By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
I was born and raised in Panama City so I’ve always had the Pacific right there: big, sparkling, and deep blue. When I was eight years old I could go out to the beach along the boardwalk formed by Balboa Avenue to collect seashells and pretend I was listening to the voices of mermaids and mermen.
Although I always had the ocean right next door, I remember when I traveled to Cartagena de Indias and realized there are cities even closer to the sea; so close that just by walking in them you could get your feet wet. Many years later I went to Cuba and almost died of joy: on Havana’s boardwalk the wind snatches your composure and your modesty.
Here, on the continent of the Americas, only two countries don’t have their own coast: Bolivia and Paraguay. There are cities that don’t look out to the sea, but they have built piers at the foot of their great rivers. Here we describe five public spaces with unique scenery, coastal walks to delight the spirit, opportunities to meet others, and a chance to reflect.
A Walk for Lovers and Another for Nostalgia
Havana and Cienfuegos Boardwalks, Cuba
It’s impossible to imagine —although you may have seen many photos— the extraordinary beauty of Havana’s boardwalk, known as the Malecón. Stretching five miles, it overwhelms the capital of Cuba with its immensity, its deep blue, and that crazy breeze that caresses your skin and carries away any indifference or oblivion.
The Malecón stretches from La Punta Fortress to La Chorrera, at the mouth of the Almendares River. All along there are areas for fishing, cooling off, dancing at night, and the gay scene. Its construction began in 1901 and lasted about four decades before it was completed. The result is a walk that can be fully enjoyed just relaxing or listening to the musicians who gather to entertain lovers of harmony, melody, and rhythm.
Several classic Havana buildings can be seen along this boardwalk, such as the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the Fortress of Havana, the Tower of San Lázaro, and the entrance to the Tunnel of Havana. The iconic Hotel Nacional also looks out on the Malecón, and in its gardens you can find some of the cannons used to protect the city during the colonial era. It’s worth a little detour to visit the gardens of the Nacional, and see the trenches built during the “Missile Crisis,” the conflict that pitted the United States against the former Soviet Union and Cuba in 1962. Although partially closed, you can go a few feet into one of the tunnels and feel the claustrophobia of these military constructions.
The Malecón of Havana is not the only boardwalk in Cuba, of course. The towns of Caibarién, Gibara, Isabela de Sagua, Baracoa, and Manzanillo each have their own. But perhaps the second best known is in the province of Cienfuegos, called the Pearl of the South. Built in 1930, it’s called the Malecón of Punta Gorda and forms part of the seventy blocks of the city’s historic center. Carnivals take place there, as well as aquatic competitions and Worker’s Day parades. The waters that create that entire beautiful landscape are from the Bay of Jagua. Another fact: Cienfuegos was the land that gave birth to Benny Moré, the “bárbaro del ritmo,” the barbarian of rhythm.
Land of Intimate Stories Cartagena, Colombia
To be perfectly honesty, there is a reason why a trip to Cartagena is well worth it for anyone: it’s one of the places described or used as a reference by the late Gabriel García Márquez in several of his novels, short stories, and newspaper articles. Walking along its streets and corners means, in some way, being connected to the magic that captivated the writer when he first saw the city back in 1948.
Cartagena is a city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast with a charming historic center and a boardwalk so close to the sea that in some areas you can touch the water with just a slight lean of your body. The wall of the historical center is one of the best places to appreciate it, even if the street of Santander is right in the middle. In recent years the area of Pegasus Wharf (Muelle de los Pegasos) that looks out towards the Bahía de las Ánimas has been renovated; it is the place that García Márquez described as the “most nostalgic corner of Cartagena de Indias” in an article in 1981 (“Un domingo de delirio,” or, “A Sunday of Delirium”) published in the Spanish newspaper El País.
In one paragraph Gabo describes the atmosphere of the old market on the bay and says, “One sat down to talk under the early morning stars, while the happy cooks, who were outspoken and friendly and always had a carnation behind their ears, masterfully prepared the local cuisine’s pièce de résistance: steak with big onion rings and slices of fried green plantain. We wrote up what we heard while we ate there for the newspaper the following day.”
The Convention Center now occupies the space where the market place once stood, and on one side a new dock was built with a promenade used by walkers and runners. Luxury yachts arrive here, as do catamarans and buccaneer-type vessels that make nightly sails through the bay. Although the landscape has changed radically since García Márquez’ first visits, the trip is well worth it as a sentimental journey.
The city, meanwhile, offers all types of attractions for visitors: from the beaches of Bocagrande to the shops, museums, restaurants, and bars of the walled-in center, always vibrant and full of beautiful little nooks.
Among Skyscrapers and the Pacific Surf
The Coastal Strip and Amador Causeway in Panama City, Panama
A century ago, in the space that the Panama City’s Coastal Strip, or Cinta Costera, now occupies, there were only beaches. History books show us that at the beginning of the 20th century, these beaches were always teeming with the residents of nearby neighborhoods.
The landscape began to change with the construction of Balboa Avenue —around the 1950s— and was once again transformed just five years ago, when some of the sea was pushed back to build new lanes and green recreational areas.
The Coastal Strip extends from Punta Paitilla to the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, a distance of about 3.5 miles, and it is now the most popular area for jogging or watching the sunset. You can walk along its entirety and take advantage of the trip to take photos of some of the city’s most scenic areas.
If you are there around noon, visit the Seafood Market (Mercado del Marisco) and the restaurant located on the top floor, which offers a seafood-based menu. If you are there at night, try the ceviche sold in the little stalls around the market. Behind these stands there is a dock where ships set sail for the islands of the Archipelago of Las Perlas and the province of Darién. Take a look, the place is always bustling with activity.
If you have the strength for it, the Coastal Strip connects directly with the Casco Antiguo, or Old Quarter, the area chosen by the Spanish conquerors to found the second Panama City, after the attack on the first one by the pirate Henry Morgan, back in the 17th century.
Less than a couple of miles further along is another of the city’s great boardwalks: the Amador Causeway. Until a few decades ago, this entire area was part of a U.S. military base, one of several existing in this Central American country between 1903 and 1999, as a result of a treaty signed with the U.S. government for the construction of the Panama Canal.
Today, the islands of Naos, Perico, and Flamenco are home to some of the best restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in this capital city, as well as a cruise ship port and the Marine Exhibition Center of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which offers educational tours for visitors. If you are looking for tranquility, the best time to go to the Causeway is very early in the morning or at dusk…. Only then is it possible to appreciate, without the fierceness of the tropical heat, the spectacle of the sun setting over the ocean.
Summer Beach and Neruda Beach
Cartagena and Valparaiso, Chile
Sixty-seven miles from Santiago de Chile is Cartagena, a very popular spa destination with steep hills and old Mediterranean-style mansions, where tourists flock in the summer looking for its landscapes and the waves of Playa Grande and Playa Chica.
Playa Grande is an area almost 6,000 feet long, with fine sand and cold water; it links to Playa Chica via a promenade where you can find several eating establishments. Ideal for hanging out and taking a dip —because the water is not for long swims— Cartagena’s beaches invite you to rest and let your imagination take flight.
Those in the know say that the meeting point in the city is the Terraza de las Artes, a rectangular space built on rocks and adorned with gardens where artists from the area converge. But if you also want to walk around the place, apart from the beaches and the coastal walkway, the main port of Chile, San Antonio, is in Cartagena. There are also other interesting places like the Caleta de Pescadores de San Pedro (an inlet that is an inspiration for artists) and the tomb of the poet Vicente Huidobro, declared a Historical Monument in 1989.
Fifty-three miles from Cartagena is Valparaíso, another Chilean city with a boardwalk, although the pace and look are very different. Larger and more touristy, Valparaíso is a port city and has a customs office and a naval base. It has thirty-six beaches, but only five are suitable for swimming: Las Torpederas, Caleta Abraca, Las Salinas, Los Lilenes, and Playa Amarilla.
Construction of its boardwalk began at the end of the 19th century, but for a long time its attraction as a thermal spa resort and coastal area was slowed by the establishment of industries in the area and a railway line. But it was precisely the extension of the rail line to Santiago that converted Valparaíso —and Viña del Mar, the neighboring city— into spa locations, coveted not only by the residents of the Chilean capital, but by the thousands of tourists who visit it each year.
Valparaíso was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003, and is considered Chile’s cultural capital. On one of its many hills —connected to the coastal zone by funiculars— you can find one of the three homes owned by the poet Pablo Neruda, La Sebastiana, today operating as a museum.
A Reconstruction Project
Malecón 2000, Guayaquil, Ecuador
At first it was known simply as the “The Street on the Shore,” a street that played a key role in the birth and development of Guayaquil. It later became known as Simón Bolívar Street, and since 2000 it has been called Malecón 2000 thanks to the Municipality’s reconstruction and improvement project that began fifteen years ago.
Malecón 2000 is located in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest and most populated city. Overlooking the Guayas River, it is 1.5 miles long and each month it is visited by 1.6 million people. In 2003, the World Health Organization declared the area a “Healthy Public Space.” When you walk along it you start to realize why.
Divided into zones, the North Sector is a playground for children and exercise area for adults. There are toboggans and slides, hanging bridges and hammocks, merry-go-rounds and a skating rink. Adults have outdoor aerobic and strength machines available and a meeting area.
In the Central Sector is the Civic Plaza, with a gallery of the most prominent figures in the city’s history, along with the Guayaquil Yacht Club and the Naval Club. In the Southern Sector meanwhile, there’s a shopping center and the area called “Mercado Sur,” where art works from around the world are displayed.
One of the most striking areas in this renovated space is the garden, where you can see more than 350 species of native plants, and other introduced species. It is, most definitely, a place for walking and enjoying the sounds of nature.
And finally, there’s the IMAX Theater: a 185-seat theater with a dome for watching films. Are you up for it?