How to Experience San Basilio de Palenque’s Biggest Party of the Year

Juan Ballena Travel Experiences in Cartagena

Every October since 1985, the dusty village of San Basilio de Palenque has celebrated Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales de Palenque. It’s a nonstop three-day festival celebrating the music, rhythms, and culture of Palenque. It’s the perfect excuse to take the hour’s drive south from Cartagena to experience the intriguing blend of African and Colombian culture that still beats through this historic town.

A Brief History of San Basilio de Palenque

Palenque’s claim to fame is that it was the first free town in the Americas, officially declared so in a decree from the Spanish Crown in 1961. Benkos Biohó founded the town after having successfully escaped his slave duties in Cartagena. He then made it his mission to help free other slaves arriving to Cartagena and provided them with a safe haven in Palenque.

The Festival in San Basilio de Palenque

Taking place annually in early to mid-October, the Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales de Palenque is an eagerly anticipated event that draws nearly the entire village of 4,000 inhabitants to its main square for multiple days of music, dance, food, and cultural presentations. It’s a celebration of epic proportion for such a small town and one that you won’t soon forget attending.

A Few Tips to Enhance Your Festival Experience

1. Spend the night.

If you can spend at least one night in the town of San Basilio de Palenque. As we mentioned, the party is nonstop and it may prove difficult to lure yourself away from the tantalizing beats coming from the main stage. There is a smattering of hostels and hotels throughout town and a hotel or two to rest your head and refresh between the ongoing line up of events.

2. Start the experience with a guided tour.

If you’re unfamiliar with San Basilio de Palenque and its fascinating history, it’s worth doing a guided tour upon arrival. The tour, led by a Palenque local, will take you to many of the town’s most important places and landmarks, as well as introduce you to some well-known locals like Rafael Cassiani Cassiani, a singer from Palenque, and Rosalina de Rezandera, a local healer who still practices the same healing modalities as her ancestors.

3. Sample Ñeque.

Ñeque is the local alcoholic beverage of choice in Palenque. Wherever beer is sold, so is Ñeque. This traditional homemade liquor is prepared from sugar cane juice, locally known as panela. If you try it and don’t like it, don’t write it off just yet. The flavor literally varies by bottle.

4. Bring plenty of cash for food, drinks, water, and souvenirs.

San Basilio de Palenque is mostly a cash-only town, so plan to bring plenty of pesos for things like water, drinks, food, and souvenirs. During the festival, the town’s main square and surrounding streets transform into open-air bars, well-stocked food stalls, and souvenir stands.

How to Get to San Basilio de Palenque

Though it is possible to take a bus from the terminal in Cartagena, it’s a difficult journey and one that’s a two-step process – take the bus to San Juan or Mahates, then hop on a mototaxi from there to get to Palenque. The easier and more direct option is to book a private transportation or a tour that includes transportation. click here for more details.

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