A drumbeat runs throughout Colombia, finding new rhythms to tap to as it flows from region to region. In the Caribbean, it’s expressed through a blend of African and indigenous influences, sweeping participants in seductive turns and poses. Down in the Pacific, classic styles find new form with fancy footwork and modern beats. So enrapturing are these cadences that they’ve managed to shimmy their way into cultures all over the world.
Discover a new side of Colombia by learning the dance and musical styles that help define its regional cultures.
Artists dance to the soundtrack of cumbia in Barranquilla © Luis Acosta / Getty Images
Cumbia music and dance takes different forms throughout Latin America, but it is believed to have originated in the Magdalena department in the Caribbean region of Colombia. Once a dance of courtship, cumbia fuses African percussion with indigenous wind instruments, resulting in infectious rhythms that bring you to your feet.
Every year in August, the small Caribbean community of El Banco hosts a National Cumbia Festival for four days, treating locals and travelers to cumbia dance competitions, concerts from emerging musicians and parades. San Jacinto, another inland village, plays an important role in cumbia history; it’s where local indigenous people invented a flute-like instrument called the gaita. Popular groups like Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto hail from this tiny town. If you pass through Cartagena, Crazy Salsa offers introductory cumbia classes as well as other dance class options.
Hailing from the Sinu River area of the Caribbean coast is porro, a subgenre of cumbia that, currently, lends itself to ballroom dance. This orchestral style was favored by popular Latin American bands in the 1960s, and while some say its popularity peaked during that era, a new movement is reviving it to its former glory. A large bombo drum guides the dance's rhythm.
In Medellin, porro has been embraced by the younger generation and is taught in local dance schools like Dancefree. The city hosts an annual Festival Del Porro in the restored La Comuna 13 neighborhood, inviting visitors to practice their moves and keep the tradition alive. The National Porro Festival takes place in San Pelayo in the Cordoba department and brings together the most celebrated porro bands.
Salsa dancers rehearse for the Salsodromo parade in Cali © Luis Robayo / Getty Images
In the 1970s, Cuban rhythms crossed the Caribbean sea and made a home in the Pacific region surrounding Cali. A new style of salsa was born form this migration: salsa caleña. Drawing inspiration from cumbia, pachanga and the boogaloo, salsa caleña is recognized for its rapid steps and generous spins. This style put Cali on the map as a worldwide salsa destination.
So embedded is the spirit of salsa in Cali that one need not go far to be swept away by its enchanting melodies. Salsa not only dominates the radio waves, but many hotels and hostels also offer free classes to tourists. Clubs like La Topa Tolondra have nightly opportunities to practice your moves, and Cali hosts a World Salsa Festival every September.
Champeta is a lively style of dance and music that was born in the 1970s by Afro-Colombians living in the Atlantic coastal regions around Cartagena, Barranquilla and Palenque. The dance is characterized by rapid hip movements, and the music seamlessly blends vocal, percussion, bass and electronic elements, making it easy to catch the rhythm even if you haven’t memorized the steps.
Champeta was rejected by mainstream culture for many years, categorized as the music of “thugs,” just as rap in the United States once was. Attitudes have since evolved, and you’ll now frequently hear champeta featured in commercials and on the radio. Songs lyrics celebrate the unshakeable spirit of Afro-Colombians and remind listeners of the genre’s once-controversial roots.
A trip to Palenque, the first free Black community in the Americas, provides a glimpse into Colombia’s African history, and visitors are often treated to live performances where champeta takes center stage. The popular Bazurto Social Club in Cartagena offers weekly live champeta performances and cajole locals into teaching you a trick or two.
The town of Palenque has a strong musical heritage © Danielle Dorsey / Lonely Planet
Salsa choke is a 21st-century take on salsa that was reimagined in the Pacific region of Cali, Colombia. Choke means crash in Spanish, a descriptor referring to how dancers’ bodies bump and grind in this sexy dance.
Less than a decade old, salsa choke mixes reggaetón, electronica and house music with rhythmic salsa loops for a uniquely Colombian sound. Most popular among younger generations, salsa choke is simpler than traditional salsa and doesn’t require a partner. The style earned worldwide attention during the 2014 FIFA cup, when Colombia’s team showed off their moves in Brazil.
If you’re in Cali, head to Tin Tin Deo on a Thursday night to see this musical phenomenon in person. You might also hear it played at the annual Feria de Cali that takes places every December and features dances, music, food and cultures from the region.