Getsemaní: Once lost now found

Getsemani, Cartagena
Getsemani, Cartagena

Getsemaní, is a barrio that’s got plenty of ‘previous’ in everything. In bygone years the sound of ‘Te voy a matar!’ (I’m gonna kill you) would have struck fear into any passer-by.

Cartagena’s most colourful neighbourhood was populated by all manner of dodgy types living off the flotsam and jetsam that washed up on the Muelle de los Pegasos. Even as recently as the turn of this century such threats would have caused panic.

But things have changed in Getsemaní. These days the death threats are directed at the small pieces working their way around one of the multi-coloured Ludo boards that take centre stage around the clock in Callejon Ancho.

A church in Cartagena's Getsemani neighborhood

While much of Getsemaní’s architecture has suffered more wear and tear than the walled city, the bright colors and dramatic history are distinctive.

They take their pastimes deadly seriously in the land of the ‘Pico’, the name given to the towering sound systems that keep the barrio moving to the unmistakable rhythms of salsa, reggaeton and champeta day and night.

Over 20 years, the barrio has evolved from no-go to must-go for a growing number of tourists in search of the ‘real’ Cartagena.

Slowly but surely, Getsemaní’s once-feared gangs have been replaced by a new breed of ‘hippies’ (as I and my foreign friends have been dubbed by the locals), blondes with unpronounceable names and strange tastes from far flung places like Vienna, Paris and London.

A Bohemian crowd of globe trotting writers, chefs, dancers, artists and photographers from every corner of the world have come in search of a new kind of cultural stimulation, one that comes without the Manhattan-style rents and armies of cruise passengers descending on the rest of Cartagena’s walled city.

Our noisy, nosey neighbours have embraced us with open arms – well at least they’ve given us nicknames. Along with a new wave of backpack-touting arrivals holed up in hip and happening hostels on Calle Media Luna, we are the latest in a long line of strangers that have been sucked into Getsemaní’s magical maelstrom.

Misfits, outcasts and lots of tourists

“This has always been a very mixed barrio, filled with people from different places and different races,” says Carmelo Hernandez, Getsemaní’s unofficial cultural ambassador.

Much maligned, Cartagena’s elites have long looked down on Getsemaní from their ivory towers in Castillogrande and the mansions built by the trade in slaves and salvation in the Historic Centre.

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The scorn poured on Getsemaní – dubbed a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah for its association with prostitution and drugs – has only served over time to forge an even stronger bond between its close-knit residents.

“It’s a small barrio with lots of people that lived here all their lives so everybody knows each other. People here are closer than in any other barrio in the city. There’s a very strong sense of community,” says Hernández, a man who like most of his friends sports a T-shirt with the words “Orgullosamente Getsemanisense” (Proud to be from Getsemani) emblazoned on his chest in 35-point type three days a week.

At the centre of everything is the Plaza de Santísima Trinidad, a semi-circular plaza, shaped like an amphitheatre at the entrance of the Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad that bursts into life as the searing Caribbean subsides.

The ‘real’ Cartagena

Mothers sit and gossip while their children race from one side of the plaza to the other, toddlers on tricycles weaving their way between twinkle-toed teenagers playing football barefoot.

As a lethargic footnote to the spectacular backdrop of this unique piece of street theatre, Getsemaní’s Alpha males lounge religiously on the coral cornerstone of the mustard-coloured 17th century church, catching what’s left of the refreshing trade winds on their bulging, exposed beer bellies.

In the not-so prime breeze estate, backpacking gringos soak up the vibrant display of Cartagena street life with a cold beer served up by the industrious paisas (those from Medellín) running what has to be Cartagena’s most profitable corner shop.

Even the haughty types from Castillogrande have joined the buzz in what is fast becoming Colombia’s most pluralistic district, lured to Getsemani by the opening of top-notch Italian restaurants like Trattoria Di Silvio and Café Havana, the salsa joint that placed the barrio on the map when it opened its doors five years ago.

Woods Staton, a man who spent $700m to buy 1,800 McDonalds franchises in Latin America, is an unabashed fan of Getsemaní’s authentically local vibe. “I love walking through the streets of Getsemaní early in the morning. It’s full of life, people coming and going. It reminds me of the Cartagena I fell in love with 15 years ago.”


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