Colombia

Why A Palenque Tour is the Best Day Trip From Cartagena Colombia

If you are looking for the perfect day trip from Cartagena Colombia, then I believe you should look no further than a Palenque Tour. While the most popular day trips from Cartagena will take you to over-touristed beaches, a Palenque Tour will take you on a journey of discovery. A chance to learn about an entirely unique culture. An experience where an entire town greets you with giant smiles, excited to teach you about their tiny slice of South America. Let me show you why I think a Palenque Tour is the best day trip from Cartagena.

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Choosing a Palenque Tour

When you search Palenque Tour on Viator or other similar websites, you’ll find many different tour operators offering their own version. This makes it difficult to know which to choose. I ended up choosing a company called Beyond the Walls CTG for our day in Palenque. I found them on Airbnb Experiences and was drawn to their high ratings and the company’s stated overall focus on cultural tourism and social understanding. Wendy was our tour guide and it became increasingly clear throughout our day that she did have a unique bond with the community – a bond that enhanced our experience in Palenque. I’ll tell you more about that later in the post.

Now…on to our tour.

Going Inland

The first reason I think a Palenque Tour is the best day trip from Cartagena is that you go inland – into the Colombian countryside. This offers an entirely different perspective on Colombia’s Caribbean region from the one you see in central Cartagena. A chance to see the suburbs of Cartagena and then the surrounding green countryside dotted with smaller towns and waterways.

View from a car while on a Palenque Tour driving from Cartagena to San Basilio de Palenque

Colombian countryside near San Basilio de Palenque

And I’ll be honest here. It isn’t all scenic. You’ll work your way through some of Cartagena’s oil refineries for example. And you’ll also come across roadside trash. Lots of trash. Currently trash collection is a major issue in rural Colombia.

I personally don’t have any problem seeing all these various types of scenery. Any place we visit is never defined entirely by its touristic center, and I generally try to get a taste for outskirts as well. So for me, this was an advantage of the 90-minute drive to Palenque.

Let me also say here that Wendy transported us in her private vehicle – a midsized SUV. And again being honest, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with this at first. It was reasonably comfortable and air-conditioned, but I did expect a larger van and professional driver which are reportedly provided by some of the other companies (for the same tour price). I’m guessing this happened because our group was small that day – just me, Mrs TT, and one other traveler.

However Wendy was a focused driver and we didn’t experience any problems. And in retrospect, it was’t really much different than using Uber in Cartagena which we did all the time.

So Much Unique History

Sign at the entrance to San Basilio de Palenque with two brightly dressed girls greeting a Palenque Tour

Another reason I consider a Palenque Tour the best day trip from Cartagena is Palenque’s very unique history. We learned all about this history throughout the day. Wendy taught us some of it herself, but once we arrived in Palenque, we were also introduced to a local guide named Edwin (nickname Lempito) who joined us for the tour.

The First Free Town in the Americas

The town of San Basilio de Palenque started as one of several Colombian palenques in the early 1600s. Palenques were settlements created by runaway African slaves who’d successfully escaped the ruling Spanish in Cartagena. The runaways formed these palenques far from Cartagena, out in the densely wooded countryside. The most prominent slave leader was a man named Benkos Biohó. He organized both an army and an intelligence network to help facilitate all the escapees and help protect the palenques. A statue representing King Benkos, as he is sometimes called, stands prominently in San Basilio de Palenque’s main square.

Statue of Benkos Biohó with a local girl in traditional dress

A key feature of the intelligence network was the method developed to help guide the runaway slaves to the palenques. The maps were woven into the hair of female slaves in Cartagena, as illustrated inside the town’s museum.

Display of hair braid maps at museum in Palenque

Ultimately an agreement was reached between the Spanish and Benkos Bahió. The Spanish agreed that the slaves living in San Basilio de Palenque could have their freedom, if he agreed to stop encouraging other slaves to escape. The agreement created the first black free town in all of the Americas. Sadly, Bahió was later executed in Cartagena due to a double-cross by the Spanish, but San Basilio de Palenque remained free.

UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site

Nowadays, San Basilio de Palenque has been placed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Not only is it the only surviving palenque from Spanish colonial times, but this small community of about 4000 people has managed to maintain its African identity over the centuries.

One important example of this heritage is Palenquero. This is the language of Palenque. It’s a mix between several African dialects, Spanish, and Portuguese. It’s only spoken by about 7000 people. It is considered an endangered language, but is now being taught again to the town’s children at school in a renewed effort to preserve it.

We even received two different quick Palenquero lessons on our tour, including this one with our local guide Lempito at a colorful word wall near the town square….

Local tour guide points to sign displaying words in Palenquero language on a Palenque Tour

This Palenque Tour (and others like it) gives the residents of San Basilio de Palenque a chance to share this proud heritage with anyone who wants to learn.

Everyone is Friendly and Welcoming

And that’s another reason that a Palenque Tour is the best day trip from Cartagena. It seems like the whole town is involved in your day. In fact, upon arrival in Palenque, we sat inside a small open-air restaurant, and a Palenqueno named Nuno (picture below) formally welcomed us to the town. Nuno told us specifically that we were not on a tour, but that we were experiencing a culture. And that members of the community were excited to share this culture with us.

A local tour guide gives language tips on a Palenque tour in Colombia near Cartagena

And look at that smile on Nuno’s face. That’s one of the things that I will remember about Palenque most. Everyone was smiling! Big smiles!

A smiling street vendor in traditional clothing in San Basilio de Palenque

Everyone seemed so genuinely happy to see us. In fact, as soon as we first arrived and exited Wendy’s car in the town square, an elderly man with a toothless smile approached Mrs. TT, shook her hand, and welcomed her.

Here’s a (sun-glared) photo of our smiling guide Lempito standing in front of a mural featuring the big smile of a local musician and cultural leader. Lempito wasn’t posing for the photo. I just snapped it…he was always smiling. And the words on the mural? We are happy today because smiling is our own medicine.

A smiling tour guide pointing to a smiling mural on a Palenque tour in Colombia

I’ve Never Been Anywhere Like This

One more reason that a Palenque Tour is the best day trip from Cartagena is the town itself. It’s very unique. I’ve never quite come across anything like it in my travels so far. Here’s a look at what we saw while walking about.

This is the main road into town and some of the brightly painted buildings and restaurants lining the town square…

San Basilio de Palenque Colombia colorful town square

Some roads are paved. Some are still made from dirt. And you’ll see various animals roaming about….

A pig in the streets of San Basilio de Palenque near Cartagena Colombia

Or kids riding by on horseback…

Two kids on horseback in the streets of San Basilio de Palenque near Cartagena Colombia

But then even along the dirt streets, you’ll see lots of large colorful murals.

A colorful mural along the dirt roads of San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia

Wendy told us that all this street art is intended to celebrate figures important to the town. As a reminder, especially to the kids in town, that Palenque and its culture should be celebrated.

A street side mural in San Basilio de Palenque Colombia

The Various Stops on our Palenque Tour

As we walked through the town, learning about its past and its modern history too, we made several stops at various properties throughout the town. Here’s a look at those.

The Simankongo Museum House

This is one of the oldest houses in town, built 94 years ago. It was constructed in the traditional way using mud, sand, and cow dung. It is now a museum showing visitors what traditional life was like in Palenque, including a look at the typical indoor kitchen and oven…

Kitchen inside the Simankongo Museum House in Palenque

And a look at the outdoor kitchen as well, where we were shown how to grind corn the Palenqueno way. We were even allowed to try it ourselves….and those giant wooden pestles were heavy. Mrs TT and I mostly made a mess – very little corn was crushed by our inexperienced arms.

Pounding corn at the Simankongo Museum House in Palenque

A Boxing Legend

Colombia’s most famous boxer is from Palenque. His name is Antonio Cervantes. His nickname was Kid Pambele. And he was the world light welterweight champion for a good part of the 1970s.

Statue in San Basilio de Palenque in honor of boxer Antonio Cervantes

As we stood next to his statue, we learned that his fame reaped great rewards for the town of San Basilio de Palenque. As each championship year passed by, the Colombian government would ask him what kind of reward he wanted for bringing fame to the country. Instead of a personal reward, he asked that services be brought to his hometown instead. Rural Colombian towns were very much ignored by the government then (and as the piles of roadside trash suggest – even now). One year he asked for a health clinic. Another year an improved electric grid. Etc. Understandably, he is a hero to Palenque for more than one reason.

We were given the chance to go into the nearby gym for a boxing lesson, as boxing is still very important to Palenque. However, I will admit all three of us 50+ year old tour participants declined. And yes, I now regret it.

A Doctor’s Visit

We also visited with Pedro – the town’s natural medicine doctor. He taught us about some of the herbs commonly used in Palenqueno natural medicine. He also gave us a cup of tea designed to protect from COVID as he explained that COVID never significantly affected the town. And we tasted the local sugarcane-based distilled spirit that had been marinating with a variety of herbs.

Natural healer discussing herbs as part of a Palenque Tour near Cartagena Colombia

Pedro also offered us each the chance for an individual blessing. And of course we couldn’t pass that up.

For $5 USD, we chose a bracelet from a nearby table. He then used a special oil, applying it to the bracelet, while asking us a series of personal questions – birthdate, name, etc. With each answer, he would repeat it in Palenquero and tap the oil into the bracelet. Then he applied some to our hands and instructed us rub it onto our heads as he finished the blessing.

As I understood it, the purpose of the blessing was to offer us protection from harm and bring us good luck. Definitely worth 5 bucks.

Natural healer applies oil to wrist of a tourist in Palenque Colombia

Learning About RFP

But my favorite stop on our Palenque tour was at Possa Ri Kombilesa Mi. This a music school for local kids and also the headquarters for Palenque’s homegrown band – Kombilesa Mi.

Lempito explained to us that Kombilesa Mi plays their own unique type of music called RFP. This stands for Rap Folkloric Palenque. And the members of Kombilesa Mi have become ambassadors for Palenque as they share their music around the world. They have toured the United States and Africa. They’ve played at the Kennedy Center. They’ve been featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk series (you can watch them on this YouTube link). And they will be playing in New Orleans this Spring at that city’s great music festival – JazzFest.

Musical instruments and posters inside Palenque's music school

And Lempito had plenty of first hand knowledge about Palenque’s famous band. Turns out he is a member! In the photo below, Wendy points him out on the group’s poster as he shyly turns away from the attention.

The best part of the stop here was our own musical adventure. We each were told to choose an instrument while Lempito played drums. Then one of group’s two lead rappers named KR also joined in for a jam session (she is also one of the school’s directors). They set the rhythm for us and then both rapped along as we banged on things. Below is a blurry screen grab from the video Wendy took of my marimba debut. It was a lot of fun!

You may have noticed all the signatures covering every space on the walls and ceilings of the house – all from visitors that have come through. I happily added The Thorough Tripper to the collection.

More Music…and Dancing Too

Our impromptu RFP jam session wasn’t the only musical experience on our Palenque Tour. Music and dancing is a very important part of Palenque’s African cultural heritage. After we made our various stops throughout the town, we returned to the restaurant where our tour had started. Here we were treated to more music. And since this was an immersive cultural tour, we were strongly encouraged (but not required) to participate.

A female dancer and drummers perform traditional music as part of a Palenque Tour near Cartagena Colombia

First, Liyibeth treated us to a traditional song and dance, accompanied by Luis and Lempito on the drums.

Followed by an invitation to join in….

Tourists taking part in a dance in Palenque near Cartagena Colombia

Mrs. TT was great. But I’m pretty sure Liyibeth has turned away to hide her laugh at my attempt.

Then Lempito handed us his drum. Luis gave us a quick lesson, set a rhythm for us, and then offered us the chance to try and keep up with him. Great fun!

A tourists learns to drum while on a Palenque Tour in Colombia

One of the Best Meals of Our Entire Trip

While we were having this fun out front, the restaurant’s cook named Yuli was back in the kitchen preparing our lunch for the day. We’d all given our orders when we’d first arrived into town, and were given entree choices that included either fish, chicken, pork, or vegetarian. Frequent readers will probably guess that I chose fish (after all, most of my favorite food posts like this one from Lisbon Portugal are skewed heavily towards seafood).

At one point during the front-of-house activities, I walked to the back of the restaurant to use the restroom. Along the way, I discovered Yuli in the open air kitchen cooking our food, and couldn’t have been more pleased with what a saw.

She grabbed a whole Mojarra fish with a stick and then placed it into an oil-filled cast iron pan sitting atop an open flame. Awesome!

A restaurant cook showing the fish she is about to fry in San Basilio de Palenque

A restaurant cook places a Mojarra fish in a cast iron pot in San Basilio de Palenque Colombia

Once everything finished cooking, we were served. This meal of whole fried Mojarra served with rice and tostones (smashed fried plantains) was one of the most common local dishes we ate during our time in Cartagena. It’s called Mojarra Frita.

A plate of Mojarra Frita in Colombia

It’s classic Caribbean Colombian cuisine. And this was by far the most flavorful version I ate during our entire trip. This certainly had something to do with the traditional method still used in Palenque to cook it.

A Special Connection

As we ate, Wendy told us a little more about her own connection with Palenque. She’s not only guides tours – she is an attorney too. And the Beyond the Wall CTG tour company is committed to helping small business grow in San Basilio de Palenque by offering low-cost consulting and legal services. As we walked around Palenque, it was obvious that Wendy had a deeper relationship with many of the people we met. I think this is another good reason to consider booking your tour with Beyond the Wall CTG.

Final Thoughts on our Palenque Tour

After that delicious lunch, we said goodbye to all our new friends in Palenque and loaded back up in Wendy’s car for the 90 minute drive home. Our tour began at 8am in Cartagena and we arrived back at our starting point around 3:30pm

On our way back to Cartagena, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a great day it had been. When I first booked the tour, I was concerned that the whole experience might end up being a little too touristy, as many “cultural experiences” sometimes are. Like a lot of Hawaiian Luaus can be, for example.

However, this was absolutely not the case. Instead we witnessed an entire community coming together to share their unique culture as part of a greater effort to help preserve their unique culture.

This particular day trip from Cartagena Colombia ended up being one of the best day trips we have ever taken. Thank you to all our new Palenqueno friends in San Basilio de Palenque!

If you would like to read about another fun experience we had while in Cartagena, then check out this post:

A Great Cooking Class in Cartagena at Lunatico

Or if you would like to learn about some of our other favorite cultural experiences from around the world, then be sure to check out these posts:

Learning to Drink Mate in Buenos Aires

Lisboa Em Fado – A Glimpse into the Portuguese Soul

A Cooking Class in Seville Spain

6 Comments

  • Sasha

    Sounds like all the necessary ingredients for an unforgettable adventure- sharing music, dance, food, medicine men and laughter with the locals!

      • Alexia

        it’s literally 3 am currently and I am still on a spiritual high from this tour. Wendy was also our tour guide and I also had an opportunity to meet nuno and Lempito. I stumbled upon this post as I was attempting to remember how to say specific words in the palenque language to post as an Instagram caption and I am so happy that I did. The connection I feel for this village and its history is so strong, I am tearing up as I type this. Thank you for articulating your review so eloquently. I will absolutely do this tour again and revist my friends at the palenque, god willing!! 10 out of 10 and the highlight of my entire stay in cartagena!

        • thethoroughtripper

          Thanks so much for sharing your experience Alexia. It was certainly the highlight of our trip as well! Cartagena visitors need to go!

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