We turned onto a narrow street of brightly colored attached houses of cement and stucco. Two boys played with their recent Christmas gifts of action heroes complete with sounds of warfare and annihilation. Potted plants were abundantly displayed along the raised edge of the paved road in front of many of the small homes in lieu of a yard and a woman tended her flowers while neighbors further on chatted, each sitting in front of their abodes. The thriving bushes and flowers created an oasis on this street in the center of one of the lesser known areas of Cartagena. And overhead, strung between the homes across the lane of Callejon Angosto, from one end of the road to the other, plastic shopping bags in pastel colors of white, yellow, pink and blues fluttered gaily in the breeze, trapping the morning light, radiating a festive aura and creating both shade and, surprisingly, a tranquil refuge. We were completely delighted to see the lowly plastic bag, bane of modern existence, transformed into a fanciful and useful piece of beauty.
A portion of Getsemani is immediately adjacent to the old walled city of Cartagena that the tourists so love. It begins just across a major thoroughfare, Avenida Venezuela and online tourist websites as well as printed books give the area short shrift. Yet it, unlike other neighborhoods such as San Diego, Boca Grande or the beach areas around Avenida Santander has not given way to the developers’ dollars and so it lacks the high rise condos, trendy stores and pricey restaurants found elsewhere. In this wedge-shaped neighborhood the common folk live, raise their families, attend schools and churches, save and spend their money, marry and bury their loved ones. For years, barrio Getsemani was stigmatized as poor and somehow unsafe for tourists. Yet we noticed on our visits that this was the mecca in Cartagena for the backpacker set; those young, mobile adventurists who flock to the barrio to take advantage of the clean, cheap hostels that thrive in Getsemani.
Barrio Getsemani is also home to a large, multi-gated, fenced park established in 1811, Parque Centenario. It’s reputed to have a two-toed sloth, a large, aged iguana and a small troop of howler monkeys in amongst the trees but, although we looked hard, we neither saw nor heard any wild life. On our first walk through the park in the late afternoon we encountered the strong disagreeable odor of urine in some shaded stretches of the walkways and several rather disreputably dressed gentlemen, looking suspiciously like drunken vagrants, lying on the grass or benches and slumped about giving the vicinity an overall creepy feeling.
However, on our second visit to the park, a little after 9 AM, we actually talked about the song, What a Difference a Day Makes, as it reflected the changes we were seeing as we wandered through the park. People strolled about under trees pleasantly shading the pathways, grassy spaces and flowering bushes of green in the otherwise vastly cemented area of this part of the city. Men sat upon benches talking quietly and a fountain sprayed water into a large pool. Book sellers sat in front of little permanent kiosks that completely lined one side of the park and stacks of new and used books were displayed. One gentleman’s attention was intently focused upon drying pages of a book by pressing a cloth to each page and fanning gently. We examined the books, struck up conversations and smiled profusely.
Walking other streets within the neighborhood of Getsemani we nodded to friendly passersby, stopped to watch a craps game being played by several men on a corner sidewalk and admired a pretty little church, La Iglesia da la Trinidad. One shaded and unnamed plaza had some whimsical metal statues of a dog chawing on a boys hip pocket, a drunk relieving himself in concert with a dog as his boon companion and a third of another borracho (drunk) proffering a drink to a not-too-close friend. Things that absolutely would not be encountered in the more prosperous, proper and staid old walled city. sometimes picturesque and charming precludes spontaneity and ribald humor!
Here, in Barrio Getsemani, you’ll find wide-spread gentrification. It appears that the locals are resisting changes by working to preserve this remnant of an older, less attractive but still vibrant and thriving part of the city. For now it’s a win-win for residents of the neighborhood as well as the tourists who have an opportunity to enjoy a grittier but character-filled corner of Caribe life amidst the hub-bub of cosmopolitan Cartagena de Indias. Viva el Barrio Getsemani!
By Richard and Anita