Standing proudly in Palenque‘s main square is a statue of a man breaking free from his chains and reaching out for his motherland, West Africa. This is the statue of Benkos Bioho, San Basilio de Palenque’s founder.
Sometime in the early 16th century – the exact date remains unknown – Benkos, a former king of the Republic of Congo, was captured and sold as a slave in Cartagena. Thanks to his transportation boat sinking along the Magdalena river, he managed to escape and set up an army with fellow runaway slaves and established the exile community of San Balisio de Palenque. Due to futile attempts to overcome Benkos’s army, the king declared a peace treaty, stating that the people of Palenque were free from slavery. However, the king soon violated this treaty by capturing and hanging Benkos in 1621. It wasn’t until 1691 that the Spanish Crown issued an official Royal Decree freeing all Palenqueros from slavery once again – this time, for good.
Fast forward to 1945; a boy named Antonio Cervantes was born in Palenque. Antonio – today known by his fighting name, Kid Pambelé – would grow up selling black market cigarettes and polishing shoes in Cartagena to make ends meet. What he didn’t know at the time was that, in just a few years, he would become one of the world’s most successful boxers, winning Colombia’s first world title in 1972 and defending his Junior Welterweight title 16 times; events that would make Cervantes a hero in the eyes of all Palenqueros, young and old, in years to come. Pambelé’s statue – posing in a fighting stance – stands proudly where his childhood home once stood just a short walk from the main square.
For the people of Palenque, hair braiding goes far beyond a convenient hairstyle – or, even, an African tradition. Back in the 16th century, braiding was used by Palenque’s enslaved ancestors as a weapon to fight for their freedom. During the time in which Benkos Bioho was rounding up troops to fight for Palenque’s safety, intricate maps and codes were being braided into the sculps of African slaves in Cartagena, in the hope that, if they managed to escape, they’d be able to find their way to the only safe haven available to them: San Basilio de Palenque.
Not many know this, but Palenque, being the birthplace of the ever-popular music genre called champeta, is home to some of Colombia’s finest musicians. Champeta legends, such as Charles King, Louis Towers, and Rafael Cassiani Cassiani, were all born in Palenque. Rafael Cassiani Cassiani still lives in Palenque today and welcomes visitors into his home, where he’ll tell you about his adventurous music career and, even, give you a little performance using the traditional musical instruments of the region.
Where Rafael Cassiani Cassiani is the old-school legend in town, Kombilesa Mi are Palenque’s new generation musicians. Formed in 2011, the Kombilesa Mi group have fused modern hip-hop with traditional champeta melodies in an attempt to appeal to the younger generation while keeping the rich Palenquero culture alive. Just like their forefather Rafael Cassiani, they reject computer-generated beats and instead use Palenque’s wonderful home-made instruments, such as the tambor alegre and marimbula. What sets them apart, however (and what has earnt them worldwide fame) is that they rap over the music in a mixture of Spanish and Palequero, an almost-forgotten Spanish-Creole language. To visit their studio, contact Alex at email@example.com.
Recognised throughout the world for its sensational West African-Caribbean fusion cuisine, you can’t leave Palenque without tasting the food. In fact, in 2014, a cookbook created by 14 Palenqueros called Kumina ri Palenge pa tó paraje (Palenquero Food for Everyone in the Palenquero language) was awarded ‘Best Cookbook in the World’ by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Beijing. Typical dishes include fried red snapper served with coconut rice and a mango salsa, potato and meat stews and cabeza de gato, a sweet-spicy mash made from green plantains, onions, garlic, red bell pepper, tomato and achiote. Most day trips to Palenque will include a traditional lunch.
For hundreds of years, the Palenquero language – used as a means of secret communication between slaves – was a weapon of resistance against unjust colonial powers and a source of cultural identity. Today it is only spoken by 3,000 people, and is considered the only Spanish-Creole language left in circulation in the entire world. With the vast majority of speakers being the older generation, the Palenquero language is in danger of being lost. However, since UNESCO declared the town one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, more efforts are being made to safeguard Palenque’s unique traditions. A guided tour with Palenque-native Diover Cassiani (firstname.lastname@example.org) starts off with a Palenquero welcome and quick creole lesson – give it a go!
Note: the best way to explore Palenque is on a day trip from Cartagena with a local guide, most of which will include everything mentioned above for a fixed price. Palenquelocals Diover Cassiani (email@example.com) and Alex (firstname.lastname@example.org) offer affordable day trips that can be organised by email.