This is the stuff that is normally kept far away from most American’s eyesight; the carnage that happens before that lovely piece of prime rib or fish fillet ends up behind the glass in the grocery market case. Mercado de Bazurto Cartegena was a serious market, the kind where you get a glimpse into local food, eating culture, work habits, and traditions in an extremely ‘Bourdain Parts Unknown’ sort of way. And I absolutely loved it.
All of my senses were on high alert while traversing the loud, muddy Bazurto Market. It was sensory overload and I felt like a kid in a candy store – bursting with excitement and attention deficit disorder every place I looked. However, instead of being excited about pixie sticks and gumballs, in a twisted way I was excited about piles of intestines and pig heads.
Crashing through the din of background salsa music was a loud pounding noise. I panned around until I found the source; a middle age woman with a hair bonnet had her arm raised in the air holding a wooden club ready for her downward motion. The club slams down onto the top of a knife driving it into the belly of a large fish – THWACK!. This motion was repeated over and over until the fish was scored into 1 inch strips. She suddenly put down the club and reached her arm, plastered in fish scales, across her body and grabbed a ½ bottle of open beer. In one swift fluid motion she picked up the beer and chugged the remainder of the bottle slamming the empty down on the table with the same force she used with the wooden club. She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm, picked up her instruments again and moved on to the next fish.
Each stall was like a symphony of pounding, chopping, hammering all set to the background music beat that was always present in the market – and everywhere in Cartagena.
I watched the light dance in and out of the narrow alley ways of the market; sometimes making them look inviting, and sometimes making them look like a murder was about to happen. A local chef, Chef Javier, led us through the market greeting and hugging old friends, inspecting vegetables, talking to vendors, and pointing out various items that were new to us. The market was partially outdoor and partially enclosed. It was a maze of little alleys and tables. I was fascinated with watching the people and vendors interact; you could tell the relationships ran deep. Vendors joked among their neighbors, and it was often a family affair as kids helped their fathers butcher and sell.
The ground was soft and wet with little puddles of muddy water mixed with fish guts, scales, blood and who knows what else. This wasn’t a good day to be wearing flip-flops. I tried not to think about what I was walking in else I might not have moved a step the rest of the morning.
In the vegetable section of the market, I picked up a giant avocado and examined it. You could tell the avocados were in season as there were carts and carts of them piled as high as Mt. Everest. There were also stacks of peppers, and tomatoes that I wanted to gab and take home with me! Chef Javier sorted through the stack of avocados to find the perfect one for our ceviche he was planning for us.
The market smelled of death. Men with giant bellies and even bigger smiles were outfitted in plastic aprons covered in blood and guts, happily carving away on big wooden stumps. Pig heads dangled from the rafters, cow eyeballs were lined up on platters, and mountains of intestines and various animal parts were piled high for the eager consumers. It was super to have Chef Javier with us to answer the inevitable questions of, “What is THAT? And what is it used for?” We learned of soups, and various other dishes I had never heard of before, nor did I know if I’d be brave enough to try them myself.
I was on photo overload; I’m not sure why, but I love taking photos of butchers – and blood and guts.
After all of this walking around I was starting to get hungry. Luckily for my stomach we finished up in the prepared food section of the market where large metal pots balanced on stands precariously filled to the brim with soup, rice, and seafood. Tables lined with newspaper had stacks of freshly fried fish on them. Javier saw me looking inquisitively at the various fried foods and soon he was handing me a piece of oily newspaper with a freshly fried ball of something, and a lime wedge. I eagerly bit into the fried food. It was salty and crispy and had a fishy taste – delicious. However I decided it best that I not inquire about what I was eating until I was actually done eating it. I had spent too much time in the market that morning seeing every (and I mean every) part of an animal that I decided sometimes it’s best to not know what you are eating.
Anything I was handed I ate, a bight red sweet banana that I was told was made with a local soda pop, fried fish, and cooked yucca.
Bazurto market salsa-ed it’s way into my top 3 markets in the world, I walked around the market all morning speechless and giddy. This was the real Cartagena in front of me; the Cartagena that speaks to all of the senses. And if you don’t think you can take the ‘real-ness’ of it, then no problem, simply enjoy what’s on your plate. Sometimes it’s easier to just enjoy the food and not know all the gory details of how it came to be…or how it died.
Oh yes, and the fried food Chef Javier gave me to try in the market? Well, I learned later it was fish testicles. Details, details.
I was a guest of the Unites States Tour Operators Association during my time in Cartagena, however all opinions are my own.