Cartagena’s Artsy, Funky Gethsemane Neighborhood

The colonial center of Cartagena’s walled city is beautiful, but most always bustling with people. Tourists come on foot and by the busload to tour museums, cathedrals and other historic sites. Street performers and vendors are prevalent in the city’s many squares, and horse-drawn carriages are around every turn.

Despite the area’s color and beauty, its energy can become overwhelming, especially in the Colombian heat. Luckily, we wandered outside the hub of the city, and discovered the streets of nearby Gethsemane.

This area was the birthplace of the revolt against Spanish rule in the early 19th century. Cartagena became one of the first cities in Colombia to declare independence from Spain, supported by a group called the Gethsemane Lancers, who continued to resist the Spanish until the city won its independence 1821. By then, Gethsemane was home to craftsmen, freed slaves and merchants, and the area became known as the “popular quarter.” Gethsemane is now often referred to as the “culture quarter,” as poets, painters, photographers and other artists settled into the neighborhood.

Outside the original walls of Cartagena’s historic old city, Gethsemane was formerly a haven of prostitution and drugs. However, as in many city neighborhoods with a gritty past, there has been a resurgence in the area. Most of the old colonial buildings have been converted to backpacker hostels, boutique hotels and bistros, and the area now has an artsy, funky vibe.

Unlike the colonial center, there are no major museums, cathedrals or other traditional sights to see. This neighborhood is an attraction in itself.

We first went to the Gethsemane neighborhood in search of Beer & Laundry, after Scott noticed it when reading restaurant reviews online. In addition to laundry service, Beer & Laundry also sells beer and pizza, and was getting rave reviews. Customers talked of the friendly the owner who was fluent in English, among several other languages, who happily offered local information. We read that the pizza was great and the beer was cold.

I didn’t need laundry service, as we thankfully have a machine on board. However, I’ve never met a cold beer I didn’t like, and we’re always up for a good pizza, so we set off to find this “Beer & Laundry.”

After crossing the bridge from Manga, where our marina was located, we decided to walk the wall for a bit, admiring the massive structure along the way.

 

High atop the huge stone wall, we had a clear view of Castillo San Felipe, as well as houses and shops along the outskirts of the neighborhood.

We also had our first look at some of the street murals that Gethsemane is known for.

After rounding a block or two, and getting our bearings, we located Beer & Laundry. I was so excited about a cold beer (after the hot, sweaty walk) that I forgot to take a photo of the exterior, so I borrowed one from online.

Inside, large, shiny-new washer and dryers lined one wall of the narrow space. Along the other wall were several small tables, surrounded by benches and chairs.

Anna, the owner, came over to greet us, and laughed when she learned we had no need for laundry, and were instead in search of pizza and beer. Customers happily share tables in the small space, so she sat us with several people who were visiting Cartagena as part of a trip across South America (The glass wall behind us held maps of the world, for customers to mark where they call home).

It seemed crazy to us that they were traveling with only a backpack or two, and they were amazed at our boat life. We had a great time chatting with each other, and exchanging stories of our travels.

After feeding our bellies and cooling off a bit, we wandered the streets of Gethsemane. Here, locals far outnumbered tourists. Instead of vendors selling hats, paintings and jewelry, and tour representatives calling out to get your attention, local men played board games on the sidewalk or just gathered to chat. It was obvious that most residents had lived in Gethsemane all their lives, and there was a great, small-town feel to the neighborhood.

 

Gethsemane’s streets are just as colorful and scenic as those in the historic center, with one more interesting than the next. We tried to walk a different path each time we visited, enjoying each street’s unique feel.

 

At almost every turn, we were met with beautiful wall art. The vivid, urban murals were striking, against the backdrop of a faded colonial wall or building.

 

 

We discovered Basilica Pizzeria, opposite a quiet square off the beaten path. Our lunch was delicious, and we were amused at how nearby restaurants receive their deliveries..by glorified hand truck!

All streets in Gethsemane seem to lead to Plaza de la Trinidad , which is anchored by the Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad (Church of the Holy Trinity), built in the 17th century (During the day, the quiet plaza looks something like this).

The plaza is charming and welcoming, and the natural “hub” of the neighborhood. It comes alive at night, with residents and tourists gathering to eat at the surrounding restaurants and cafes.

We enjoyed a tapas dinner at Demente, on the edge of the plaza. They have a retractable roof in the bar area, to take advantage of the cooler evenings, and open-air patio seating out back. After our meal, we wandered the area, enjoying the sights, smells and people-watching.

The star of the plaza in the evening is definitely the street food. Vendors set up throughout the square and surrounding streets, with food to satisfy most any craving.

 

Burgers and hot dogs with all the fixins’ (Scott was sorry he’d eaten so much at dinner)

Lots of things on sticks.

And of course, arepas. (I was sorry I’d eaten so much at dinner)

Arepas are found in nearly every park and square in Cartagena. Arepa de choclo are made by blending yellow cornmeal and fresh corn kernels. This mixture is then combined with milk, salt and sugar, making a batch of something similar to thick pancakes. The pancakes are joined together and grilled with a filling of mozzarella cheese, egg and/or meat….and more butter. They seem to be most popular for breakfast, or lunch. Scott and I enjoyed several of them from a vendor just outside of Club de Pesca (borrowed photo).

 

“Arepas de queso are made with white corn, milk, butter and salt and then pan-grilled. They are sometimes opened up to allow more cheese and butter to be shoved inside. Sadly, we never tried these yummy-sounding/looking things (more borrowed photos).

Amidst all the frying and grilling, we were surprised to see fruit vendors. With brightly loaded carts, they were in full force among the evening plaza scene.

Lunch at Basilica Pizzeria was so good, that we returned for dinner with our friends Bob and Irma (s/v Gaia), who we’d met in the San Blas. At night, the square was filled with tables of diners from the surrounding restaurants. Soft street lighting and local live music made for a great atmosphere.

We spent many afternoons exploring Gethsemane’s streets, and enjoying the evening atmosphere. With its laid back feel, and friendly locals, it was easy for us to become hooked on this hip, but quaint, neighborhood . Here are more photos of Gethsemane.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”