When you stroll through the streets of Cartagena, Colombia, within a few minutes you’ll come across women in brightly colored dresses selling fruits and unique sweets from handwoven baskets. Those sweets are helping to save an entire culture.
Those women are called Palenqueras, because they hail from a village called San Basilio Del Palenque, about an hour inland from Cartagena. They commute from Palenque to Cartagena to sell their sweets, the recipes for which are a direct throwback to their ancestral roots. The sweets have names like cocadas, caballitos and alegria. The people of Palenque are on a kick to preserve this culture, which was almost lost to modern times just a few decades ago. By keeping these recipes and making these sweets, it’s one way they are keeping the culture alive and well.
What’s significant about this little village is it was the first internationally recognized freed slave town in all of the Americas. In 1691, a group of African slaves managed to break free from their Spanish captors and flee into the jungle, forming the town of Palenque. It’s so significant, in fact, that UNESCO declared it a heritage site, formally naming it a Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Watch the video to see how Andrea, the Palenquera we interviewed, makes these sweets in her home. It's a stunning sight, honestly. Andrea works in an outdoor kitchen, her hands her only tools, and cooks over an open flame on the ground. Mind you, it's sweltering in Palenque, and the humidity is unreal. But Andrea, and other Palenqueras like her, go through this routine day in and day out despite the oppressive heat.
The language spoken in Palenque is also a cultural gem that residents are working hard to preserve. It’s a mix of Kikongo (the language spoken in Congo), West African dialect, Spanish and Portuguese. It’s a totally unique mix of dialects, and it’s only spoken in San Basilio Del Palenque. Colombia is on board with preserving the language, and has deemed it one of the official languages of the country.
Check out the video to hear what the language sounds like.
All of this -- the clothes, the wares -- it’s not simply a gimmick. Sure, it’s how the Palenqueras are making money today, so naturally they want to draw in the tourists in Cartagena. (Word of advice: if you want to take a picture of a Palenquera, buy one of her sweets first and ask for permission. Palenqueras will be quick to demand you pay them, if they catch you trying to sneak in a picture. Better to pay for the sweets upfront.)
By making that daily commute from Palenque to Cartagena, pounding the pavement to sell their sweets, the Palenqueras are doing their part to keep a cultural and historical gem alive.
Check out more from Colombia! What do you get when you mix gun powder, alcohol and iron discs? A (crazy) Colombian game called Tejo. Or, did you know Pablo Escobar had hippos, which are still around today and breeding uncontrollably?