Mercado De Bazurto + My Anthony Bourdain Moment.

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.

Mercado De Bazurto

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.

Mercado De Bazurto

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.

Pure chaos.

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.

Mercado De Bazurto
What I can only assume are cow eyeballs.

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.

Mercado De Bazurto

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”.

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.

Mercado De Bazurto
Still have no idea what kind of fruit this is.

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.

Mercado De Bazurto

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.
  • Brush up on 7 other off-the-beaten-path activities to do while you’re in Cartagena.

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.

35 Comments

  • krclegg@gmail.com

    Marcado de Bazurto is very similar to the markets I visited when I lived in China. You see some things that surprise you, but when you think that some of your own food probably comes from markets just like this, it’s a little horrifying and even more interesting all at once. I love places like this, but generally stick out very much as well. I’m quite white, close to glowing even. HA! Loved this post, but not the cow eyeballs so much. 🙂

    • admin

      I haven’t been to a local market in China but I have in Thailand and Indonesia. They are equally as interesting! Local markets are just the best way to really experience the authentic culture of a country.

  • Shivani

    I love the chaos of markets, we have something similar here in India. It’s difficult not to bring my camera when travelling, but sometimes it is better. Amazing tip!

  • Maya

    Love love love market posts and this one was great and informative with great tips. Colombia is really high on my travel bucket list so this is just perfect. Luckily, I do talk a bit of Spanish, but leaving my Canon behind (sorry a Canon girl is 😉 ) really? Great content as always!

    • admin

      Thank you so much! You should definitely visit soon, it was one of my all time favorite destinations. Spanish will make it ALOT easier too. (And I don’t judge you for the Canon)

    • admin

      She was worried about the camera putting us in danger. We shouldn’t have been carrying it out in the open to begin with.

  • Aneesha

    Omg, it sounds a little scary to be in the area, but kudos to you for venturing off the beaten track. I’d be watching my back the whole time. The fruit that you took a picture of is called a sapota/sapodilla (in India, it’s called chikoo). It’s sweet and full of iron!

    • admin

      THANK YOU!! It had been driving me crazy that I still didn’t know. I can honestly say it wasn’t scary at all and until the interaction with the woman we felt completely safe.

  • Chantell

    I am always down for local markets and this definitely looks like an adventure. My boyfriend is South American so eating different parts of the animal is pretty normal for him. I think that as a meat eater, I can’t really judge anyone for what part of the animal they choose to eat ha ha.

    • admin

      So true! I first encountered this difference in Iceland where they eat horse and truly it’s the same as cow! I think it’s all about social norms and what you grow up on.

  • florabaker

    Gorgeous photos (apart from the eyeballs – jeez!!) I wish I’d known about this Cartagena market when I was there – the city has such a touristy vibe that it would have been awesome to get into more of a local Colombian atmosphere.

  • Anisa

    What an adventure! You definitely found some interesting food. I like going to local markets but I don’t think I have been to any that crazy! I have no idea what that fruit is.

  • Candy

    I love going to markets like this. Growing up in Asia, I am used to seeing markets similar to this and think it’s just part of normal life but can see why people from the West may be a bit hesitant to step foot in one. Those look like cow eyes to me too. Did you ask them to see what it was?

    • admin

      Asian markets might be my favorite!! And yes it was confirmed that it was cow eyeballs. Still not sure what exactly they are used for though. I’m not sure how you would eat them.

  • Sarah

    woah this seems like such a fantastic cultural experience! I love markets all around the world, especially when they have the “weird” foods that we would never see in America for example. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jessica S

    Wow! Mercado de Bruzato definitely sounds like quite the experience. I really enjoy your tips for someone whose traveling there for the first time – very helpful!

  • Olivia

    This seems like an exhilarating experience. I mean cow eye balls, unknown fruit and the mysterious tug of an unknown language, what more could you want!?

  • Meredith

    You definitely get the true feel of an area when you visit an authentic market like Mercado De Bazurto! Good tips on brushing up on your Spanish, and while some of those photos come as a shock factor (eyeballs!), it is ultimately so wonderful that every part of the animal is used. I wish all cultures could embrace that. Great post!

  • Lisa

    I really love that you went here! I always feel vulnerable when I stand out somewhere, but I’ve never felt in peligro! It’s also great you still had a positive experience even though the feeling turned somewhat during your trip. A great and insightful post.

    • admin

      It was the first place that I have traveled to where I felt like i truly stood out. Where people were genuinely curious about me. Normally, even if I am a minority while I travel I never felt like I stood out that much.

  • Dylan

    I wish I had gone here when I was in Cartagena! And I can relate to feeling both comfortable and wary in Colombia at the same time. Locals were all so friendly, but every once in a while a street vendor or waitress would tell me to hide my phone away or tuck my cash deeper into my pocket. It’s so easy to forget because truly, everyone is so welcoming and warm!

    • admin

      Especially the longer that you are in the country!! I definitely get complacent after a few weeks in a place with nothing going wrong.

  • Lyne

    Markets like this one are trully unique experiences and such a great insight into the culture of a country and their differences as this is where you meet the locals. It’s easy to forgot to look after your belonging when you’re fully immersed into discovering something new, it’s nice to have local give you some reminder.

    • admin

      I always try to make it to at least one market in a new country because it is a great introduction to the culture! I seem to always get a little complacent with my things when I’m feeling comfortable in a place.

  • Rosemary

    I love markets as well and they are a great way to get a slice of the local culture. This particular market reminds me of the the markets in Cambodia. The eye cow balls are something else. There is nothing more enjoyable than visiting the local markets at at destination. We actually do eat at the market and have never gotten sick. Great article. Hope to make it to Columbia soon

    • admin

      I do love to eat the street food and at markets normally!! I’m a pretty adventurous eater but I can’t seem to get past my prejudices on eating intestines + organs. Other than that I am all for trying pretty much anything!

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