Exploring Blackness in Cartagena
If someone had told me that I could be in South American in 5 hours (from New York City) I would have been on a flight to Cartagena, Colombia sooner! Located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea and neighboring Panama to the west and Venezuela to the east, Cartagena did not always have the best reputation. It was formerly a hot spot destination for some of the drug cartels in the 80s, but the government has cleaned up this city to make it a safe and tourist-friendly location. To read more on safety in Cartagena, check out viahero.com December 2019 article, "Cartagena is Perfectly Safe. Here's Why".
As a Black traveler, it is really important to me to learn about Black history anywhere that I travel and Cartagena is the perfect place to do so. Colombia has one of the largest Black populations outsides of Africa, the U.S., Haiti, and Brazil and the 4th largest population in the Western Hemisphere. When Cartagena was colonized by the Spanish in 1533, they imported kidnapped and enslaved Africans as part of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. If you find similarities to other Caribbean nations and places like Salvador Bahia in Brazil, it is not a coincidence, these areas were also colonized by Europeans and partially populated with enslaved Africans. What is fascinating about Afro-Colombia history in Cartagena is that many escaped to a nearby area called San Basilio de Palenque to create the first free African town in South America. This town exists to this day and the history and culture is being preserved as was named as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Human History by UNESCO.
In modern times most Afro-Colombians reside along the coast of the country with many living in urban centers like Bogotá, Cali, and Barranquilla. Unfortunately, anti-Blackness is global and Afro-Colombians face discrimination in their own country, which is not limited to education, socio-economics, and health disparities. However, the Afro-Colombian contribution to Colombian culture is undeniable, from music like cumbia, the arts, cuisine and so much more. To read more about Being Black in Colombia, read this Travel Noire article.
I traveled to Colombia as a last minute addition to a friend's birthday trip and it was the best impromptu travel that I had ever done. Having purchased a ticket 10 days before traveling there, I spent about $450 on an American Airlines flight with a quick connection in Miami. Now you should always do your research before traveling anywhere, but I was fortunate to have a background knowledge of Colombia because I live in Northern New Jersey where there is a large population of Colombians, which means unlimited access to their amazing restaurants, festivals, culture, and hospitality. But because I was joining last minute, I did none of the planning and had not put together an itinerary for the trip - I packed according to the weather and for the itinerary and was on my way.
When I arrived in Cartagena I was met with the tropical humidity of the Caribbean and the radiant sunlight - a welcomed escape from the cold and dreary February weather of the northeast! The Rafael Núñez International Airport was a meeting point for my group and we were carted off to our luxury high-rise condo right along the beach in the neighborhood called El Laguito. El Laguito, which means 'little lake', is a neighborhood with beaches on either side, and you guessed it - a little lake in the middle. It is an ideal location, walking distance from the beach, restaurants, and shops and a quick taxi/uber ride to popular places like the colonial area, Centro Histórico de Cartagena/ Ciudad Amurallada - the walled city.
All of our tours were curated by a local, Black-owned company called Experience Real Cartagena. The owner, Alex Rocha, is an Afro-Colombian and he and his family run ERC with the utmost professionalism and plan amazing outings and experiences based on your groups' preferences. Experience Real Cartagena offers nine tours in and around the city, with excursions that include a mud volcano bath, a visit to Palenque, a colonial city tour, and much more. We participated in several of their tours, which included a visit to Palenque, the mud volcano baths, a visit to Barú Island for a day on the beach, and the party bus! If you are planning a trip to Cartagena, try your best to book a tour to learn about the Afro-Colombian history and culture, it will surely enhance your experience.