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Welcome My name is Tess. I'm a 9-5 New Yorker and traveler. My hobbies include destroying suitcases, photo-bombing tourists in Times Square, and taking long romantic ADHD walks around the globe. Welcome!

May 16, 2013

Cartagena; The Black Colombians Y'all

 Cartagena; Colombia's "African" Coast. 

So, I once saw a Shakira video (you know, her hips don't lie) where she's home, in Colombia doing something charitable. Nothing odd about that.  However, what I did find interesting, was that everyone around her was black.  And I thought, "Is this really Colombia she is in or am I missing something?"  

Was the way 12yr old  Joanna responded when we asked if she can dance Champeta. .  


I hadn't previously planned to visit Colombia, but an airfare deal further stoked my intrigue.  Three days later, the ticket was booked and I began scouring travel websites for information on Cartagena, the coastal region of Colombia. 

And I found plenty.... however many websites kind of failed to mention one very important detail about this coastal city. But the truth was about to hit me harder than a sock full of nickels to the face.

This is on an Island about 20 minutes by row boat off off the mainland.  They call it La Boquillita or "Little Boquilla" is waterlogged throughout most of the island.

Did you know that the population in Cartagena is predominately Black? As well as the cities of  Cali, Baranquilla and Choco.  I'm not going to lie to you folks I arrive in most countries with few expectations - but I honestly was not expecting that. 

Sure I'd heard about the oftentimes unmentioned legions of Afro-Latinos in places like Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, Belize and Nicaragua to name a few.   

But to be in a country, in which the free world rarely focuses on, much less admits to the presence of such a staggeringly large population of African descendants, outside of North America made this trip, by far, one of the most humbling I've taken.

These are the guys at Mt. Totumo (the mud volcano).  They are part of a collective that maintains the grounds and upkeep for the volcano and it's visitors.

In any case, I spent several days touring and learning about the history of Africans in Cartagena.  And perhaps, to overstate the obvious, it was in many aspects, extremely similar to the difficult plight of Africans in America. 

Did you know that more African slaves were brought to South and Latin America than North America? Ten fold. Many coastal cities in these Caribbean countries had ports which were the drop off point for cargo of all kinds including the human kind. 

 La Negra 

A fundamental difference however, is that in many Latin-American countries, including Colombia, colonial governments tried like hell to wipe out any trace of the black population through race mixing. 

And you would believe that it worked, until you are in the middle of a population that looks, well, exactly like yourself .  The failed tactic however, led to the marginalization of an entire population based on the color of their skin, and according to the locals, much of this marginalization still exists today.  

Joanna's little brother (left) and cousin (center). They made their own video after a quick iPhone tutorial.

However this could have also had a huge affect on the way I experienced this beautiful city.  During my visit, I walked the streets daily, of what is regarded as an extremely dangerous city, in the day as well as the evenings .

 In areas like Getsamani, San Diego & Bocagrande, I met people and made connections, never once feeling any of the danger that I was strongly advised of beforehand. 
Cartagenians were friendly, hospitable and generally went about their business. 

Inside the Carneceria (meat market) section of "El Mercado." The atmosphere is lively. This gentleman wanted to know what a local girl was doing with a tour guide? Then he caught on.


Is not only used to describe the woman above, it is also used to describe the language she would speak and the accompanying culture.  It is also thought to be the only Spanish-based creole in Latin America.  The language has strong roots in the Kikongo language spoken in Congo and Angola - both countries of Africa.   

Some scholars believe it may have been the main language of African slaves across Latin America. The lady above may not be an authentic Palenquero but she's reppin' the presence of a disappearing culture.   

This is the only way to La Boquillita - by "Water Taxi".    

Oftentimes I was mistaken for a local girl by tourists and Colombians alike.  But not always..
 "Morena,” they called out. "De donde tu eres? Or ”La negra, que es su pais?" I was shocked because as sure as I had blended in, I very much stood out. And yet I noticed how Cartagenians let their guard down & embraced me.  I used their curiousity as a segue to my own inquiries and also as an opportunity to make new friends!  

In this photo, Henry, Elias and me are travelling by boat through the community to head back to the open water that will  return  us to the mainland.  The only thing that separates these houses from the water is a small bit of elevated ground.

 It was romantic to hear the call of cocks, chirping crickets, barking dogs, and laughing children throughout this slow row. Neighbors call out to you when you pass by offering a friendly "Buenas!"
I was emotionally conflicted, envying the simplicity but not the conditions

El Capitán, Elias

I lounged on the beach at Bocagrande drinking cervezas with local shop owners and their friends while other tourists got haggled by vendors. I ate lunch at the table with the resident families in Boquillita while other tourists isolated themselves in cabanas.
And  I was occasionally asked to take photos with other tourists, who didn't realize that I too was a tourist.

Perhaps I let my guard down too low considering the country's overall reputation.
But I casually disappeared into the ebb and flow of the city without any harm coming to me.
Who knows maybe the combo of common sense, street smarts, and brown skin is what saved my ass!

Anyway why would I hold back? These people were exotic and yet familiar, hospitable and peaceful. Their culture, those colors, the foods many of which were typical island traits.  Within just a few short days, I had gladly assimilated into a culture that seemed so foreign and yet jarringly familiar to me. Who knows, maybe that's the magic of Cartagena!

Have you ever visited a country that was nothing like it's presumed reupation?
...and did anyone believe you??