• Domino Volunteers

Cartagena Culture 101: desde champeta hasta la arepa de huevo

Updated: Sep 10, 2018

by Alex Berryhill


Photo credit to my college roommate, the lovely Roxanne Rahnama. As we were walking through the historic center together one day, this friendly stranger struck a pose from across the street. It's that joyful, outgoing personality that you find throughout Cartagena — rather than the picturesque balconies, colorful streets and pristine island beaches — that makes one fall in love with the city and it's culture.

Having lived here for the last several years, I am often asked the question: what is your favorite think about Cartagena? My answer, time and time again remains the same: culture, culture, and more of Cartagena's vibrant culture. I would even bet you a fresh arepa de huevo that 9/10 cartageneros would reply the same.


Cartagena's culture is lively, proud and joyful. It’s walking into a room and being greeted by (and being expected to greet) every single person, one by one. It’s starting any conversation, even the quick exchange of ordering your sweet tinto, with a “Buenos dias! ¿Cómo estás?” (And if it’s someone of even relative acquaintance: “Y la family? Los padres? Los perros y gatos?) It’s dancing champeta and salsa pegada at family gatherings. It's taking things slow, because what’s really the rush anyways?


It's not hard to sense Cartagena's culture; it's everywhere you look, smell and listen. Yet, it takes more than simply wandering the historic center to truly experience and understand the depth and diversity of Cartagena's personality, people, traditions and history. Understanding Cartagena's culture requires spending quality time to soak it all in, getting involved with local events and organizations, making friends and having conversations. This was one of the primary reasons Domino Volunteers was founded: our goal is to not only connect volunteers to impactful foundations, but to also help visitors better understand and experience local culture.


Interested in learning more about this culture I can’t stop raving about? Below I have a quick 101 on local cuisine, music, dance and local festivals.


Cuisine

Fresh seafood, sweet coconut rice, fried treats galore, acidic and addicting suero, an endless number of fruit-based homemade candies, and an exotic fruit juice at every meal. Foodies and diets beware: Cartagena’s cuisine is dangerously tasty.

A traditional plate, prepared by my high school students during a class presentation on food and culture.

Traditional cuisine in Cartagena is typical for a Caribbean city, and perhaps relatively familiar if you’ve visited Cuba or the Dominican Republic. A typical breakfast includes patacones (fried plantains), cheese and either a glass of chocolate milk, a fresh fruit juice, or a sweet cafe con leche. You might alternatively enjoy an arepa de huevo or plate of scrambled perico eggs for breakfast.


Lunch and dinner are rather similar, except that lunches tend to be larger. You might expect a serving of soup (although surprising with Cartagena’s high temperatures, these hot soups are often delicious and refreshing!). For your main plate, expect a portion of meat or perhaps the typical mojarra frita (a big tasty fried fish), a side of coconut rice, plantains or patacones, perhaps some beans or lentils, and a small salad. And as always, a big yummy fresh fruit juice.


Music & Dance

Carràmba, where to start when it comes to music and dance in Cartagena! First off, there's the sheer diversity. Just a few of the most commonly heard musical styles here in Cartagena include:

  • Champeta: if there was an official music genre of Cartagena, I would most definitely vote for chamepta. Although for years stigmatized as being associated with the lower class, today cartageneros (and especially the younger generation) take great pride in their champeta music and dance. The music blends African beats and rhythms, with a latino flavor. Dancing champeta means following the rhythm closely with your hips, often very close up against your dance partner. There’s several classic champeta moves as well, which once learned will earn any foreigner some serious respect (along with probably many laughs). I'd recommend checking out this popular local artist's most recent music video below for a better idea of the sounds and rhythms of champeta.


  • Salsa: popular throughout the majority of Colombia, salsa is another musical genre held dear to the hearts of many cartageneros. Salsa has a wide variety of sub-genres, and just about all of them can be heard and danced to in Cartagena.

  • Cumbia: a folkloric music and dance style originating from the colonial period on the Caribbean coast and sharing a blend of African, Spaniard and indigenous influences. Today, it’s common to see cumbia performed by classic dance groups in the streets of Cartagena, festivals and any major school or public events.

  • Reggaeton: While you won’t necessarily hear any more reggaeton in Cartagena than you would in most other latin countries, it’s prominence is hard to deny. Classic reggaeton songs are hear on repeat for months on end in both the picos of the barrios as well as expensive clubs in the historic center. Plenty of reggaeton artists have filmed their music videos in Cartagena as well, such as Nicky Jam and J Balvin.

  • Vallenato: another favorite music and dance style to many costeños. Vallenato may be hard to understand and appreciate as a foreigner, as it’s rhythm is repetitive and it’s lyrics plentiful and at times difficult to understand. But, once one begins to understand the often poetic, romantic, or at times devastating stories told by vallenatos, it’s hard to not appreciate this genre’s significance and popularity.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oneeighteen/

Dance and music are important reflections of culture anywhere in the world. However (despite my obvious bias) I can't think of anywhere in the world where that's more so the case than here. Music and dance are everywhere you go in Cartagena. Whether it's 8 am on a Sunday morning, or 8 pm in a family neighborhood, expect to hear blaring music from the over-sized speakers of neighbors, tiendas, clothing stores, or even your local supermarket. Dancing is also present in so many aspects of life: any school event, family gatherings, between friends or co-workers. In Cartagena, one might break into dance at any moment! When it comes to the going-out scene, dance also holds priority, whether you go to a club, neighborhood picó, basic corner store, or one of the many public plazas.


Lastly, one of the things I find so amazing and beautiful about Cartagena, is how much people here also, sincerely, love music and dance. There’s nothing like seeing an entire room sing along to the words of a vallenato song, who’s lyrics it seems they’ve had memorized their whole life, or the way fathers and daughters or mothers and sons dance song after song to a classic salsa, eyes closed in joy despite whatever generational differences in taste and style.


Major Festivals

Colombia has more public holidays than most other countries in the world, the majority of which simply seem to result in a day off of work. There are so many festivos, it’s hard to keep track of what they are and when they happen! Here are just a few that are particularly celebrated and important in this region of the country:

  • Festival de Dulces: Colombia is a relatively religious country, with over 90 percent of Colombians identifying as Catholics. As such, it should be no surprise that Semana Santa (Easter Week) is a national public holiday. In Cartagena, the week is a time to spend with family, attend traditional religious parades, observe special masses—and also, eat lots of sweets. Cartagena celebrates their Festival de Dulces (Candy Festival) during Semana Santa, meaning that throughout the week you’ll find the historic center’s plazas and the majority of shopping centers featuring additional stalls of homemade fruit-based sweets, such as cocada de coco, guayaba o papaya, tamarindo, or this paste-like fruit-based sweet you can find in a million varieties ( I've never learned or found it's official name, but you can find it in the picture below). Many public schools will also host a day in which students prepare and sell these traditional candies (see the picture below). What if I missed the Festival de Dulce during my visit to Cartagena? No worries: you can also find these traditional candies sold at Centenario Park or the Portal de Dulces near the Clock Tower.

The traditional fruit-based candies of Cartagena. Photo credit to Donde.co at https://cdn.jetsemani.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/MG_2168.jpg
  • Día de Amor y Amistad: This is by no means a Cartagena-specific holiday, but one that I believe so perfectly represents the city's warm and expressive personality. Across Colombia, on September 15th couples, friends, co-workers and classmates celebrate Día de Amor y Amistad (or Love and Friendship Day). It’s almost like Valentine’s Day, but not so specifically romantic. It’s a time to show how you feel to all your loved ones, not just your significant other or crush. While the holiday technically lasts just one day, expect to see friend gatherings, dates and celebrations at local restaurants throughout the entire week.

  • Cartagena’s Independence Day: Cartagena is the only city in Colombia with two Independence days. Like the rest of Colombia, Cartagena recognizes July 20, 1819 as the day Simon Bolivar won liberty from Spain for all of Gran Colombia . However, Cartagena actually fought and secured it's independence eight years before, through an especially drawn out and bloody battle that earned Cartagena the name La Heroica for the city's dedication, courage and victory. In commemoration of this historic date, cartageneros celebrate the entire week preceding November 11. Independence day festivities, otherwise known as the Fiestas de Noviembre, include street parties in each of the neighborhoods, parades through the historic center, and neighborhood beauty pageants, as well as the national Miss Colombia competition. Throughout the week, expect lots of foam wars, fireworks, and general joyful chaos.

My high school students dancing in a parade during the Independence Day Festivities, November 2016.

This blog is unquestionably missing so many other facets of Cartagena's culture: it's history, ethnic diversity, regional linguistics and traditions. However, that'll have to wait for another blog — so stay tuned! And remember, the best way to truly understand any of the above is to simply visit Cartagena and experience it's vivacious culture for yourself.

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