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Exploring the Two Sides of Cartagena

La zona colonial de Cartagena

Photograph by Dan Herrick

I sit with a cocktail atop the medieval stone walls at breezy Café del Mar, a view of the Caribbean Sea on one side and old town Cartagena on the other. It’s easy from this vantage point to imagine the pirate-dodging fleets of Spanish galleons filled with bounty that once crossed these waters en route to the motherland.

Founded in 1533, Colombia’s Cartagena de Indias first served as a strategic repository for Spain’s New World gold and riches. Later, it became a major port in the African slave trade. The city’s wealth, drawn from the effect of these various enterprises, resulted in today’s old town: UNESCO-awarded and dotted with grand 16th-century plazas and magnificent churches, all surrounded by an 11-kilometer fortified city wall.

Although most visitors’ attention is held within the old town walls, a visit to the nearby neighborhood of Getsemaní is recommended. The contrast conveys the city’s unique blend of indigenous, African and Spanish culture—and also its evolution.

A first look down the cobblestone lanes of Cartagena’s old town: steamy and colorful. It’s easy to understand why famed Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez chose to base himself and several of his novels here. The concentrated wealth, winds of religion and cultural intersection fascinated him. Although the popular UNESCO site is now home to fusion restaurants and salsa bars, horse-drawn carriages and colorful balconies help retain its colonial charm and atmosphere.

As early evening approaches on the Plaza de Santo Domingo, restaurant and café seating takes over the perimeter of the square. Its 16th-century church, the city’s oldest, stands above it all with its crooked bell tower (local legend says the devil kicked it). Musicians and dancers pile into the plaza’s center, their performance in sync with an Afro-Caribbean beat.

Nearby Plaza de los Coches, once a slave market, is now a sweets market by day and watering hole by night. Around the corner, Donde Fidel, one of the city’s most famous salsa clubs, was a reputed first stop for sailors after months at sea. Today, it draws all types for a casual drink on the plaza or, for the courageous, a spin on its narrow dance floor.

Just beyond the city walls, past the Puerta del Reloj, stands the neighborhood of Getsemaní. In Márquez’s novel Of Love and Other Demons, crossing the drawbridge into this part of the city meant entering a world filled with African magic, of runaway slaves and those wanting to disappear. Even as recently as the early 2000s, the area was known for petty theft and drugs.

This reputation has become a thing of the past, however, as the neighborhood fills with cafés, hostels, restaurants and bars. Young Colombians experiment with artistic and culinary expression; new life and new coats of paint have come to aging stone buildings. Some of the city’s best music and salsa clubs, like the ever-popular Café Havana and Bazurto Social Club, echo and shake through the night with salsa and the Afro-influenced beats of champeta and cumbia. With its vibrant living history, Getsemaní has fast become Cartagena’s place to be.

The streets of hip but humble Getsemaní also are flush with vivid, gritty street art. Side streets like Calle 29 burst into fits of expression and story-filled flourish. Politically aware and socially contemporary murals reflect pride and draw attention to the city’s African and indigenous roots and its ongoing transformation. A camera is a must.

For a quick bite to eat, sample an arepa from one of the local street vendors and make your way to cozy Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad, where grandmothers in their windows are glued to telenovelas, kids in school uniforms play soccer and old men read newspapers and play chess.

As you close your day with a craft beer from a trendy bar on the plaza, consider the juxtaposition. To appreciate Cartagena in full, it’s important to experience the arc of its long history. Inside the walls of its old town, you’ll get a glimpse of the city's colonial past. In Getsemani, you just might be looking into its cosmopolitan future.

Where to Stay
For a bit of luxury in the Centro Historico, consider the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara hotel, located in a converted 17th-century convent. This meticulously renovated building with 124 balconied rooms around a grand colonial-era courtyard will make you feel as if you’ve gone back in time. In Getsemaní, go for a more personalized feel at the 18-room Casa Canabal Hotel Boutique in a restored colonial house. With a spa, terrace Jacuzzi and Turkish baths, you’ll be properly pampered here. 

Where to Eat
For a taste of the traditional with a twist, head to La Mulata in the Centro Historico for lunch. The daily specials take local culinary temptations to new levels while keeping prices very reasonable. In Getsemaní, visit Demente on Plaza de la Trinidad for tapas, craft beer, cocktails and Cuban cigars—all from the comfort of a rocking chair. 

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