If you follow me on Instagram you know I have mentioned my favorite Colombian market several times. It’s authentic, it’s gritty, it’s local, + it’s absolute chaos. Or so it appears from the outsiders perspective.
We first read about the market in the Lonely Planet Guidebook. And although the guide book warned “not for the faint of heart” we assumed we would encounter the typical South American market. Some stalls + food venders mixed in with some local shops selling clothing and other textile goods.
This was not at all what we found.
Instead we were thrown into a crowded maze of vendors. Fruit spilling onto the dusty pathways, chunks of raw meat displayed proudly on plastic tabletops, veggies strung up high away from the sleeping street dogs. Flowers, herbs + spices, jewlery, beer, table-top fans, if it was marketable you would find it here.
Finding Mercado De Bazurto
We caught a taxi for the 4 km drive from Cartagena’s Walled City to the market. Many areas outside of the tourist zones aren’t recommended for walking. But mostly 4 km is just a long walk in the heat. The driver seemed suprised at our destination but immediately knew where he was going.
Abruptly he stopped the cab in front of a crowded street with rows of shops on both sides. Gesturing down the street toward a large grey building he repeated “Bazurto, Bazurto”. We took this as our cue to get out of the cab although we had no idea if we were even close to our destination. But he had gone as far as he was going to take us.
We set off in the rough direction of the pointing + as it was 95 degrees and humid, I immediately regretted our decision to go midday. The surrounding shops sold everything from washing machines to televisions to counterfeit Jordans. But each shop only sold one item. One shop had 100 blowing fans lining the walls, (a welcome breeze at this point) the next-stacks of colored plastic chairs. We thought…maybe this IS the market. A few food vendors were scattered along the sidewalk hawking less than appetizing looking snacks and locals hurried around us doing their shopping.
Not even 10 yards down the street I noticed people noticing us.
Nikon camera around my neck + Evan with GoPro in hand, still at our absolute palest and very clearly lost, the locals were taking notice. I am still unsure entirely if it was the cameras or simply us being outsiders that gained their attention, but we clearly didn’t belong. And people approached us left + right. Wanting to know the story of the gringo’s with the camera. Those who didn’t approach us just stared.
Under the Tarps
We thought we were going to the large grey warehouse.
But as we drew closer to the end of the street we saw a makeshift….let’s call it a farmers market. Wooden tables covered with a dark-blue tarp ceiling made a kind of open-air market. THIS was Mercado de Bazurto. Vendors were selling fruit straight out of the back of pick-up trucks, horse-drawn carts, wheelbarrows, plastic tables + some straight off the ground.
It was an all-out assault on your senses. And it went on forever. As far back as you could see, just rows and rows of semi-permanent wooden shacks, restaurants, and vendor carts. All organized in what can only be described as a maze-like fashion. Where you would never find your way out the same way you went in.
Aloe + Eucalyptus sold at one stand were mixing with the scents of passionfruit juice, fried pig intestines, raw beef percolating in the hot sunshine, live animals, and the collective garbage from vendors + customers alike.
Surrounded on all sides by people washing dishes with buckets of soapy water. Butchers working through a recently deceased carcass. Dusty cats catching a snooze on a pile of mangos. Street dogs chasing children in circles.
And this is where the locals grocery shopped. Probably where they got the produce to cook your dinner at the all-inclusive resort. Not your average supermarket but infinitely more entertaining. Anywhere I can shop with beer in hand is good by me.
Side Note: A lot of people get grossed out when I talk about these crazy markets + food in foreign countries. But not many people think about where their food truly comes from. Those bananas we import from Colombia and send to our super markets? Yeah, they were probably on the ground here first.
With so much going on around you it’s impossible to take it all in. Once we were fully immersed in the market + there was no turning back we stopped for a beer. Three local men were seated at some brightly colored plastic tables under a red tarped roof. Surrounded by stacks of empty and half full beer cases they gestured for us to join them at the table. So we grabbed ourselves a seat with a couple Aguilas (local light beer) and watched the madness ensue around us.
The Bourdain Moment.
My hero Anthony Bourdain; foodie + authentic traveler, had many moments like this one on Parts Unknown. Sitting in a chair too small for an adult, drinking a beer, surrounded by strangers I couldn’t help feel a little like my favorite explorer.
Now I am far from fluent in Spanish.
But that didn’t stop these guys + everyone else from trying to chat. Through a combination of broken spa-nglish and much gesturing we learned this market was more than a grocery store but also a local hangout. Farmers traveled here from the rural caribbean comunties and often stayed until their wares were sold. We learned that unsuprisingly people don’t think to highly of the neighboring Venezualan ‘president’ Maduro. We learned that we should be very “Cuidado”.
A Spanish word I do know.
Finishing our tour of the market, we meandered ‘outside’ where shipping trucks were parked stuffed full of plantains and mangos. It was no less hectic than under the tarps.
While I was inspecting a pile of an unknown egg-shaped brown fruit, a woman grabbed my arm. Urgently + persistently she pulled us toward the street away from the vendors. Repeating “Peligroso, Cuidado, Muerta” and gesturing wildly to the camera hanging around my neck.
Suddenly the bustling market didn’t feel so friendly.
We hailed the first cab we saw and less than 5 minutes after the encounter we were headed down the road back to Getsemani.
I still don’t feel as though we were in any real danger.
Although we turned heads, up until that moment people had been nothing but friendly and kind. Granted we couldn’t understand half of what was being said to us or around us. But we felt safe. Overwhelmed maybe. But still safe.
However, I feel obligated to share my entire experience if I am going to recommend this market so highly.
Mercado de Bazurto was my favorite stop in Cartagena. And it absolutely shouldn’t be missed by the adventurous traveler.
What I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Mercado de Bazurto.
Brush Up on Your Spanish Skills. This is just one of the many times better Spanish would have come in handy. It’s hard to be fully aware of your surroundings when you can’t communicate well with the locals.
Don’t Bring Your Nikon. Valuables make you a target anywhere in the world. With all the people bustling around you’re asking to be pickpocketed or worse.
Don’t Go Hungry. Unless you are an extremely adventurous eater. Most food stalls consisted of fried pig + cow parts, and various other unidentifiable treats. The fruit + fruit juices were tasty though.
Don’t Go in Peak Heat of the Day. Mercado de Bazurto is outside. Although they have makeshift shade it is still swelteringly hot. People packed together combined with sizzling food vendors just add to the heat.
If you are Squemish This May Not be the Place for You. Aside from the aforementioned piles of raw meat and pig parts, there are live animals confined to very small cages. It’s not just the sights but the smells too. Steel your stomach and get ready to dive right in.
Disclaimer: I love animals. And I would never support somewhere that treats them this way. It’s a local market and therefore follows local customs. I was there to look and definitely not buy. I have come to expect these kinds of encounters when it comes to travel in South America and Asia. Just don’t contribute money to anything you feel uncomfortable supporting.