Impresiones Cartagenero

Thursday, August 12, 2010

First, the weather is awful and damn-near unbearable. When it isn’t 90F, with 85% humidity, it is raining, causing chaos and disrupting order. No doubt have my thoughts been clouded and impressions shaped by it.

Anyways, on to the city itself: for starters, there are three main parts of the city, consisting of the Centro Histórico, Getesemaní and Bocagrande. There are also the anonymous barrios where the African-descended masses live, but those are quite removed from the main parts of town, but for the sake of simplicity, I will concentrate on the three aforementioned areas.

The Centro Histórico, defined by a wall running around its perimeter, contains the Old City, as well as San Diego; really, I can’t tell the difference between the two. Foreign tourists – especially couples - dominate the beautiful Historic Core, and can be found riding in horse-drawn carriages, wearing white linen shirts and Panama hats – kind of a faux-Havana feel, I guess. In the Historic Core are hundreds of colonial edifices leftover from its Spanish colonial heyday as the flagship port for the export of looted treasures and resources.

The buildings are splendid, with their vibrant colors, low-hanging balconies with potted plants, and oversized wooden doors. Judging anecdotally, about half have been renovated, and now function as boutique hotels, or trendy, evening-only bars and restaurant. The other half await renovation, and lie in states varying from near-abandoned to in-use as banks, droguerías and cafeterías geared towards the local population.

Then, just outside of the walled city, is my nabe, Getesemaní. Aesthetically, it is virtually no-different from the Centro Histórico only that it is far more run-down, and tourism is only just starting to get a foothold here. While it is fairly safe, and I never feel threatened, the area is far rougher around the edges than the anywhere within the walled city. For instance, Detroit-style building abandonments, with mature trees growing inside gutted facades are, unfortunately, not at all too uncommon. Things are changing, though: the former no-go area is fast being reborn into a backpacker’s district, with hostels (and budget travelers in tow) sprouting up all over the place. Just across from me are a Swiss eco-friendly “boutique” hotel, and a new concept restaurant with a Cuban theme. Bearded Argentine and northern European tourists are dime-a-dozen ‘round these parts; it’s only a matter of time. At night, (ugly) prostitutes walk the streets, helping the area maintain a seedy and dicey nighttime character.

Then, away from it all is Bocagrande. Jutting into the Caribbean on a small peninsula lies the exclusive Bocagrande area, a thin slice of land loaded with Miami-style luxury condos hugging the coast. To me, it has a bit of a 1980s Vice City-kind of feel, thanks to all of the Colombian moneyed elite impresarios living in all of the drug money-purchased condos there. Many of the condos appear to have been built with sub-standard materials, and as a result, many are in various early stages of dilapidation. Others are brand-new, with for-sale banners hanging from emerald-tinted balconies, and another 15-20% is still under-construction, with the sound of hammers clanking and dump trucks en-route to/from the worksite being fairly common. The interior section of the nabe itself is low-rise, consisting, for the most part, of modernist homes sandwiched between ever-increasing numbers of skyscrapers.

Most interesting to me were its demographics: in a city overwhelmingly black, blacks are a rare breed in the Bocagrande area, save for menial workers. Sitting down on a bench in the waterfront walking path, I must have seen a good five black women pushing strollers containing fair-skinned babies with colored eyes. I guess some things are the same wherever you go.

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