Things I Learned About Black History In Colombia

I decided to spend my birthday last fall in Colombia, on a whim. It’s still one of the best trips I have ever taken. It would be a challenge to pinpoint what I enjoyed most, but it’s probably what I learned about Black history in Colombia.

We took several day trips to nearby cities and islands around Cartagena. One of the day trips was to visit San Basilio de Palenque. A little town about an hour and a half away. From my TikTok research, was drawn to this area because of the Black Lives Matter murals. Along with women in colorful dresses, also known as Palenquerias.

Black History In Colombia
Photo by Anette Bratteberg on Unsplash

As we got closer to the village, the landscape changed. It went from the highway to two-lane streets to dirt roads. Driving into the town reminded me of spending time in the country with my grandparents as a child. As you’d see in the country towns, folks were casually gathered on porches of older homes. Some were chatting, and others were doing their hair or waiting to greet one of the children passing by. As strange as it sounds, it felt so much like being home. Even though I was in a place I had never visited, everything felt familiar. Something about being in a foreign country and seeing a reflection of myself: skin filled with melanin, box braids, and hoop earrings, brought immediate joy to my soul.  

Black History In Colombia
Ronny in Cartagena, Colombia

San Basilio de Palenque

Getting out of the car, I encountered the first lesson of Black History in Colombia. We were greeted by a sign proclaiming San Basilio de Palenque as the first free town for Africans in the Americas. As their history goes, former African king Benkos Bioho founded the village in the 16th century. Bioho was sold into slavery and later escaped the slave port of Cartagena in 1599. Fleeing from his captors into the swamps to the south of Cartagena. He eventually formed an army of other escapees who conquered the area around the Montes de María. 1691, the Spanish Crown issued a royal decree officially freeing the Africans in Palenque from slavery. This made them the first free Africans in the Americas, and Palenque, the first free settlement. In the city center is a statue  of Bioho paying homage to his contributions. 

Our tour guide led us down the dirt roads of Palenque. Regaling the complex history of where he, his family, and their ancestors called home. He spoke pridefully about their community, including their musical tastes and talents. Like Black people in the States, Afro-Colombians have influenced the music scene throughout Colombia. As we entered a little house that was a museum of sorts for music, it was clear that the next lesson would be about their contributions to the universal love language. One such genre of music (and dance style) they created was the Champeta. It derived from the Caribbean coasts of Colombia with heavy African influence. 

The absolute highlight of this part (aside from playing the drums) was meeting one of the artists from the world-famous group Kombilesa Mi. The group of young adults are San Basilio de Palenque natives, fusing traditional music with rap. 


Casa Museo Palenque

As we neared the back of the village, we were taken to Casa Museo Palenque, a museum that regaled the day to day life and culture of Palenque. We had the opportunity to see and briefly participate in rice winnowing. This is a process whereby grains are loosened from the chaff or husk. In another room, photos and artifacts told the treacherous journey of enslaved Africans during the slave trade. It was here that I got the third lesson of Black history in Colombia. 

Surprisingly, it was about our beautiful tresses. Black women have worn their hair in twists, braids, and cornrows for centuries. Today, these hair-dos are revered as protective styles but were a source of direction and nourishment centuries ago. During the slave trade and when enslaved people fled their owners. Women often used braids to provide secret maps between destinations. They also used braids to hide things like rice, beans, cassava cuttings and other grains as a food source. 

The experience touring the village further deepened my appreciation for my ancestors. It reminded me that everything I am fortunate enough to enjoy, is a direct reflection of their sacrifices, bravery and hopes. Above all it made me even prouder to be Black. 


North Carolina native, Ronny Maye is a mental health advocate, travel writer, and lifestyle content creator with bylines in publications such as Yahoo Canada, Reader's Digest, The Points Guy, Insider, Fodor's, Very Well, and more. She started sharing her travels to create a space for those who are apprehensive to do so as solo travelers, female travelers, plus-size travelers, and/or Black travelers. Intersecting all of these margins, Ronny’s travel content focuses on magnifying Black voices in addition to accessibility, inclusion, and travel tips/hacks.

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