Mercado de Bazurto, Cartagena, Colombia
Having visited markets around the world – Kenya, Vietnam, Brazil, Morocco, France, all over the place – it kind of rankled when I was told by our hotel’s desk clerk, “Oh, but you need a guide to visit Mercado de Bazurto!” What? Are you kidding me? No self-respecting, seasoned traveler hires a guide to take herself to a produce market!
After all, I’m not your Louis Vuitton-toting tourist in Prada heels. But when our hotelier warned me about pickpockets, hustlers, and flat-out dangerous situations, it was hard to square that with my quintessential produce-market experiences, with my straw marketing bag filled with cheese, baguettes, and sunflowers.
But Cartagena’s Mercado de Bazurto is no ordinary produce market.
So we eschewed our hotelier’s sage advice and headed the 15 minutes by cab to Bazurto, sin una guía. And we immediately realized that he might have been right, at least a little bit. Bazurto is life – or marketing, anyway – in the rough: Pigs just slaughtered, cow parts stacked like firewood, and fish blood and guts mingling with water to create a slush unlike anything you’ve ever seen. But real danger? Not so much. Not that we experienced, anyway.
What it is is a busy, working market with the absolute best ingredients, all in one busy, bustling, chaotic, cacophonous place. It’s not a typical tourist destination, and not for the faint of heart. Nobody has the slightestinterest in you looking at or photographing their “fascinating” vegetables or unique foods. It’s a working market, and local chefs come from the best restaurants to select the freshest fish, meat, fruit, and various ingredients. At the same time, locals ply the territory for bargains on pots and pans and other household essentials. Everything you need, you can find at Bazurto. Maybe even sunflowers!
And the people were generous and helpful, the absolute least scary part of Bazurto. I somehow managed to wander into some sort of kitchen area and the owners were quite funny about escorting me out and redirecting me. One little girl did manage to sweetly get hold of my iPhone but it didn’t take me more than a second to retrieve it. (I was told to keep my phone and camera tucked away at all times. Clearly, I don’t listen well.)
Now, I don’t want to wax too poetic or romanticize the market, but it was an amazing, kinetic experience. It doesn’t have the sexy feel of a French market or the all-out sensory assault of the souks of Marrakesh, but this market has a heartbeat all its own. And music seems to be big part of it: Many of the stalls had their (competing) music playing at top volume, and we saw people break out into song or dance at the drop of a hat, without the least sign of self-consciousness. It’s a pretty amazing thing to experience. I found myself comparing Bazurto to the benign farmers’ markets in suburban Connecticut, where we live. These guys would eat us for breakfast!
At the same time, the market is a family affair, with multiple generations working side by side together. We saw young children laying out fruit or hawking wares and elderly folks cooking, packaging spices, and weighing produce. I wish I could spend time with one of the fish mongers learning to clean and scale a snapper with the speed and skill so prevalent here.
So my advice is to be smart and attentive, but definitely go! Plan on having lunch at the market, too – there’s a lot to choose from, and it’s incredibly cheap. Wherever you end up, you’ll probably be seated near one local chef or another – after all, they know all the best places.