hides its brutal past from the outside. Through a discreet window on the outside, people could report others for heresies, which would lead to detention, sham trials, torture, and public punishment and humiliation in autos de fé — worst case scenario being burning at the stake. Predictably, this reporting system was often abused by slave owners against their slaves, often without any cause other than a personal grudge, calling their culture witchcraft as an excuse.

Aside from the museums and the cathedrals, today, the vast majority of the buildings in the walled city have been repurposed as hotels, tour agencies, international clothing, jewelry stores, and restaurants to serve the large tourists crowds, as this city draws the most visitors in the country including a ton of cruise ship traffic. The western side of the wall becomes packed in late afternoons, as everybody flocks to watch the sunset over the water. On the eastern end, there’s even an old bullfighting ring that’s been transformed into a ritzy mall.

All of this somewhat clashes with the meager local population within the walls, those that attend mass in the numerous cathedrals, and the odd buildings repurposed as part of a local university campus. Plazas and parks seem to be where local and tourist life intersect, and they’re rife with street food for all, but also an exhausting amount of touts. As one of the very few Asian visitors, I received a lot of grating Asian stereotypes but few other annoyances. In one instance when I walked around with two young European travelers from my hostel, we instead received three offers of cocaine within ten minutes, despite a pretty large police presence. It’s ugly, but it also must make it awfully weird to live here.

At the center of it all, unbothered by everything yet also unbothering to others, is a curiously constant presence — black women wearing eye-catching traditional dresses and carrying fruit on their heads. Some sell photo ops with tourists, some sit by the walls selling traditional sweets and fruit, and some do both and more. They’re iconic to Cartagena, yet…not exactly from Cartagena.

About an hour away by bus from the hour-away-already bus terminal, plus a motorbike ride down a dirt road, is the town of San Basilio de Palenque. Around 1603, a small group of escaped slaves led by Benkos Biohó decided to fight back against the Spanish, holding off every recapture attempt and inviting more and more escaped slaves to join their ranks. Moving everyone further inland, he founded the settlement of Palenque — so named for its walls — the first free black town in all of the Americas, signing a peace treaty with the Spaniards and winning eventual full recognition of their freedom. (Unfortunately, not without Biohó being captured and executed before the latter happened.)

Where Cartagena has a mix of Colombian ethnicities, from European to indigenous to black, here it’s practically all the latter in this little pueblo of 3500 or so. It’s also here where those fruit sellers come from. But it’s also here where some musicians I’ve been following of late, particularly of Colombian heritage, have been working and collaborating with the local scene, which is what brought me here in the first place. (Given that it’s a small town, everyone knows who they are.) Palenque has proudly preserved its culture and primarily-central African heritage since the start — for one, most everyone speaks Palenquero, a creole of Kikongo (from both Congos and Angola, where most lineages have been traced to), Spanish, and a bit of English, French, and Portuguese too for good measure.  It’s a rarity nowadays to see a non-Spanish language spoken widely in Latin America — I actually struggled a little to communicate with locals!

There’s traditional medicine, transposed from central African knowledge to the very different plants available by the Caribbean. Traditional religions, still practiced despite Catholicism being forced on the population as part of the peace treaty — the settlement has a church and it seems like the vast majority have either of the two surnames Casseres or Cassiani, adopted from the bishops. (In the case of my guide for the day, he had both.) The aformentioned music? Well, Palenque pioneered champeta, hosts an annual music festival in October, and is home to internationally influential groups like Son Palenque, Kombilesa Mi, and Sexteto Tabalá, led by the legendary Rafael Cassiani Cassiani, who casually waved hi to me from his porch.

Unfortunately for me, much else seemed inaccessible. There was no music around on the day of my visit, I only got to sample a little bit of the very coconut-heavy food, and while the townsfolk were welcoming, beyond the art, there’s few ways to truly delve into the stories it has to tell and culture to share without having a reason to stay for awhile. An interesting visit nonetheless, and one a fair bit under the radar — I only saw one other visitor all day. Whether or not they get visitors or entertain them seems beside the point: they have no trouble preserving their culture, they’re proud of it, they live it, and they themselves are even deemed a site of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

Back in Cartagena, the neighbourhood of Getsemaní seems to split the difference, with something for everyone. Free of the annoyances of the walled city, but packed full of art, photogenic alleys, low key restaurants and drinking holes yet also full of everyday residential life, I ended up spending most of my time there — if not looking up in the trees for sloths at the nearby Parque del Centenario. At night, the Plaza de la Trinidad explodes with activity, food, drink, music, and conversation — a true mix of visitors and residents alike.

It’s with food in particular, however, where I feel like I got the widest sampling of society in Cartagena, despite barely even leaving the old city. For the busy workers and students, a line of cheap and incredibly delicious ceviche stalls next to the bus stop, right in the shade. For the seniors and those dragging themselves through the stupor of the midday heat, there’s the shady diner, fans on full blast, serving up big helpings of fish. At night, whether you’re out on the town or you’re just with your family, well, there’s a dingier but more boisterous version of that. And for those who have a little money to spend… There’s the seven course tasting menu with seven wine pairings, at some of the top restaurants in all of Latin America. (Meeting up again briefly after saying goodbye in Salento, Mat and I picked just one, though we were certainly tempted for more.)

It’s been a whirlwind two weeks jumping around only so little of Colombia, a vast country with everything from deserts to mountains to the Amazon. Even the Caribbean coast alone feels like a whole country unto itself, especially with a much larger indigenous presence further northeast. There’s a lot I’ve missed out on, but rather than wishing for more time (which admittedly would be nice), I’m just satisfied with everything I did get to see and experience: everything I hoped for, with a sprinkling of surprise. Sure, I’m leaving the country by pulling an all-nighter and catching a flight at 4 am, but this whiplash is just part of the fun!

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