03/14/2013 07:27 am ET Updated May 14, 2013

Cape Town Is About Context And Contrasts (PHOTOS)

It would be difficult to counter the argument that Cape Town, South Africa is one of the most captivating cities in the world, from a visual standpoint first and foremost.

Strewn over the foothills of mountains that tower up to a kilometer over the Atlantic Ocean, which surrounds the city on three sides, Cape Town's aesthetic evokes destinations diverse as Sydney, San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro.

These comparisons also work in less superficial contexts. The opulence of Cape Town suburbs like Clifton and Gardens, for example, wouldn't seem out of place in Bondi or Nob Hill; the crime, corruption and poverty seen in all-black "townships" in the Cape Flats isn't far from what you might expect to see in one of Rio's favelas.

But many captivating features of Cape Town highlight more troubling ones. It takes approximately as long to reach the posh Cape Winelands, for instance, as it does townships like Langa and Khayelitsha.

A near majority of the people who live within an hour's drive of Table Mountain, Cape Town's most iconic viewpoint, lack access to clean drinking water, let alone an opportunity to look out over their city from its kilometer-high summit.

This -- the tendency of Cape Town's "best" to draw attention to its "worst" -- is true in a personal sense as well as a general one.

Every time I stopped to marvel at natural wonders like Cape Point or the Penguins at Boulders Beach, I smelled the stench of public toilets left unserviced for week, or saw children playing with old tires in the middle of a busy township street.

And I was moved quite literally to tears by my interactions with some of Cape Town's poorest residents -- but not as much as I was relieved to sleep in air conditioning the sun dawned on the summer day.

There's no doubt that Cape Town has the color, light and spectacle needed to become the "it" city of 21st century tourist. But does the bright aura of Cape Town's tourism boom cast an increasingly dark shadow over the reality many the people who live there face?

Cape Town Contrasts