CARTAGENA, Colombia — Starting at 6 a.m., “The People’s Market” is full of a lot of things: a variety of mostly-unappealing smells, obscure and nameless (well, nameless in English) fruits and native Cartagenos buying their groceries at bargain prices.
But for the popular tourist destination that Cartagena is, the city’s Mercado de Bazurto is almost totally devoid of travelers.
And it’s not hard to tell why. Mercado de Bazurto lacks the romanticism and polish you’d expect in a tourist trap. There are no whimsically-dressed janitors to clean fish guts from the floor, no imagineers dreaming up ways to streamline your shopping experience and provide you maximum satisfaction.
No, Mercado de Bazurto is pure Colombia.
So pure, in fact, that you really can’t go without a guide. Even the most adventurous travelers risk getting lost in the fast-paced and maze-like marketplace.
Mercado de Bazurto was originally positioned close to Cartagena’s center, where the current conference center sits. It was loud and smelly, but the vendors refused to relocate after several requests from city officials. A conveniently-timed fire — destroying 70 percent of the original marketplace — changed their tune, and Mercado de Bazurto now sits 15 minutes from its original location. It’s a quick, but crowded, bus ride from most city locations.
Before you enter the market, the first thing that hits you is the smell. It varies from place to place — the market is big — but it can be simply described as garbage disposal leak meets farmland manure.
The farm smell comes from a special Colombian tradition: despite the multitude of dogs snoring on the market floor in the South American sun, many shopkeepers have pet birds. Birds get lonely, just like us, so their owners bring them to work. And boy, do they stink.
The heat doesn’t help the stench, either. In late March, the heat index sat around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. For much of Mercado de Bazurto, the roof is comprised of patchy, thick canvas that lets in plenty of sunlight. It might be better if there was no roof at all. At the risk of understating it, the market is hot.
The first patch of the market is mostly fruits. Many are native to South America. We tried a granadilla, an orange-like fruit that’s filled with sweet, clear seed sacs, and a “tree tomato,” which is a sweeter tomato. We also tried a clementine, which was good, too.
As you get deeper into the market’s labyrinth, the vendors transition from fruits to vegetables, and then slowly to more carnivorous endeavours. They’re smart about it, though — you see fresh-caught fish and shrimp before you see the cow eyeballs. How polite.
In the predatory belly of Mercado de Bazurto, there is a real ceiling and tiled floors. They’re slick with animal juices, but look past that. It’s not important. The temperature is refreshingly better regulated, too. By my estimate, it was probably around 80 degrees.
Except for the pleasant change of scenery, the meat-eating side of Mercado de Bazurto holds no punches. Whole chickens, cut vertically in half, lay on tables, with mostly-grown eggs and other internal organs fully exposed. Cow hooves, eyeballs and udders are available for sale. “They use every part of the animal,” our guide proclaimed proudly. I felt sick.
Despite the imagery still imprinted on my eyeballs from the meat section, we were hungry. Our guide found a vendor selling fried seabass and yuca (potato, essentially). Anthony Bourdain apparently ate there when he was in Cartagena. Anthony Bourdain has good taste. It was spectacular.
Leaving the market was a breath of fresh air, even with the normal hustle and bustle of a Colombian city. On our walk back to our B&B in Getsemani, we stopped in the American-style mall for a bottle of water. Compared to the $0.15 per pound potatoes in Mercado de Bazurto, the $1,500 iPhones seemed absurdly expensive. And the Colombian fast food restaurant wasn’t nearly as good as the tiny shop in the market. But I don’t think I’m ready to become a People’s Market person just yet.