On Not Liking Cartagena and Not Finding Afro-Colombia

by Ekua on November 5, 2013 in Colombia,race/culture/identity

"Prisma Afro" mural by Vertigo Graffiti crew in Cartagena, Colombia

When I saw this mural, I loved it, but the irony in it did not escape me — this exalted image of a black woman with an afro and an air of pride was the antithesis to what I’d actually experienced in Cartagena thus far.

I didn’t like Cartagena. At all. I spent much of my time inside the walled city, the colonial part of Cartagena that most visitors adore. I saw the charm that people see in the cobblestone streets lined with colorful buildings that drip with bougainvilleas, but I also saw these ubiquitous images as a pretty façade that distracted visitors from something rotten just below the surface.

Originally, Cartagena was one of the places I most looked forward to visiting in Colombia. I’m passionate about Afro-Latin cultures and I wanted to explore Afro-Colombian culture of the Caribbean Coast and the genres of music that emerged from it. I imagined I’d find similarities between Cartagena and other highly Afro-Latin destinations I’ve fallen in love with such as Salvador, Brazil and Havana, Cuba. While those cities and countries certainly have many racial equality issues to work through, I was astounded and inspired by how much pride these places showed in cultures that are clearly derived from Africa and how these cultures were an imperative part of the larger cultures of each country.

This was not the case in Cartagena, a place that casually mentions African heritage and then brushes it aside. I checked at nightlife establishments, asked around town about cultural dance performances, I researched online, and I couldn’t find Afro-Colombian music or any substantial acknowledgement of Afro-Colombian history.

Instead, what I found was a Disney-esque peddling of Cuban culture. I know there is often crossover between Latin American cultures and I understand the appeal of Cuban culture because I love it myself. I know that salsa music is popular in Colombia and mojitos are delicious. I know that local tastes morph and adopt music of other cultures. But in Cartagena, it felt like Afro-Colombian music of the Caribbean Coast never existed and that I was supposed to pretend that I was in Havana.

It seemed like a caricature of Cuban culture was being sold tourists because that’s what tourists want on a vacation in a Caribbean colonial city. The abundance of co-opted Cuban culture in Cartagena was often presented by foreign-owned businesses and came across as disingenuous. It felt like Cartagena was capitalizing on a foreign mentality that disregards the fact that Latin American cultures are interrelated, but still very diverse and complex.

Even if I couldn’t find the Afro-Colombian culture I was looking for in Cartagena, I was determined to find it nearby. I hoped to go to San Basilio de Palenque, a village founded by escaped slaves about 55 kilometers south of Cartagena. But the more I looked into visiting the town, the more I realized that it was probably unwise to go without arranging to meet a tour guide because there was no tourism infrastructure. Going without a plan would likely mean that I wouldn’t get much out of the experience.

I did some internet research and came across just one person who gave tours. I tried to call him and there was no answer. I sent him an email which was returned to me weeks later after I’d already left Cartagena. I’m not faulting the guy for being difficult to reach, but I was sad that there were such limited options for having an educational experience in Palenque, a place that has been recognized internationally for its unique language and cultural heritage.

So the only part of Palenque I came across were the Palenqueras in old town Cartagena. You’ll see images of them in pretty much every travel article about Cartagena. They are women of African descent who dress in vibrant attire and headwraps and sell tropical fruits. In pictures, they reminded me of the Baianas do acarajé of Bahia, Brazil, women you’ll also see making a living as vendors.

But the similarities between Baianas and Palenqueras appeared to end at the surface; at the West African skin tones, the flowing dresses, and the headwraps. Baianas still have hurdles to jump, but they are empowered and proud and a strong presence in Bahia. In Cartagena, the Palenqueras seemed like they were struggling.

In photographs, I’d seen Palenqueras with bright eyes and the corners of their mouths turned up. But in person, you can see the extended moments before and after the photographs when no customers are present and their eyes reveal the pain of the fate that race has dealt. Whenever I made eye contact with these ladies who looked like they could be my aunts or grandmothers, it was a painful, wordless exchange.

Cartagena was the city where I could blend in the most up to that point on my trip, yet I constantly felt uncomfortable there. Local vendors of mixed races and African descent almost always guessed that I was not from there and charged me inflated tourist prices for water and other goods. Meanwhile, rich Colombians from Cartagena and elsewhere always assumed I was from Cartagena. At mid-range restaurants, questioning eyes would observe me, obviously wondering how someone who looked so African could possibly be at the same eating establishment that they were at.

It can be a wonderful thing to blend in with the locals and see a culture from a different lens than most other travelers. But in Cartagena, being mistaken for a local had negative connotations unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited. And in the end, this provided me with revelations about the town that few travelers in Cartagena can understand.

The culmination of my being mistaken for a local came on my last day in Cartagena. I heard a group of people speaking English in front of a restaurant I was interested in eating at. I went up to them and asked in English, “What time does this restaurant open?” I imagined it would be a quick exchange.

One of the men in the group looked at me like I was crazy and proceeded to speak at me harshly in extremely fast Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying. A female in the group looked at me in horror, obviously reading the look on my face and understanding the undercurrent of her friend’s misjudgement of me. She cut him off and answered my question.

If you hear me speak English, you’ll know instantly that English is my first language. This man heard me, but took one look at me and simply couldn’t believe that I was from anywhere other than Cartagena or somewhere nearby. This exchange with him rendered me speechless in any language.

It’s difficult to express how profoundly demeaning it is to have others make such strong assumptions about your limitations based on your appearance. In a country that claims to not be racist, it’s horrible to sense how marginalized local members of your race are.

And it’s horrible to be put into the position where you don’t want to be mistaken as local just so you can avoid mistreatment, so you can avoid having people assume that you have shady intentions, so you can avoid having restaurant staff worry that you won’t be able to pay them when you finish your meal. This was my Cartagena reality. And as a mere visitor, I know my experience was insignificant compared to what it would be like if I actually lived there.

People think the United States is overly obsessed with race, but in places like Cartagena, it’s clear how dangerous it can be to ignore the subject; to say “We’re not racist!” and move on while people suffer in silence without being able to address something very real and very damaging that the people in power insist is not a problem.

On one of my last days in Cartagena, I decided to get out of the tourist zoo in the old city and visit Bazurto, the city’s central market. It was one of the most dirty and disgusting markets I’ve ever visited, but for the first time, Cartagena felt real. At many of the stalls, old men sat around playing Champeta music at top volume, trying overpower the music of the next group of old men. Meat that was probably fresh moments before looked like it desperately needed refrigeration as it laid out in the blazing hot Cartagena sun. I had to watch each step I took in the outdoor part of the market to avoid putting my open toe shoe-clad feet into an unsavory puddle of something unknown.

This raucous place with a number of unpleasant smells was an unlikely location to get a breath of fresh air, but that’s what it provided with its lack of pretense. It catered to no one. But this huge market and the neighborhood around it also revealed the pervasiveness of poverty in Colombia’s most expensive city for tourists.

I think part of the appeal of Cartagena is that it gives a variety of tourists the chance to escape from reality. It will charge you three or four times as much as the rest of Colombia for the experience, but it will accommodate your tropical dreams, whether you step off a cruise ship for just long enough to have stroll through the Walled City, whether you’re from another part of Colombia and want to flaunt your wealth and indulge, or if you’re backpacker looking for a place where you can go wild in the tropics and have a spring break experience at any time of the year.

It seems to be a fairytale city for most visitors, a place in which you can ignore reality and sigh in awe at the pretty buildings. But with my West African features, my afro, and my skin at its darkest in the summertime Caribbean sun, reality was inevitably going to find me any time I ventured out on my own without other tourists.

Looking back, I can see that how I would perceive Cartagena could never be separated from my prior experiences in other Latin American countries where Afro-Latin culture is literally paraded through the streets and pouring through the windows of houses. In a country with not just one, but two coasts with rich African heritage (The Pacific Coast of Colombia is heavily populated with Afro-Colombians who have their own unique culture and musical styles), I expected a lot, especially from the easily accessible Caribbean Coast. But it seems like there is a long way to go when it comes to recognizing the cultural and historical contributions of Afro-Colombians in the calculated tourism scene of Cartagena.

One thing that gave me a tiny bit of hope about the future was learning that just before I arrived in Cartagena, San Basilio de Palenque opened a tourism office for the first time. Now, there is even a website. Perhaps Palenque will eventually become a viable tourist destination and its people, culture, and history will finally be valued.

And the mural pictured above, Prisma Afro, was painted with black female empowerment in mind. Vertigo Graffiti, the street art crew that created it, deliberately wanted to present an image of a black woman that fought back against the negative and hypersexualized stereotypes of Afro-Colombian women in Cartagena. So while Cartagena has an incredibly long way to go, it’s good to know that people are thinking about and acknowledging race and gender issues and refusing to brush aside reality. It’s good to know that the dialogue has started.

Diana November 6, 2013 at 4:24 pm

What a fabulous post! I have enjoyed all your travels, but delving into things below the surface and trying to analyze the interactions you had and your reactions made for an excellent and engrossing post this time. I am ALWAYS most interested in race and how it is experienced everywhere and anywhere. Thank you.

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures November 6, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Awww I’m so hear to you didn’t like it! I’m dying to visit!!!

Ann November 6, 2013 at 7:59 pm

I went to Petronio Alvarez (Pacific Coast music festival) in Cali in September. I think that event as well as Colombia’s Pacific Coast (as well as Cali in general) offers much more of what you were seeking. I went to Cartagena 6 1/2 years ago on vacation & recently needed to return. The city was extremely touristic (with Latin tourists) in 2007, but now the walled city has been completely gentrified. So I agree with your points. Anything remotely edgy is outside the walls. Sorry to hear you had negative experiences because of your appearance.

Ekua November 6, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Thanks for your input, Ann. In Cartagena, I stayed in Getsemani, the one part of the walled city that’s not completely overrun, but it’s getting there. I haven’t blogged about Cali yet — I really liked it there. I’d love to go to that festival and I’m glad it was created, but I wish there was a way to hear that music year round. All my research on live music of the Pacifico led to Petronio Alvarez! So while I was in Cali, I couldn’t find any music except for salsa. I know Cali loves its unique brand of salsa, but I figured with such a large population of people from the Pacifico region in Cali, there’d be other music scenes too, but nada.

I really wanted to go to Pacifico and dreamed about visiting the Choco department, but couldn’t because of time/budget limitations. I think the inaccessibility of the Pacifico region adds to the dialogue about the marginalization of Afro-Colombians. I felt like I left Colombia with unfinished business, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to return and visit the Pacifico.

Sunee November 6, 2013 at 10:34 pm

This was an incredibly interesting and insightful post. I don’t recall you mentioning being discriminated against in such a way when you visited Namibia, which is perhaps a place I would expect something like that to happen. I hope that when you one day make it to South Africa, you won’t have the same experience. It’s small steps for us, but slowly getting there 🙂

Ekua November 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I think that in my Namibia posts, I explored the country’s race issues through stories of their buried history. I don’t think I mentioned it, but in Namibia, sometimes there were similar weird looks when we sat down for dinner and people made assumptions that people in my family were staff. It’s the same kind of mentality: “Black people don’t/can’t travel so you must be a local/staff.” I don’t mention these kinds of experiences every time they happen, but in Cartagena, it was extreme, much more so than Namibia and other places I’ve been to with large black populations. My mom visited Cape Town earlier this year and she seemed to really like it.

Sarah Shaw November 7, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Hey Ekua!
It’s too bad that you had such a rough time in Cartagena– it’s certainly not one of the easiest places to travel. I know what you mean about not finding Afro-colombian culture right away, and unfortunately, most travelers won’t be able to experience it when visiting the city for a few days. Next week I’ll be moving to La Boquilla, an afro-colombian community outside of Cartagena, where I’ll be doing my Peace Corps service in the schools for two years! Just from my four-day site visit, I felt great vibes in the community. If you come back to visit, let me know. 🙂

Ekua November 7, 2013 at 11:35 pm

I was there for five days and did a lot of research ahead of time. If there was an empowered Afro-Colombian community in Cartagena, I should’ve been able to find it in a few days. In Latin America, Colombia has one of the highest percentages of people of African descent, but you’d barely know that when you begin to research traveling there. As I mentioned in my post, I’m passionate about Afro-Latin culture and have traveled to other places with strong (albeit struggling) Afro-Latin communities where you see the culture and the pride right way. In Cartagena, African heritage is the elephant in the room.

I’m sure I would’ve had a better experience in a less touristy, more Afro-Colombian town, but why is Afro-Colombian history and culture barely present in the tourist scene of Cartagena, a city that has a huge history of slavery? Why do Afro-Colombian communities in and around Cartagena need to be isolated in order to have good vibes? Why are these communities so hidden from the average tourist? My travels were what they were. I didn’t like Cartagena, but I learned a lot while I was there. My intention in this post was not to find an alternative to Cartagena, but to question the way Cartagena presents itself tourists and the way tourists interact with it. I can’t see myself going back to Cartagena any time soon. If I was going back to explore Afro-Colombian culture, I’d head straight for the Pacifico!

HeyIt'sMe November 8, 2013 at 8:27 am


I’m really sorry and I want to apologize on behalf of all nice people from Colombia. We’re not all like that, you just had the un-fortune to ran into some stupid people, but remember there are this kind of people EVERYWHERE, it’s not like all colombians are like that, maybe those were some douches that doesn’t even love Colombia, and probably they’re the ones that love foreign clothes and drink starbucks… they’re not patriotic and they feel better than everyone else because they were raised like that. Just keep in mind that colombians are very welcoming and douches are everywhere. I’m really really sorry that you had to go through that.

Blessings from Colombia.
Thanks for visiting and remember you’re always welcome here.

Ekua November 10, 2013 at 12:27 pm

My trip in Colombia is over and I think what’s of greater importance is not apologizing to me for my experience, but working to change the obvious discrimination against people of African descent in Cartagena and other places in Colombia. There is a huge disparity between rich and poor in Cartagena and the rest of Colombia, and a lot of that has do with skin color. It’s pretty clear in Cartegena that there’s an assumption that anyone black must be poor or have a shady job and I experienced the negative effects of this in touristy settings because I was assumed to be Afro-Colombian.

As a black woman, I am well aware of the fact that there are people like this everywhere, but that doesn’t diminish or excuse my experience in Cartagena. And choosing to focus on my experience in Cartegena (which was extreme compared to other places I’ve visited) does not mean I’m saying people like this don’t exist elsewhere. I know it’s hard to read someone being critical of an aspect of your country, but this is a reality that doesn’t seem to be talked about in Colombia. Addressing and working to fix real problems makes a place stronger in the long run.

Ana November 13, 2013 at 8:40 am

I really liked your article, and I totally relate. I have been living in Cartagena for 3.5 years now. And whenever I meet a new person from Cartagena I almost invariably get asked, “How do you like it here?”
I usually answer, “Well, there are some things that I LOVE, and some things that I don’t like AT ALL… the classism, the injustice, the abismal differences between poor and rich, the lack of opportunities for the poor (the majority), the racism, the way a lot of people treat those they deem inferior, etc. So much so, that if I weren’t doing my little bit about it, I don’t think I could live here”.
I would like to point out that I think the problem is MUCH bigger and wider than just racism. I totally agree that racism is a fact, and it needs to be addressed and changed. But in this case, it is almost an excuse here in Cartagena, for a flagrant classism and to perpetuate the injustice and social disparities. Colombia has one of the highest disparities in wealth, and in many other parts of the country where there aren’t so many Afro descendants the situation is just as bad and in some ways worse. In Cartagena it is just compounded with racism and the sad very present repercussions and extension of the previous slavery.

Ekua November 14, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Hi, Ana – thanks for your input. Good to hear that you’re doing work to help the situation in Cartagena! I spent some time in Popayan chatting with a Colombian who lived in the US for years about the classism versus racism thing. His idea was basically, “We don’t have racial discrimination, we have economic discrimination.” I definitely noticed the classism issues as well, but racism and classism go hand-in-hand. I think racism in Latin America manifests itself differently than in the US, but there’s no denying that the darker your skin, the less opportunities you have to advance. Not to say that there aren’t exceptions to this. But with my experience in Cartagena, I sensed that to people there, black=poor=unwelcome, regardless of my attire or whatever else. This is not something I can change, whereas someone who was lighter and poor has the potential to change their look and demeanor and perhaps be more accepted. I think in Cartagena because of all the money that has come there, there have been more issues between black and white and rich and poor which really amplifies and highlights the race/class issue in Colombia compared to other areas where there are less opportunities to try to cash in on tourism and new wealth. In other places like Cali or Medellin where there are sizeable black populations, some people also thought I was a local, but I didn’t have these same issues.

Carolina November 17, 2013 at 4:49 am

yes I definitely agree that the issue is classism. Cartagena is a conservative city and anyone that doesn’t dress with a suit and tie is not welcome. These issues exist everywhere, however, let’s be a part of the change!
A trailer on gentrification in Getsemaní:

Ekua November 17, 2013 at 4:39 pm

I’m going to be direct: it’s complete BS to say that the problem in Cartagena is simply classism. I didn’t see people wearing suits and ties in Cartagena (even businessmen) as it is extremely hot there, so that doesn’t make sense. I definitely saw people dressing up at night and plenty of people with fancy jewelry, but nobody was dressed extremely conservatively as you are suggesting. I like to maintain my style on the road, and because it was hot in Cartagena, I wore dresses everyday. I was probably more fancy than the average backpacker, but it didn’t matter. There is deep rooted racism in Cartagena and to say this issue is just classism is to live in denial.

Rasta-Lion November 16, 2013 at 7:25 am

“And it’s horrible to be put into the position where you don’t want to be mistaken as local just so you can avoid mistreatment…

I know that feeling as Brit of African origin. Experienced it in Venezuela, Brazil, Belize and even in Cuba.

Ekua November 16, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Yeah, it’s a really crappy feeling. I didn’t feel that way when I was in Brazil or Cuba, but I did have a bit of that feeling in Namibia and surprisingly, Berlin. There are a lot of immigrants in Berlin and I noticed a difference in the way people reacted to me if they thought I was living there versus if they knew I was just a visitor. It’s a catch-22 because you don’t want to be treated poorly when you’ve taken it upon yourself to travel to these places, yet you also don’t want to play into local prejudices.

Carolina November 17, 2013 at 4:45 am

Cartagena is not an easy city and I’m glad that you saw past the tourist facade. I have a hard time with your comparison to Cuba because Cartagena definitely has its own culture with salsa, champeta and vallenato… Just like every city that thrives on its tourism (especially in a “developing country”), it’s going to have a dark side.
Cartagena definitely has its struggles, but there are many people who are working to bring about a change, consciousness, and to really bring people together..
The next time you are looking for a guide to Palenque, check out:
La Fundación Tu Cultura is all about socially conscious tourist guides to Palenque.
Many people want Palenque to stay as it is, it is a city that still has much traditional culture. Just bringing tourism is not the answer, the answer is in sustainability.
If you’d like to know more or want to be a part of the change, feel free to contact me..

Ekua November 17, 2013 at 5:19 pm

I wasn’t comparing Cartagena to Cuba and as I said in the post, I know salsa is popular in Colombia. What I didn’t understand was why businesses were trying to sell a Havana experience in Cartagena. There is culture in Cartagena, but for whatever reason, tourists are sold another destination’s culture: “Drink a mojito at sunset! Dance the night away at Cafe Havana and you’ll feel like you’re in Havana!” I’m guessing if you ask around, 99% of foreign travelers in Cartagena will never have heard of champeta or vallenato.

It’s great to hear about Tu Cultura. This is exactly the kind of thing I would have like to have found before or during my time in Cartagena, but couldn’t. As this is a travel blog, I generally filter stories through the lens of tourism, but I didn’t say that tourism was the one and only fix for all the problems San Basilio de Palenque. I don’t know all of the details of Palenque’s struggles — it’s a challenge to find information on it. But I do think there is a lot to be gained by not keeping it hidden and revealing its story and culture to the rest of the world through tourism.

I sense that based on your choice of words, you think that this piece is criticizing Cartagena and not “part of the change”. But in order to get to the point where things change, first there needs to be awareness. Bringing up an issue IS part of the change. And judging by how many times this post has been viewed and how it seems to incite strong feelings in people, it’s serving a purpose.

I don’t live in Cartagena and to be honest, I don’t really want to go back any time soon. I do my part to work towards social justice where I live, but I can’t spread myself around the globe. What I can do is speak honestly about what I experienced and give an unheard perspective that makes people think and leads to a discussion. Thanks for sharing this organization and your thoughts about how there are people working to change Cartagena.

Elizabeth November 17, 2013 at 5:37 am

Interesting. There are indeed two Cartagenas. Roughly 10% of the city’s population lives in el centro, Bocagrande, Getsemani – the areas that represent and cater to international presence and tourism. Bazurto is a glance (a glance – for the real view you need to go further south) into the real heart of the city, the 90% where most true Cartegeneros live and struggle on a daily basis. In many cases, visitors extrapolate what they see in the historic center and say, “This is Cartagena. Cartagena is ___.” The tourism sector ignores many cultural and historic realities faced by the majority of the city’s residents, but of course that isn’t to say that those realities don’t exist. The Cartagena that appears in Google image search results is hardly representative of the reality como tal. I lived in Cartagena for a year doing research on vicitims rights in local communities and teaching at la Universidad de Cartagena. I had students from the south of the city who’d never been to the sea. Wait, you might ask…isn’t Cartagena ON the sea? Yes. Some primary school students living in the south have never visited the Center (I include Getsemani in centro as it’s become overrun by tourists). Cartagena is a city full of contradictions. It’s also a city which, like you said, constantly repeats the line “We don’t have racism,” a phrase I’ve heard throughout Colombia.

Ekua November 17, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Thanks for your input. Yup, I got got a glimpse of another side Cartagena on the drive from Getsemani to the bus station. I really can’t think of another city I’ve visited where the center of tourism and wealth was so isolated from the rest of the city and where so much of the city was not visited or mentioned. The idea that there’s no racism in Cartagena is mindboggling. Part of what was so jarring was that it went far beyond the everyday discrimination that is present in many parts of the world — it felt like the city was trying to deny that a huge part of the population even exists.

Ana November 17, 2013 at 9:02 pm

“it felt like the city was trying to deny that a huge part of the population even exists.”
This is exactly the case. Except “the city” that ignores the rest is just a small part of it, but where most of the money is.
Right now there is a big project going inviting all citizens to participate in the development of a city plan for the good of all. It is run by a lot of NGOs together and they are working together with government and academia and businesses, at least supposedly. It sounds almost too good to be true. Let’s see…. (See. http://www.visioncartagena.org/ )

Ekua November 17, 2013 at 11:43 pm

Thanks for sharing.

Maria M. November 17, 2013 at 5:49 pm

I know how this will sound but I’m glad you had this experience in Cartagena. As an afro-colombian borned and raised there, the whole lie they set up for tourist is something I have to deal with every single day. I wish you had had the opportunity to go to Palenque, I’m actually from there and it’s quite a special place. Unique, to say the least.
As for the classism/racism issue, I agree with you. It’s not just one thing or the other. Both are the main problem and “work” together. The thing is, in Colombia people are valued based on their economic status. Wether you matter or not depends on what (or who) you can buy. Except if you’re black, in which case it barely matters because no matter what you do, “you will always be black” aka less of a person. You are destined for certain jobs, certain neighborhood, and certain life. You are not supposed to get out of there and it is offensive for you to even try.
The only thing that makes me happy (and I didn’t know since I’ve never gotten out of the country) is that there are places in which this is not the case since being the pessimistic that I am (and maybe because I’ve here my whole life) it is hard for me to believe that things will change, at least any time soon. And I, too, hope to have the oportunity to visit places where things are not quite so unequal for us.

Ekua November 17, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Hi, Maria – it’s really great to get some input from an Afro-Colombian from Cartagena. I totally understand what you’re saying about me having this experience. I sensed that Afro-Colombians don’t have much of a voice in Cartagena so even though I didn’t have a good time there, I felt that it would be helpful to put this story about my experience out there.

I was really sad that I left this area without visiting San Basilio de Palenque. Since you’re from there originally, I should ask: Do you think it’s worthwhile to visit Palenque without some kind of guide?

You’ll find inequality in many places, but I think Cartagena is especially bad and tries harder to be Euro-centric. If you were to go outside Colombia, you’d find the inequality, but you might find that there is more of a conversation happening about the topic, less denial, more cultural recognition, much more empowerment, and more opportunities to advance. If you ever get the chance, I’d recommend visiting Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

Kendra November 20, 2013 at 2:58 am

Hi, I live in Cartagena and reading this post is so refreshing. You really did some research and hit the nail right on the head. Some of my students tell me stories of racism in their lives, including their own families and there is definitely a sad sweeping-under-the-rug-of African roots here. It’s embedded in their language: The word “moreno” is used to describe what really is “negro.” And many parents encourage their children to marry white people to “better” their race. These are just two examples that I can think of right now that show how the people here generally try to distract others from their “blackness.” The truth is that the majority of the population lives down the avenue, past Bazurto, and has African ancestry, but the identity of the city does not reflect these realities. The recent statue of the “India Catalina,” who is not even that significant of a figure to the city overall, was modeled after the Oscar award trophy–completely importing a foreign identity to pass as their own. Only through knowing their own history, can they move forward to create their own identity. I know excellent teachers and professors who work hard to share those past realities that seep into the present (and you can see on my blog that I try to do my part), but there is still lots of work to be done. I highly recommend the series Black in Latin America by Professor Gates and you will see many similarities with the Dominican Republic. Thanks so much for your insights.

Ekua November 20, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Hi Kendra, thanks for your insight and for the info on India Catalina. I saw the statue near the Prisma Afro mural, but from a distance. The story of the indigenous people of this area and Colombia in general is another hidden story that I was constantly wondering about while I was there.

I love this: “Only through knowing their own history, can they move forward to create their own identity.” Very true. I was disheartened when I left Cartagena, so I’m glad that through this post, I’m finding out about how different people and groups are organizing to address the problems. I watched the Black in Latin America series when it aired and thought it was great. That series came to mind several times while I was writing these Cartagena posts and I’ll probably watch it again sometime. I wish he’d make another season and do an episode on Colombia.

Kendra November 26, 2013 at 5:31 am

Hello again, I kept thinking he should come to Cartagena too! And you are very right; the indigenous story is largely untold here as well. Many died off during the encounter–from exposure to diseases and such and since there was a lot of mixing, the legacy of the Kairmari and other groups aren’t really felt much. Unlike in the Dominican Republic, where people tend to emphasize their indigenous and Spanish roots (instead of African), here exists the “mestizo myth.” We are all mixed, we are all equal–end of story…, not so much.
Something that also struck me when reading your post was the ageism. Every time I travel and the airport in Cartagena welcomes me back, I am confronted with huge posters of the colorful and youthful palenqueras, happily and flawlessly “selling” fruit, and the thought that these pictures are so far from the reality angers me. What I would love to see someday is a the proud face of a woman who actually does sell fruit on the streets.
In terms of finding a lack of information about touring Cartagena on a deeper level, my colleagues and I hope to change that reality, through offering academic tourism to travelers. We are in the developmental processes right now..

Finally, I’ll leave the blog I created for my students here. http://voicesusbstudents.wordpress.com/may-afro-colombian-heritage-month/ Celebrating Afro-Colombian Heritage month was their idea, and we ran with it. Also, when I teach the Inquisition, I always emphasize the fact that not all people of African decent were slaves during the colonial period; many bought their own freedom with the skills they had.
Thanks so much for this blog; I’ve really been enjoying the conversations.

Clint November 25, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Dear Ekua

What a great writing. Its like you took the words from my mouth. Im a South African mixed race male (with colour) and had similiar experiences. I thought that im dreaming sometimes, but the way people look at me and sometimes speaks and treat me, makes it obvious that here is still racial issues going on, big time! I travel alot but never expiernced it like this. Its a great city but i think alot of work needs to be done.

Thanks for your insight!

Ekua November 25, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Thanks for reading, Clint. I know exactly what you mean by doubting your experience. There’s a growing number of diverse voices in travel writing, but it’s still limited and a lot of people who experience this (understandably) don’t share these kinds of stories. So it’s hard to compare your experience with others unless you have friends who are ethnically similar to you who have been to the same place. In my situation, I had a bit of insight given to me by a half-Colombian friend of Euro-descent who I met on a previous trip. She was very honest about the race situation in Cartagena and told me that her black American friend had a similar experience. I agree that the situation felt particularly extreme in Cartagena compared to many other places I’ve traveled to. I don’t write a post about every time I feel snubbed or mistreated on the road because of race or gender, but in Cartagena, it felt too big to not mention.

AnaMaria December 1, 2013 at 2:08 am

Hi Ekua
I know exactly what you are talking about, I live in cgn, am from Bogotá and have been working for ethnic communities. I am solution oriented and would like to discuss how to Colombian society, education is just a way to break us apart and make us distrust, hate and mock “the other”. I homeschool, and my kids have grown playing soccer o basball out in the the streets of beautiful Getsemaní. And with some friends from Bogota and Cartagena, we created a foundation to design and implement strategies for this huge cultural gap to be closed. Its so difficult to explain, so real in life itself, isn’t it? One of our strategies is a series of “off mainstream” routes and guidances called Cartagena Insider. Our goal is to share and learn from the beautiful diversity of the caribbean culture WITHOUT interpretting different realities as poverty snd vulnerability that have to be fixed. All profit goes to the people that make the rout possible and to fundraise for FEM. We also have voluntourism weekends to promote community work among people that have never done it (mainly executives and middle class workers), who with correct guidance and adequate experience design, just change their mindset. We are remaking our webpage but we have a temporal website up with the basics, please check it out and come back. http://Www.femcolombia.org. There is hope, there must be.

Ekua December 1, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Hi AnaMaria – Thanks for sharing your ideas and what you are working on in Cartagena. I wish I could’ve found out about all these different organizations while I was there!

AnaMaria December 2, 2013 at 10:43 am

Hi Ekua, thans for your response. As it is very difficult for small community based organizations to get mainstream visibility and marketting, people like you can really help. CAn you help us out a little bit?

Ekua December 2, 2013 at 10:59 pm

I’m not sure how to go about it yet, but after seeing the the responses to this post, I’ve been thinking that I should put together a list of Afro-Colombian organizations/resources in Cartagena. I’ll keep you posted!

Bryanna Plog January 10, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Excellent article on a topic that rarely gets talked about. While I am disappointed Cartagena did not treat you better, I am glad you got to go to Bazurto and other parts of “real” Cartagena where most of the Afro-Colombian population lives and works. The Centro is picturesque but as you noted, doesn’t delve into anything real about the lives of Colombians.

If you ever make it back to Colombia, perhaps head to other towns on both the Caribbean and Pacific coast. I taught for a year an hour south of Cartagena on Isla Baru where the population was around 95% Afro-Colombian. My students were very proud of their heritage and celebrated Afro-Colombian Day with dances, and of course, lots of champeta. I’ve got some photos from that celebration and around the island and Colombia on my blog: http://bryannaplog.com/photo-gallery/ (you may also be interested in the book).

Hopefully visitors and Colombians alike will start to appreciate the important heritage and contemporary contributions of Afro-Colombians! Keep up the excellent blogging!

Ekua January 15, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for stopping by. I would have loved to have had the chance visit more Afro-Colombian places, but I feel that there should be a lot more of that culture and pride inside Cartagena… it’s disturbing that a city built upon the backs of Africans seems to have no recollection of that. Colombia in general comes across as a place that wants to limit the aspects of its culture that it promotes to tourists which made it feel less culturally vibrant than other parts of Latin America I’ve visited. When or if all of Colombia decides to celebrate all of its heritage, they’ll probably find that the appreciation will be contagious to visitors.

Ed March 30, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Wow, I just ran across your blog and I am impressed. But this post really captured my attention. I’ve long wanted to visit Salvador da Bahia, but Brazil is quite a long journey from the U.S. I recently started wondering if I could have an equally enjoyable experience of Afro-Latin culture in Cartagena, given the parallels in terms of ethnicity and history of those two locales. I’m guessing the answer is no, sadly.

Ekua March 30, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Glad you found my blog! I think you could find a bit of it in Cartagena if you have time and speak a decent amount of Spanish. But nothing compares to Salvador da Bahia in terms of Afro-Latin culture in my option. Also, Salvador isn’t that much further than Cartagena. If you’re willing to sneak in or take the time to go legally, you could also look into Cuba.

Ed March 30, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Thanks for the feedback! I do know a fair bit of Spanish, and I’ve thought about doing a group tour to Cuba as well. It does seem like Salvador is the pinnacle, though, so I might have to work on my Portuguese!

ana May 7, 2014 at 11:01 am

ED Please check this out, come to CArtagena and let us show you around. http://femcolombia.weebly.com/cartagena-insider.html

disgusting May 6, 2014 at 10:46 am

So you went to Colombia as an Afro American….

A completely different culture than the USA.

The locals didn’t bow down too you as you would have wished and you got cold feet and wouldn’t travel to an afrocaribe town in Colombia without a guide….so you missed life outside of touristy and secluded Cartagena….and you had a bad time and now its the fault of Colombians.

Now you play the race card and deem whomever in Colombia as racist.

Did you ever think you are the one with the obsessive and racist hang-ups???? Maybe you are the one who can’t adjust to a foreign culture? Maybe you are the one with racist issues???

Once somebody acts differently than what you deem as acceptable and you deem them racists?

You have no right to act as if you are the race police in ANY country.

Ekua May 6, 2014 at 5:42 pm

It seems that you either didn’t read this thoroughly or you misinterpreted the whole thing.

“A completely different culture than the USA.”
– Where do I compare Colombian culture to US culture? I mainly compare Cartagena to Salvador da Bahia in Brazil because of the historical, geographical, and cultural similarities between the two cities. I am aware that African American culture in the US is very different from most Afro-Latin cultures which is why I don’t compare Colombia to the US. What I do say about the US is that it’s easier to talk openly about the legacy of racism compared to other parts of the world where people say it doesn’t exist when it clearly does.

“The locals didn’t bow down too you as you would have wished”
– I don’t expect to be bowed down to, I expect to be treated with basic decency. I expect to be able to walk around town and not be assumed to be a prostitute because of my skin color; to not have people treat me like I cannot afford to eat at a particular restaurant because of my skin color. This is not asking to be bowed down to, this is asking to be treated with basic human respect.

“you got cold feet and wouldn’t travel to an afrocaribe town in Colombia without a guide”
– I didn’t include this in the post, but one day after not hearing back from the guide, I decided to try going on my own. I found a cab and asked driver to take me to the bus station and hoped to figure out how to get to Palenque once I got to the station. The cab driver refused to take me to the station. I didn’t even know what to make of that, and that is when I truly got cold feet. As a solo traveler in an unfamiliar place, I didn’t feel exactly comfortable making my way out there on my own when I couldn’t even find basic information on how to get to Palenque and I knew I’d be winging it all day by myself. In my experience with World Heritage Sites, even when they are obscure, you can find a way to get there. Palenque’s inaccessibility says something about the lack of value Colombian tourism places on Afro-Colombian culture.

“so you missed life outside of touristy and secluded Cartagena”
– Why is there not a place for Afro-Colombian culture INSIDE touristy Cartagena? The city was built with the blood and sweat of people of African descent. Why is this not acknowledged? A place can be very touristy and still embrace and acknowledge its heritage. Cartagena has its own rich Afro-Colombian history but it wants to show you Disneyland Havana. Why would the city not work with what it’s already got?

“Did you ever think you are the one with the obsessive and racist hang-ups????”
– If being a black person in the world who experiences and witnesses racism and is not afraid to talk about it openly deems me to be someone who is obsessed with the subject, so be it.

The beauty of travel writing is that an empowered person from outside of Colombia who is not repressed by the Colombian notion that racism does not exist can share their experiences and perspective with the world. You can write off my experiences, or perhaps you can take the opportunity to understand how Cartagena can be seen through another lens.

Lamarr June 30, 2014 at 9:06 am

I just came back from visiting Cartagena and your article summed up everything in a nutshell. When I drove from the airport to my hotel it felt like I was literally in Africa. Yet walking the streets and seeing people that looked like me felt reassuring. I only wish I had know about tours to the Palenque village during my time there!

Meg August 6, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Thank you so much for this post. I just returned from a week in Cartagena and as a white, middle class person I felt a discomfort around race and class that I could not put into words while there.

We were lucky to have discovered Ana Maria at FEM (and Cartagena Insider) before our trip. This is an organization deeply committed to working WITH local afro and indigenous communities on a variety of issues, one of the most critical being community land ownership so that as tourist development continues, local communities will benefit. With them, we visited the afro fishing village of La Boquilla, blocks from the last tourist high rise on the beach. We participated in a deeply moving Drum Safari (with members of Batambora, who run a program teaching local kids to make and play local drums), toured the mangroves (with Eco-Tours La Boquilla), and visited with local women who had started a “lending circle” (we were interested in learning from them with the hopes of replicating their program in Mexico). The money we spent on the tour went to those three local programs that spent time with us. It was an all around beautiful experience and led to so many other experiences and friendships.

As a doc film-maker, I naturally look for stories (even on vacations, I can’t help it). In Cartagena there were so many complex stories it made my head spin and there were times I had to step back and breathe. I really appreciate your perspective, your “story”, and your willingness to put it out there. My real hope comes from the deep discussion that follows your post. So thank you most for that.

Victor January 20, 2015 at 11:13 pm

Hello Ekua,

First of all, you have to be part of our culture to judge the relation that we, as Cartagenian, have with Cuba. Cuba and Cartagena were the same ‘place’ during the Colony, after the independentist “criollos” (white-South American leaders) take the power and split the continent into countries (and then the Communism isolated the island). We have the same history and the same ethnic heritage as Cuba: ‘bantú’ (food, dresses, ancestral instruments, etc.). I’m pretty sure you didn’t notice it (because you don’t speak Spanish), but Cartagena is the only place in Colombia and South America where the same African-Spanish dialect as in Cuba is spoken. So, I speak with the same pronunciation, words and slangs with people from miles away and I don’t do it with people from Barranquilla (2 hours by bus). How do you think is this possible? Another Disney-esque strategy to entertain the tourists? No way!

The explanation is that back in the days Cuba was the first slave trader port in the insular America, and Cartagena was the first slave trader port in the continental America. There was a constant contact. Many of the slaves were first in Cuba, and then sold in Cartagena, and vice versa. If you see the Cuban newspapers from the Colony you will read some ads like: “I’m selling a Cartagenian female slave. She has 1 son” (http://www.archivocubano.org/trafico_esclavista.html). And there are evidences of trading born-Cuban slaves in Cartagena too! Even, our liberator (Cartagena’s leader) was born in Cuba! (http://www.eluniversal.com.co/cartagena/local/pedro-romero-un-protagonista-de-la-independencia-52735). He lived in Getsemaní, where you can find a lot of Cuban influence. And despite he was a free man, he came to Cartagena to work (as many Cubans during the Colony).
Do you know where those Cuban immigrant’s descendents are? In Cartagena, playing salsa, son and bolero. And where are the thousand of born-Cartagenian slaves’s descendants? In Cuba, contributing to the Cuban culture! Salsa, son, bolero and many other “Cuban” genres are so deep in our DNA that you will see our parents and grandparents in our poor and middle-class neighborhoods trying to maintain the traditional dresses and dances against the reggaetown culture (we have something similar to reggaetown called ‘champeta’, but it’s was created before than the Puerto Rican music become famous).

So, if you think Cuban music is foreign here, you are wrong. We obviously have many other musics and dances of African influence in Cartagena: champeta, ceresesé, mapalé, merecumbé, cumbia, vallenato, etc. But they don’t fight with salsa, son and bolero music (and Dominican merengue, because there is a Colombian merengue too inside de vallenato; both born at the same time). These last genres are just very popular among the Cartagenians, not tourists (take a look of the traditional ‘kioskos’ in the south of the city: http://youtu.be/-qDefQJJkB8).

So, be careful with your assumptions. It’s like going to Texas and judge the Chicano culture like a Mexican parody, because it will only reveal you don’t know their origin and history. Next time look for a cultural guide and go to La Boquilla town, Getsemaní neighborhood, Barú or Punta Arena islands, or schools and cultural houses (where other traditional genres are a must for kids and teens). I’m sure you will find more variety.

And yes, you’re right when talking about the discrimination in the touristic area! But you will see more couples made up with a black one and a white one (like my grandparents and my parents), ‘mulatos’ (like me) and truly multicultural friendship (in the real and huge city, the south one; not in the rich neighborhoods, were you stayed at) than in most of the countries with black and white population. I didn’t see that in the USA and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist in South Africa and Europe (where black and mulato people are hypocritically accepted but not assimilated by most of the white people). That means something!

VMH. MA in Spanish

Ekua August 14, 2015 at 9:59 pm

Victor, this is all very interesting information… I wish it was actually available to tourists who go there. It is good to know the shared history of Cuba and Colombia, but in terms of your assumptions about my supposed assumptions: as a tourist, I came across businesses that very clearly played up the Cuban vibe for tourists. It wasn’t in a historical way, it was more of an attempt to recreate a faux Havana experience. Ultimately, people from Cartagena need to understand that what information is available to tourists is very different from what’s available to locals. When I was in Cartagena, it felt like it was being marketed as a tropical tourist playground and I was sad to find out that the vibrant cultures of the area were pretty inaccessible to tourists.

Eliana May 10, 2015 at 11:09 am

Being from Cartagena, I completely disagree with your article. My family an neighbors were extremely proud of their African heritage and we were certainly not afraid to showcase it through our music, food and dance. I moved to the US last year and can say that the amount of racism I have encountered here far surpasses the ‘racism’ you seemingly encountered in Cartagena. If you are white (this is for the white people commenting and agreeing with this article), you should understand that white people are not revered in Cartagena due to our people’s ties with slavery. Also, there is no such thing as racism towards white people, prejudice yes, but racism, no. You say that you could blend in with the locals, but you were disgusted that they were surprised to find out that English was your first language, well shouldn’t it be obvious why they were surprised? Cartagena is not the pretty and perfect USA, and your article really offended me. I am proud to be African and Colombian. But we are also Latin! Don’t expect us to only celebrate our African heritage 100 percent constantly, we like to revel within our Latin culture as well.Surely, if you were actually from Cartagena you’d have a different perspective.

Wayne August 11, 2015 at 7:45 am

I’m going to Cartagena this weekend. I’d like to take a tour of the Palenque village for this coming Saturday, August 15th. Does anyone have an email address or a phone number where I can reach someone who’ll be able to act as a tour guide or at the very least provide transportation to the village. I don’t need to just lay on a beach and work on my ‘tan’ It does quite well year-round if you catch my drift.
I don’t mind finding my own way back to Cartagena. Also, Ekua I love your writing style and even moreso – your insight.

Ekua August 14, 2015 at 10:10 pm

Thanks you! I wish I could help you out, but I don’t have any information. I hope you’ve figured something out. Let me know how it goes!

I feel you on not wanting just a beach vacation… I live in Hawaii at the moment and love the ocean, but rarely spend a day sitting at the beach unless it’s approaching sunset and I have a good book on hand 🙂 I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my writing… I’m hoping to find more time to write soon.

ana maria gonzalez August 15, 2015 at 2:40 am

Hi, Yes! You can call +57 3044544005 to contact Cartagena Insider. Or write an email to cartagenainsider@gmail.com

Ana August 17, 2015 at 10:25 pm

Hi Wayne,
I do know some people that can guide you to and in Palenque.
Check out http://www.volunteerhostel.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/Cartagenainsider?fref=ts.

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