Visiting San Basilio de Palenque
Visiting San Basilio de Palenque is something that you shouldn’t miss when you visit Colombia.
Especially true if you visit Cartagena, as it is very easily visited from this very popular destination in Colombia. It is a fascinating place that has a lot to offer both historically and culturally. It was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. An honor that is not easily given unless warranted, which is more evidence why visiting San Basilio de Palenque is well worth it. Below details of what to do, where to stay, where to eat, what to pack, when to go, etc!
For a brief recap on the history, Spain colonized Colombia in 1500´s. It began bringing kidnapped slaves from Africa to Colombia for free labor. In the 1600s runaway slaves, led by Benkos Biohó, founded the town of San Basilio de Palenque. It became the first town that was free of slavery in the Americas. It is a very small town that only has around 3,500 inhabitants and the town itself is not noteworthy. However, the history of this town and its inhabitants is what makes it truly remarkable.
For starters, the language, known as ‘Palenque or Palenquero’. It is heavily influenced by the African countries of Congo and Angola. It also has a bit of Portuguese in the mix as it was the language spoken by the Portuguese who enslaved them and brought them to the Americas. What’s amazing is that the language has survived all this time! It is still spoken by the inhabitants of the town, despite the language of Colombia being Spanish. Along with the language, they also brought their rhythms and dances of Africa. This gave way to styles of music and dance that has influenced Colombian music and culture in a big way.
How to get there
Visiting San Basilio de Palenque is easy as it is just 50km/30 miles and a little less than 1 hour away from Cartagena. You can reach it by private taxi or by bus from the Cartagena Bus Terminal where buses run often (10.000 COP/2.50 USD). Tell them you are going to San Basilio and they can leave you at a junction where you can take a 10 minute motorcycle taxi for 4.000 COP/1 USD from there to the main square of the town. The motorcycle taxis and also order a car-taxi to take you.
When to Go
It is always interesting to go, but special dates for visiting can be visiting in October. This when their biggest cultural festival takes place. The festival has music and dance and cultural expressions called Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales. This would be the ideal time for visiting San Basilio de Palenque as it will be at its cultural peak.
Where to Eat
Donde Juana is a famous restaurant where you can find affordable typical dishes. If you are lucky enough to be there during season, try the famous local dish of “Bledo or Bleo.” It is a local and seasonal leafy vegetable that is cooked and often mixed with a meat or fish. Vegetarian options are rice and beans with salad, for 10.000 COP with a drink and dishes with meat or fish are between 15.000-20.000 COP.
Other nice things to try are: the cocadas (locally made sweets made of coconut and other fruit). Or to cool off from the heat you can also have a local flavored shaved ice concoction called a “Raspao.”
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What do do
Visiting San Basilio de Palenque is not complete without doing the following:
1. Visit the main square in the heart of the town and check out the monument honoring the towns founder Benkos Biohó. It is the also a great place to people-watch and see daily life.
2. Visit the Casa Museo museum to see some of the photographs and simple exhibits to learn more about the history, culture and life of the inhabitants of this town through the years. The hotel is maintained and run with the donations of visitors.
3. Visit the Cultural Center, Casa de la Cultura Graciela Salgado Valdez to see or find out about music and dance offerings while you are there. They will be able to tell you about the happenings in the town.
4. Visit the house of El Maestro Rafael Cassiani, a living legend. He is one of the founders and last existing members of the famous musical group, Sexteto Tabalá. Sadly, he is getting older and won’t be around forever. His house has a sign outside and you can almost always go in to greet him and talk to him. If you are lucky you can catch a rehearsal of the group where he still sings.
5. Check out the beautifully painted murals scattered around town. They make for a great excuse to explore.
What to Pack
-Sunblock and a hat as there is not a lot of shade in the town and the sun can be quite strong.
-Bring Cash. Credit cards are not accepted in town. There are no ATMs.
– Bring your camera and best attitude to soak up the culture and history of this place.
Where to Stay
There are options ranging from authentic homestays at ‘Posadas’ within town to proper hotels. The more comfortable option is at the friendly mom and pop run Granja del Abuelo Elias. It is 10 minutes away from the town on the main highway and has a swimming pool. It is a great option for families as they have a farm theme park setting with animals and fun for the whole family.
In Conclusion, Visiting San Basilio de Palenque is something you shouldn’t miss out on. It was the first town free of slavery in the Americas and is a cultural gem. It has preserved its history, culture and even language for over 400 years. Come for the people. To hear first hand about their past, present and be a part of their future. Visiting San Basilio de Palenque is like visiting an African town in Colombia, which makes for a beautiful experience.
History and General Information:
Beautifully made video talking about the local dish, Bledo: