At the last minute before leaving the states, my indecisiveness kicked in. I had been doing a lot of research after I booked my flight to Medellin when I stumbled upon an article about Cartagena. I managed to find a cheap flight from Medellin to Cartagena and left on Saturday, returning on Tuesday. I arrived in Cartagena and it was time to explore!
San Basilio Palenque
As soon as I grabbed our bags, I scanned the crowd in search of Alex, the tour guide for San Basilio Palenque. He was a tall, slender man with smooth dark skin and spotted me right as I moved forward towards the end of the curb. I hopped on the bus and before the others would join for the tour, I took this opportunity to ask Alex a few questions – inquiring about a few things that I saw along the way. It wasn’t long before the bus was filled with people: two ladies from Florida and a small group of boys from an Atlanta charter school.
San Basilio Palenque was an hour away, but Alex stopped along the road to allow us to experience the delicacies of the area. The first was a dome-shaped object with a soft and fleshy inside. I immediately assumed it was cheese with an egg yolk because of the taste and the consistency. We weren’t allowed to ask what it was because Alex knew people were going to have reservations about it. I didn’t mind as I am always down to try new things and pop an Immodium or Pepto if need be. After everyone took a bite, Alex shared that we were eating iguana eggs. *Updates Bucket List.*
We arrived in the town of Palenque, immediately greeted by the locals. Alex is quite well known so everyone in passing exchanged handshakes and dabs and hugs. It felt good to be on a tour with someone who was so well-respected and an honored member of the community. Our short walk led to a dance school where we witnessed a performance by a group of young boys and girls. We were even invited to participate towards the end. My desire was to just remain seated and observe, but my 12-13 yr old dance partner insisted that I not. When in Palenque…
I’m happy that I did. I’m happy that I was able to participate, even though my Western views and ways of thinking almost prohibited me from doing so. But now when I tell the story of how I visited the town established by African slaves, known as the first free town of the Americas, I can say that I participated in a cultural dance sacred to the Palenque community.
I can say that I purchased a few sweets from a Palenqueras woman, supporting her entrepreneurship. Witnessed a jam session with the artist of all the beautiful murals around the community. Received the smile of a beautiful baby named Africa. Witnessed an impromptu soccer game. Witnessed how the people of Palenque celebrate Holy Week. Met the principal of the community’s school. I can say that I was a part of the connection—-the union—-of the African diaspora. I could say that a part of me was home.
Getsamani & The Walled City
Not too far from Bocagrande, where I was staying, was Getsemani. Located right outside the Walled City, Getsemani is a gorgeous, quaint area filled with beautiful murals, beautiful homes, and greenery everywhere. Children freely ran through the streets, the locals are hanging about, and on almost every corner, there is someone selling the freshest fruit and amazing fresh squeezed juice.
Walking around the city and taking the sights was an experience in itself. I immediately regretted not booking accommodations in this area as this was my first choice. Not doing so definitely made me feel as if I had robbed myself of a more authentic experience thinking I’d be “safer” in a tourist area. Nevertheless, I took all that I could take in while there. Even the animals roaming the streets were friendly.
Hanging out around the Walled City reminded me a lot of my visit to Cuba. In Cuba, Cubans would be lined along the Malecon, playing music, dancing, buying street food and art from vendors walking along the wall, etc. Being in this area in Colombia reminded me of that.
Bocagrande was where I resided for the bulk of my time in Cartagena. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but it was exactly what I booked. I decided on a tourist area because my thoughts on visiting Colombia, in general, were clouded with precaution. In this area, the food was pretty decent. I managed to find a restaurant based on the fact that it was closest in proximity after being completely over the humidity, the heat, and the wind. La Diva ended up being the go-to spot for quick meals.
I was surrounded by buildings touching the sky everywhere I looked. It was reminiscent of South Beach, a place that I had written off back in 2015 after a layover from Puerto Rico. Sure, it was surrounded with Colombians, but I was yearning for a more historic setting while in Cartagena.
The beach was close by but often crowded. I didn’t expect it not to be since my time in the country was during Holy Week. Nevertheless, finding a spot on the beach that was empty wasn’t too much of a daunting task, quite easy actually. I also found a trio of Afro-Colombians selling mango and other fruits native to the city. Marco offered me a seat and we did our best to converse even though the language barrier was quite apparent. Still, I successfully made a connection with him, his compadre, and his wife. And any time I can make connections like that, I’m satisfied.
My last day in Colombia was spent here rather than soaking up the sun in Playa Blanca. And it may not have been as scenic, but the sunset definitely made up for it.
If I had to choose between Cartagena and Medellin, I’d definitely have to go with Medellin. Or, maybe I’d have a different opinion if I would have stayed in an that was less touristy. When I travel, I’d prefer to stay in places that are surrounded by locals. I’d prefer to be right in the center of the hustle and bustle of their everyday life. And while in Bocagrande, I wasn’t. But that isn’t to take away from the beauty that Cartagena has. But as always, that’s enough reason for me to return.