A renaissance beyond Cartagena’s historic walls

Once a woebegone Colombian district characterised by crime, Getsemani is one of Latin America's newest hotspots, with 200-year-old buildings, boutique hotels and killer nightclubs.

Visitors to Cartagena, the sultry port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, rarely leave its cobblestoned core. Surrounded by 500-year-old fortress walls, the Centro Historico is a Unesco World Heritage Site, with Spanish colonial architecture, internationally branded luxury hotels and obvious traveller appeal.

But just south of its ancient walls lies Getsemani, Cartagena's hippest neighbourhood and one of Latin America's newest hotspots. Once a woebegone district characterised by criminal activity and crumbling architecture, Getsemani is undergoing a 21st-century renaissance. A new generation is invigorating the barrio (neighbourhood), reclaiming public plazas and renovating 200-year-old buildings into privately-owned boutique hotels and killer nightclubs.

Like Rome, Cartagena’s coolest quarter was not built in a day. As recently as 10 years ago, travellers rarely visited Colombia at all. Wary of the country’s widely reported violent drug trade, vacationers heading south spent their holidays surfing in Costa Rica or partying in Buenos Aires instead.

However, as the Colombian economy has stabilised, Cartagena has gained considerable esteem in the hearts, minds and airfare purchases of global jetsetters. Annual visitors have grown by more than 160% since 2004, with more than 200,000 arrivals last year. Some 200 international cruise lines now visit the port, and three more are adding the city as a stop in 2013. High-profile hotels such as Hotel Tcherassi and Sofitel Santa Clara are at capacity during annual events like the Hay Festival, a branch of the UK literary fair of the same name. The festival brings nearly 50,000 international writers, authors and intellectuals to the Centro Historico every January.

Despite being located close to the historic centre, Getsemani remains something of an insider’s secret. Its narrow streets, once filled with trash, are now lined with boutique hotels favoured by intrepid travellers who seek a more authentic Cartagena. Casa Lola has 10 stylish guestrooms, two swimming pools and an impressive private art collection in a renovated 17th-century building. The adjoining, five-bedroom townhouse can be reserved as a private apartment. A few blocks away, the 18-room Casa Canabal has a rooftop pool, terrace bar and a spa complete with a sauna and Turkish hammam. The hotel was named for the Colombian patriot Esubio Maria Canabal, who lived in Getsemani when he fought for independence from Spain in 1811.

A short walk away is Cafe Havana, Getsemani’s immensely popular Cuban salsa club. Revellers of all ages, nationalities and dancing abilities queue on the sidewalk for a chance to hear the spectacularly talented house band and a rotating cast of visiting musicians. Once inside, they sip the sort of stiff drinks that bring patrons like US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to their feet. (Clinton visited Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas in April 2012, and photos of her swigging beers among Café Havana’s salseros set US political sites ablaze.)

The party continues at Bazurto Social Club, a dancehall opened by Cartagena restaurateur Jorge Escadón in 2009. Escadón’s first spot – the fine dining restaurant La Cevicheria – is a Centro Historico mainstay visited by moneyed tourists. Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of the TV show No Reservations there in 2008. But the scene at Bazurto is considerably edgier, with Getsemani’s pretty young things partying until the wee hours, grooving to resident DJs and a lively house band. The kitchen serves fried fish dishes and fierce cocktails such as the machacao, made from white rum, lime juice and potent yerba mate tea.

Getsemani is also home to cultural and culinary establishments such as Casa Pájaro, a combination art gallery, ice cream shop and wine bar launched by Colombian sculptor and architect Emilio Hernandez in 2012. It is just around the corner from Malagana Café & Bar, a three-storey lounge opened by two local sisters in 2011. Trained as graphic designers, they kitted out the space in bright colours and covered the walls with framed photographs of the neighbourhood. Their childhood friend, Danielle Olarte, oversees the kitchen, serving fresh ceviche and juices made from local fruits.

Another popular gathering place is Plaza de Santisima Trinidad, a semi-circular park built in 1643. Once a dangerous, drug-addled spot, the plaza is today filled with picnicking families, food carts selling homemade empanadas and locals chatting over Aguila beers. Occasionally, someone from the barrio will stroll through wearing a t-shirt that reads Orgullosamente Getsemanisense, or “Proud to be from Getsemani”. This is their time, and they want everyone to know it.