Visit San Basilio de Palenque

Visit San Basilio de Palenque the first free town in the Americas

Located in the middle of the lush Colombian countryside, just outside Cartagena, lies San Basilio de Palenque, a vibrant community full of history and resilience. Considered the first free town established by enslaved Africans in the Americas.

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Visit San Basilio de Palenque

A history of resistance and freedom in Cartagena

San Basilio de Palenque, located near the city of Cartagena, Colombia, is known as the first free town in America. Founded by maroons or cimarrones in Spanish (Descendants of Africans in the Americas). Maroons are known as African slaves who escaped slavery during the colonial era, 16th Century. San Basilio de Palenque is considered a symbol of resistance and freedom, because it was the only town that the Spanish were not able to reconquer. San Basilio de Palenque is also a unique combination or blend of Indigenous, Spanish and African traditions, customs and influences. In this blog, we will explore the history of these historic people and their legacy in the fight against oppression and the preservation of African culture, language and gastronomy.

The community organizes itself into groups called "ma-kuagro

About San Basilio de Palenque foundation

History and origin

The origin of San Basilio de Palenque dates back to the 17th century, in the year 1603, when enslaved Africans (maroons or cimarrones) arrived in the Cartagena region. These Africans, coming mainly from the Bantu ethnic group, Scape from Cartagena de Indias and settled in the nearby mountains, being led by Benkos Biohó, the leader who managed the cross the way from the slave port of Cartagena and founded San Basilio de Palenque recognized as the “town of the maroons or cimarrones”. There, they formed autonomous communities known as palenques, which served as safe havens for runaway slaves. 

The journey through the Middle Passage was cruel, full of bad conditions, cruelty and overcrowded ships. To define the cost of the slaves they check the age, the gender and how strong the slave was. Strong women that were able to give birth were of higher value.

In 1713, San Basilio de Palenque was officially recognized as the first free town in America by the Spanish authorities. This recognition was granted through an agreement known as the “Peace Treaty of Palenque”, in which the rights and autonomy of the Maroon community of San Basilio were established. This historical milestone marked an important precedent in the fight against slavery and colonial oppression in the region. 

In 2005 UNESCO declared San Basilio de Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral Intangible Heritage of Humanity, because their culture and traditions have survived through the years intact. Gastronomy, societal organization, music, language, culture and medicine are unique and really special.

What is Palenque and why San Basilio de Palenque?

The name “palenque” comes from the Spanish word “palo,” that mean “stick”. This because these pieces of wood were used as murals to protect the lands taken by the cimarrones from wild animals that threatened their lives. Using the trees that surrounded them, they created walls with these sticks, forming stockades.

San Basilio de Palenque, being an Afro-descendant community, pays homage with its name to Saint Basil (Santo Basilio). During the process of evangelization, Palenque had to accept Catholic traditions, and its name was imposed by the Catholic Church. It is also believed that when this saint was transported to a near community it fell and was difficult to lift him again. The community believed this as a sign and decided to name their town San Basilio de Palenque.

On June 14th, the day of Saint Basil is celebrated, and in his honor, the community holds its patron saint festivities, with processions, music, food, and singing.

About the founder

Benkos Biohó African king who escaped slavery in Cartagena

Benkos Biohó (or Domingo Biohó) remains a revered figure in San Basilio de Palenque.  While details surrounding his life can be hazy, he is celebrated for his leadership and courage in guiding his people to freedom.  Today, his legacy lives on in the spirit of resilience that permeates the community.

Born in a very important family in Guinea Bissau, He was captured as a slave by Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. He was taken to Latin America and sold as a slave in the city of Cartagena de Indias.

In Colombia on 1599 he scaped and organized and army. With this army he was able to dominate the Montes de Maria, will he formed and network to reach information and create strategies to help more slaves to be free. 

The realty of Cartagena was unable to fight and defeat the Marons lead by Benkos, so they decide to offer a peace treat on 18 July of 1605. With this treaty they recognized the leadership and autonomy of Benkos. Spanish’s accept his entrance to city armed and in return the palenqueros stop receiving slaves running away, stop escape attempts and stop addressing Benkos as king. In 1619 the governor order the capture of Benkos while he was walking in the city and order his execution the 16 March of 1621. 

Strategies to scape and found Palenque

  1. Camouflaged Settlements: Fleeing from the oppression of Spanish colonizers, escaped slaves sought refuge in the dense jungles surrounding present-day San Basilio de Palenque. They ingeniously camouflaged their settlements, seamlessly blending them with the natural environment to evade detection. This strategic concealment provided crucial protection, allowing them to establish a clandestine community beyond the reach of their oppressors.
  2. Language as a Shield: Communication was key to preserving their freedom. The inhabitants of Palenque developed the Palenquero language, derived from Spanish, Portuguese, French, and African dialects. This linguistic innovation served as a shield, enabling them to exchange information and organize resistance without fear of interception by colonial authorities.
  3. Alliances with Indigenous and Other Maroon Communities: Recognizing the strength in unity, the people of Palenque forged strategic alliances with neighboring indigenous communities and maroon settlements. These alliances strengthened their defenses, facilitated trade networks, and provided mutual aid in times of need.
  4. Hairstyles as Disguise: Instead of relying on physical maps that could be discovered and confiscated by colonial authorities, fugitive slaves developed techniques to encode geographic information into their hairstyles. These “living maps” were created to represent important geographical features such as rivers, mountains, trails, and natural landmarks to reach the palenques

San Basilio de Palenque Today

Visit San Basilio de Palenque

Today, San Basilio de Palenque thrives as a vibrant community of approximately 4,500 inhabitants.  They have preserved their unique cultural heritage and the evidence is in their language, music, and traditions.  The town was declared a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, solidifying its global significance.


Special things about San Basilio de Palenque

Visit San Basilio de Palenque
  • Beyond its historical significance, San Basilio de Palenque a lot of special things like:
  • Traditional Medicine: At the time of the scape of the black cimaroons from Cartagena to Palenque they used different strategies to found San Basilio de Palenque and survive to the savage conditions of nature. The knowledge they had about the power of medicinal herbs was the most important strategy. Being able to identify the herbs and use them to heal wounds, mosquito bites, snakes and other animals, made them survive the long road to Palenque.

    For 400 years this town has maintained Traditional Medicine knowledge and today it continues to be used to combat certain diseases like cholesterol, diabetes and even fertilization problems. It is worth mentioning that in San Basilio de Palenque has never been detected a case of COVID due to a tea that was created with different types of herbs. The town continues to maintain these traditions and continues to teach new generations the power of traditional medicine and prayers.
  • Funeral Rituals: In Palenque there is a ritual called Lumbalú, this is a funeral ritual that is carried out from the night in which the deceased person is buried, accompanied by songs and dances. The Drum plays a super important role in this ritual since it is the instrument that is used to guide the soul of the deceased to the afterlife.

    Lumbalu is performed for 9 nights, honoring the 9 months of gestation. The purpose of this funeral is to purify the soul and guide them to find the way to return to Africa.

    It is important to clarify that Lumbalú is not performed on children, since they are considered pure souls, therefore it is not necessary to purify them. In the Palenquera tradition it is customary not to cry for infants since for them the belief is that they will not be able to rest in peace with crying.

    The cry that occurs is known as leco, and is an expression of pain that comes from the belly and simulates the sound of a turkey.

    The cemetery in Palenque is located at the entrance of the town since the souls of the deceased protect the community from any stranger who comes to visit.
  • Justice: There are no police. Palenque justice is governed by the maroon guards, which is a group of older people who are in charge of imparting respect in the community. It is this group of people who enforce the principles of the town. Therefore, there is no police presence in Palenque.
  • Social Organization: The palenquera community is divided into Kuagros, a group of people of the same age who live in the same area. These groups accompany each other throughout life and support themselves. Thanks to this support, the palenqueros can build their houses with the support of their colleagues or all work in the field to receive a common good. The Kuagros play an important role in funerals since they accompany the person who has lost a loved one, receiving both emotional support and financial support. In Palenque polygamy is still accepted, that is why in this town a man can have different home.
  • Gastronomy: Palenquera cuisine is the result of a fusion of African, indigenous, and Spanish influences, shaped by centuries of history and tradition. The dishes combine native ingredients with cooking techniques brought by African slaves and adapted to the environment and resources available in the region.
    Iconic Ingredients: Among the most emblematic ingredients of Palenquera cuisine are plantains, yuca (cassava), corn, fish, coconut, and a variety of spices and aromatic herbs. These basic ingredients are used in various ways to create a wide range of flavorful and comforting dishes. The cuisine from Palenque has gained great renown internationally. Palenque won as the best cookbook in the world, competing with 5,000 books at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2014.
  • BoxingBoxing in Palenque has been passed down from generation to generation as an integral part of Afro-Colombian culture. For centuries, it has been a form of physical and emotional expression. Boxing in Palenque is not only a sport, but also a form of resistance and self-defense. During colonial times, African slaves practiced fighting techniques to defend themselves against their oppressors. These skills were passed down and evolved over time, becoming an important part of Palenque’s pugilistic culture.

    International recognition: Over the years, several Palenquero boxers have achieved national and international recognition for their skills in the ring. Its success has contributed to increasing the visibility of boxing in Palenque and highlighting the importance of this sport in the community. An example of this is Antonio Cervante Reyes Kid Pambele world fight champion. He fought 106 fights in his career:

      • Won 91, 45 of them by K.O. 
      • Lost 12.
      • Drew 3.
      • He won two world titles: the first one in 1972, which he successfully defended ten (10) times until 1976. The second one in 1977, which he succesfully defended eight (8) times until 1980. 
      • Antonio Cervantes Kid Pambele, was the first Colombian who won a worldwide champion.


Palenquera Cuisine a World Award

From “bollos preñados” (stuffed cornbread rolls) to “cazabe” (flatbread made from cassava root), each dish is a testament to the resourcefulness and culinary creativity of the Palenquero people.


Cultural events in San Basilio de Palenque

Festival of Drums and Cultural Expressions of San Basilio de Palenque
  • Fiestas patronales de San Basilio the Palenque

Held annually in Junio 14th, the patron saint festivities of Palenque are held, in honor of San Basilio. An emblematic date for the community of San Basilio de Palenque. In this celebration, the inhabitants pay tribute to their patron saint, Saint Basilio, whose figure is venerated in the local church. During this day, festive activities take place, such as processions, traditional dances, music and cultural events that highlight the identity and history of the community.

  • Festival of Drums and Cultural Expressions (Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales de San Basilio de Palenque) since 1985: 

Held annually in October, the Festival of Drums and Cultural Expressions of San Basilio de Palenque is a celebration of the Palenquero heritage, a fusion of African and Colombian traditions that pulsates through the very soul of the community.

The festival is a grand homage to the drum, the heartbeat of Palenquero culture. The rhythmic beats of various drums, each with its distinct voice, echo through the streets, summoning the community to join in the festivities. These drums, passed down through generations, carry the stories, struggles, and triumphs of the Palenquero people.

The festival is not just about drums; it’s a vibrant tapestry of cultural expressions that showcase the richness of Palenquero heritage. Dance groups, adorned in colorful traditional attire, captivate onlookers with their energetic movements, each step a testament to their cultural identity. The air is filled with the melodies of Palenquero music, a unique blend of African and Colombian influences, as musicians strum guitars, blow flutes, and beat drums, creating a symphony that fills the soul. 

No celebration is complete without food, and the Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales is no exception. The aroma of traditional Palenquero cuisine wafts through the air, enticing visitors to savor the flavors of this unique culinary heritage.

How to support the community of San Basilio de Palenque.

Travelers can play a role in supporting the community by: 

  • Choosing responsible tourism: Opt for tours led by locals and that prioritize cultural sensitivity.
  • Supporting local businesses: Purchase handcrafted souvenirs and enjoy meals at family-run restaurants.
  • Spreading awareness: Share your experiences and raise awareness about the importance of preserving San Basilio de Palenque’s unique heritage.
  • Taking care of your staff and depositing the waste at the right place. 

Is San Basilio de Palenque worth visiting

Visit San Basilio de Palenque

Absolutely! San Basilio de Palenque offers a unique opportunity to experience a living testament to human resilience and cultural preservation. It’s a place where history comes alive, and visitors can gain a deeper understanding of Afro-Colombian heritage.


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