Neighborhood Watch: Getsemani

A centuries-old, pastel-hued barrio in Cartagena, Colombia is in the midst of a cultural renaissance. 

WORDS Jess Swanson
February 2018
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Many locals were delighted when, a few years ago, the hopping Bembé Disco Bar opened on Calle Media Luna, the most raucous street in Getsemaní, Cartagena’s liveliest neighborhood. Rosario Román, a bespectacled and soft-spoken abuela who lives next door, was not one of them. “I couldn’t sleep!” she says. Luckily, along with being famously fun-loving, Getsemaní residents are famously accommodating. “They soundproofed the walls and promised to keep the decibels at a reasonable level,” Román says with a smile. “I was able to sleep again.”

Curled up on an armchair in the open-air parlor of a 250-year-old mansion—which has housed five generations of her family—the 80-year-old grandmother of eight recalls living here as a girl, hula hooping in the streets and climbing onto rooftops to pick guava and mango. More recently, this close-knit district—a quick stroll southeast of the heavily touristed Walled City—has been transformed into a bustling nightlife hub, but to Román it is home. “I will stay here,” she says, straightening up in her chair, “until I leave for the cemetery.”

An independent, rebellious spirit has defined this colorful neighborhood ever since it was founded in the late 16th century. The area developed beyond the fortress walls that encircled colonial Cartagena, and its residents have always shown a penchant for going it alone—they led the charge for local independence from the Spanish in 1811. The late 20th century saw a downturn, and anyone who didn’t really have to go to Getsemaní didn’t.

But then, in the early 2000s, street artists began to transform the area into an open-air gallery, painting mermaids and gargantuan crows onto centuries-old facades, helping to trigger a wave of hip eateries, boutique hotels and dance clubs. Today, Getsemaní stands as one of the liveliest destinations in South America. “I was impressed when tourists started coming,” Román says, raising her eyebrows, “but it was very strange at first.”

Getsemaní’s comeback began in earnest in 2006, with the opening of Café Havana, a Cuban-style salsa spot. Even then, the area hadn’t shaken its reputation for being a deadzone, but that wasn’t enough to blunt Colombian native Carmen Camacho’s ambitions. When she and her late husband first opened the Havana, its prospects did not look good. “We played dominos every night waiting for people to walk in,” Camacho says. “We’d keep saying, ‘Today, they are going to come,’ and they didn’t, not for a long time.”

Seemingly overnight, however, the Havana became a local institution, attracting musical legends like Albita Rodríguez and Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, along with guests like President Bill and Hillary Clinton. On the Friday night I visit, the place is jammed. Fairy lights wrap around the high ceiling and every inch of the dance floor is occupied by gyrating couples—some who arrived together, others who met at the bar. By midnight, several women have ditched their heels and glide barefoot on the patterned tiles. “There’s an energy here that makes everyone start dancing,” Camacho says as she boogies in her seat. “I can’t even sit still!”

A little further east, the beat shifts from Caribbean to techno. Media Luna Hostel, a lively property that’s home to a famous Wednesday night rooftop bash, pulls a crowd of millennial backpackers and scruffy bohemians who dance beneath a disco ball. “This is a magical house if you want to party!” manager Luis Alejandro Martínez tells me, shouting to make himself heard over the din. “If you want to sleep, not so much!”

One Chilean guy, who’s partway through a cycling tour to Alaska, has been in Getsemaní for the past two months. “It’s the energy that attracted me,” he says. Locals frequent the hostel, too. Don Alvaro, an 84-year-old man who lives nearby, often challenges younger guests to games of ping-pong or chess. Many accept with a pitying smile, only to be obliterated by the aging prankster. “He’s younger than all of us in spirit,” Martínez quips.

 

Media Luna Hostel's courtyard

Not far away, Plaza de la Trinidad—named after the vibrant yellow church that towers over the outdoor space—has become known as “the Times Square of Cartagena.” Tonight, the plaza is a happy muddle of visitors and locals: Little girls up past their bedtimes bounce on a trampoline, barefoot backpackers sip beer on the church steps and older abuelitos smoke cigars and play checkers. Chaotic lines form around the aromatic street carts serving pinchos (seared meat and potatoes on skewers) and patacones (fried green plantains mashed with onions and chorizo). Things liven up even more with the arrival of a Michael Jackson impersonator, who moon-walks to “Billie Jean.” “It’s very different from dancing on a stage,” he tells me, nodding to the rough bricks. “I have to buy new shoes twice a month.” 

The success of Café Havana and Media Luna Hostel has inspired others to try their luck. When Demente Tapas Bar opened five years ago, the owners weren’t sure if their investment was genius or insanity. (The name means “crazy” in Spanish, and interiors feature silhouettes of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein.) “We have the belief that if you’re a little crazy, you can generate great ideas for the world,” says manager Johon Zuñiga, his broad smile suggesting the risk paid off. The eatery is known for eclectic plates like a sea bass ceviche with crispy pork belly, slow braised oxtail burger and cocktails using local ingredients. (Try the green mango margarita.)

Last year, local chef Fabián Gómez took a risk of his own, opening Arrabal Gastrobar down the winding Calle San Juan. “I’d tell people I was opening in Getsemaní and they’d say, ‘Eww!’” he tells me. His idea was to craft a menu that offered affordable, elevated regional food—the sauce for his pork belly crocante takes three days to make, while he drives in his homemade passion fruit ice cream daily. “A dish you would pay $50 for in the city center,” he says, “costs $20 here.”

Meanwhile, new hotels have chipped away at the notion that, in terms of hospitality, Getsemaní only caters to cash-strapped backpackers. Overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Allure Chocolat Hotel maintains its historic facade on Calle Arsenal, while its modern interiors and infinity pool are patently not aimed at tight budgets. On the western end of Media Luna, recently opened Hotel Cappellán de Getsemaní, with its rooftop terraces and private Jacuzzis, further raises the bar.

In a few years, the Viceroy Cartagena is slated to open as the country’s first “six-star” ultra-luxury hotel. I visit the site with American Tom Herman, a self-proclaimed “software geek” and minor investor in the property. He leads me past Parque Centenario’s howler monkeys and iguanas to a dilapidated former convent known as Obra Pia, where a sleepy “guard dog” sunbathes. We climb wooden ladders until we reach the fifth floor. I see pitted walls, rickety floors and bamboo beams holding everything up like a worrying game of Jenga, but Herman envisions courtyards, wrap-around staircases and a rooftop pool. “Well, yes, I am crazy,” Herman says. “You have to be. If you’re an entrepreneur, you can’t be easily discouraged.”

The new Getsemaní, awash with visitors and the money they bring, has been a godsend for the mom-and-pop enterprises that line the streets. But, as is often the case with gentrification, there are concerns about rents and loss of character. “It’s not as simple as, ‘This was an unsafe neighborhood, then it became good once the big hotels came,’” says Javier Ortiz Cassiani, a historian who teaches at a nearby university. “That doesn’t give credit to the complexities of the neighborhood.”

To pick apart these complexities, I meet with Rosario Román’s grandson, 24-year-old Camilo Porras Gómez. As the “new generation of Getsemaní,” Porras says he has a responsibility to preserve the neighborhood’s soul while also bringing it into the 21st century. It’s a mission, he says, that dovetails nicely with his work at Jetsemani, a start-up run by Tom Herman that helps local businesses create an online presence. 

“I’ll be walking around and suddenly I’ll notice a new place that I didn’t see last week,” Porras says as we pass a new yoga studio and a cluster of ladies chatting on folding chairs. “Change isn’t easy for a lot of local businesses,” he continues, “but they’re beginning to realize that they have to modernize, too.”

 

Locals and tourists flock to Café Havana for live salsa bands

From here, Porras leads me to Oh! lá lá Bistro, a spot he believes has nailed the perfect mix of modernity and tradition. It’s set in the former home of a past governor, and black-and-white family photographs dot the cafe’s lavender walls. “Every day, customers ask me who the people in the pictures are,” says Carolina Vélez, a Colombian native who runs the cafe with her husband. “Everyone has their own story, and I choose to tell the story of this house.” Vélez aims to evoke local history with her food, which includes fried egg empanadas and steamed corn rolls made the old way with a hand-cranked churning device.

As I slurp my bowl of mote de queso (a garlicky cheese soup), a green-eyed man with tattoos walks in. “David!” Vélez shouts and rushes to hug him. The man is David Arzayus, who runs Café del Mural a block away in his mother’s old studio space. A former engineer, he’s known for roasting Colombian coffee using old, repurposed machines (including a popcorn maker).

They chat with a warmth that belies their status as rival business owners. Soon, talk turns to the area’s ongoing revival. “When the neighbors saw my eyes,” Arzayus says with a smile, “they thought I was a gringo coming to kick them out!”

“But we are not McDonald’s. We’re small business owners,” Vélez adds. “And I always say what makes Getsemaní isn’t David’s cafe or Oh! lá lá. It’s the locals, their soul.”

Arzayus nods and shouts: “Yes!”

The conversation lulls and the only sounds are the rhythmic slurping of soup and the chattering birds outside. “This is a proud neighborhood that stood for the independence of our country,” Vélez says finally. “Our fight now is to make sure it stays that way.”

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First Kid on the Block: Di Silvio Trattoria

For Mercedes Rizo, opening an Italian restaurant was “always a dream in a drawer,” she says. Though she worked at the United Nations, the Cartagena native heard about a vacant restaurant space down the block from Plaza La Trinidad and took her chance. An avid cook married to an Italian husband, Rizo crafted a menu ranging from traditional pastas to eclectic pizzas topped with salted meat and plantains. But the neighborhood still had a stigma. “For a year, I begged people to come and they wouldn’t.” Slowly, people who “had lived in Cartagena for 50 years but never stepped foot in Getsemaní” started arriving, including the late Gabriel García Márquez. A year later, she had to expand to the abandoned home across the street. Since Cartageneros are notoriously late, Rizo doesn’t take reservations, and the line to enter on a recent Saturday night wrapped around the block. The majority are repeat customers, whom Rizo greets with a kiss on the cheek. “We don’t want Getsemaní to become the Disney World of Cartagena,” Rizo says, but she’s proud that “many people have discovered this neighborhood through Di Silvio’s.”

The Outsiders

In the 1500s, Cartagena built massive stone walls around the city center as protection from pirates. Outside the southern walls, working-class blacksmiths, carpenters and sailors thrived. “It was lower-class,” says historian Javier Ortiz Cassiani of Getsemaní, “but a growing class.” By the 1800s, “the sons of blacksmiths went to school and became lawyers,” he says, and gained political awareness. In 1811, after hearing that city leaders denied Cartagena’s independence from Spain, people gathered in Getsemaní and marched to the city center, weapons drawn, until the leaders relented. The uprising has always been a source of pride. 

Mom-and-pop shops of Getsemaní

Casa de las Palmas

Set in a historic house with a quaint courtyard, drooping hammocks and vibrant art on the walls, Casa de las Palmas is a hotel run by a local family, whose two friendly Chihuahuas greet you at reception.

Café del Mural

A former engineer and grandson of a coffee grower, David Arzayus set out to bring Colombian beans to Colombians. He now roasts local beans using novel devices like blowtorches.

Las Indias Boutique Gourmet

Laureano Licona Calpe recreates classic recipes using local ingredients. “People want to listen to old music and remember the taste of the foods their grandparents made,” Calpe says. 

Jess Swanson

Jess Swanson is the associate editor at American Way and Celebrated Living. She graduated from Columbia University School of Journalism. Her reporting has taken her to the python-infested Everglades swamps to a bubbling onsen in Tokyo and peeking inside a lava-spouting volcano in Nicaragua.

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