The first freed slave town in the Americas isn’t where you think it is. I recently led a small group of travelers to this historical place and had the best cultural experience of my life.
If I were to ask you:
“Where was the first freed slave town in the Americas?” What would be your first guess?
If you went with Palenque, Colombia you paid way more attention in world history class than I did.
More on this fun fact later.
To those of you that know me, you may know that I’m a first-generation American from parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia and Ecuador.
So naturally, I was ecstatic when the opportunity to take a trip to Colombia presented itself.
I was lucky enough to take a family trip to Bogota, Colombia when I was 12 years old. The trip was family focused and my biggest takeaway at that age was being able to bring home my very first puppy (yes, I have a Colombian pup called Toby).
This time around I was in my early 20s and was determined to soak in every detail of the country’s history, culture, beaches, and of course nightlife…
From everything I read, watched, and listened to leading up to my flight to Cartagena I knew that I was going to fall in love with this city. How can I not?
I’m flying into the safest, most visited, arguably most beautiful city in Colombia, AND I’m Colombian.
Well, needless to say, at the end of my trip I didn’t want to leave this city. The colonial architecture blended with Caribbean vibes. The street performances of dancing, singing, & rapping, and the impressive history that makes you wish the streets could talk.
A Welcomed Surprise
Outside of the nightlife, food, and beaches, what ended up being my favorite part of the trip was the cultural experience I was fortunate to be a part of.
I’ve played soccer with children in Costa Rica, learned about the struggles women entrepreneurs face in Nicaragua, and have been blessed with the spirit of the mountains by a Peruvian Shaman.
I’m grateful for all of these experiences because they’ve truly helped to shape my world-view.
What I experienced in Palenque
The cultural experience in Colombia was unlike anything I’ve experienced in all my travels.
The day started off with a 1.5-hour drive from Cartagena to Palenque on some true “off the beaten path roads”.
Our Palen-tour guide, Danillo greeted us when we arrived in the center of town.
Danillo was one of the proudest, well-spoken, individuals I’ve ever met. He greeted us and took us into his family home to begin the tour around his community.
What followed blew my mind. The man spoke like a poet. The passion in his voice as he spoke about his community, culture and people is something I can’t do justice explaining in writing.
I wish I had thought to record Danillo’s speech so I could remember every detail of what he said but one of the takeaways was that the Palenque people pride themselves on the immaterial in every aspect of their culture.
UNESCO recognized Palenque as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
As our tour began around Palenque it seemed as if every building, person, and structure had meaningful history behind it.
Danillo was poetic in how he described the impact that some of the people had on their own community.
Following the tour, we enjoyed one of the best meals I had while in Cartagena.
Everything was cooked and grown in Danillo’s backyard and prepared specifically for our group. We ate our meal with traditional “plates” and “spoons”.
Some of Palenque’s most talented and globally recognized musicians treated us to a private performance after lunch.
Rafael Cassiani is in his 80s and has traveled around the world spreading Palenque’s unique blend of music. He’s one of the most respected and admired individuals in the community.
Kombilesa-Mi is working hard to get Palenque-style rap recognized by the world. So far they’ve toured around the U.S. and have their music featured on some premium music streaming sites.
They practice every day and the whole community comes out to hear their performances and support their music.
Even the local children join their practices as part fans and part backup dancers.
Palenque was truly an extraordinary place.
If you’re ever in Cartagena this should be at the very top of your list of things to do because you’ll walk away astounded by the pride and history of this small community that began as a group of escaped slaves in the 17th century.
Thank you Danillo, Kombilesa-Mi, Rafael Cassani, and all of the proud Palenqueros we met that day for an experience I will never forget.