National Geographic Traveller (UK)


Sizzling fish, fragrant mangoes and super-sour star fruits — Cartagena’s humble Bazurto Market is a feast for the senses, where passionate vendors serve unforgetta­ble flavours


Andrea Carolina De La Hoz Gaviria stops mid-stride and issues me a warning. “This is a very messy place,” she says. “Are you ready?”

It’s the smell that hits me first. Hundreds of chunky fish, lined up neatly on ice, threaten to collapse the table beneath them. Next, the heat: a metre away, a man chucks wood beneath a huge cauldron of bubbling oil. Then the noise: champeta music, only ever blasted at full volume in these parts of the world, means I don’t quite catch Andrea’s next sentence. “In we go!” she repeats with a grin.

Here, just a 15-minute drive from the new hotels, restaurant­s and bars springing up in the centre of the Cartagena, is what feels like a different, secret world. That unforgetta­ble ceviche in Cartagena’s best restaurant? The fish was carefully selected here at 4am by the chef. The mango that you snack on between museum hopping? It was bought here hours earlier, at a tenth of the price.

Admittedly, Bazurto Market is not for everyone. “Some people refuse to get out of the car,” Andrea, who’s a chef as well as a guide, tells me. Those that do are in good company, however: Anthony Bourdain visited here for his show,

No Reservatio­ns, in 2008 — something stall holders will proudly tell you at every turn.

We dive deeper into the warren-like market, where shoppers jostle for space and the sun shines through the rips of the tarpaulin shade. Andrea leads me through a vast tangle of passageway­s, some half-heartedly paved with concrete, others slippy with mud. As she goes, she points out the vegetables that draw people here in their thousands — metre-long green beans coiled up like cables, knobbly potatoes (too imperfect for supermarke­t shelves) and plump tomatoes that aren’t quite the desired shades of red or green. “Ugly but organic,” she declares. “Straight from the farms outside the city.”

Nearby is a stall piled high with tropical fruits. The owner reluctantl­y turns her music down a notch at

Andrea’s request. “We have to listen to music when we do something,” she explains. “It’s cultural — we dance when we listen.” I bite into zapote, a mild and sweet orange fruit that’s prone to splodging down my front, along with guama, which is shaped like a boomerang. Andrea snaps it over her leg and offers up the inside — hard black beans surrounded by a cotton wool-like white fibres, a natural candyfloss.

Next is a star fruit so sour it makes my eyes water, and the juiciest mango I’ve ever tasted.

But the market isn’t just for fruit and veg. It’s for meals. True Colombian meals. We press on and meet Enelfi at her stall, Doña Ene where, in her purple bandana and apron, she remains unfazed by the heat of the pots in front of her. “She’s been here every day for 38 years,” Andrea tells us. Unsurprisi­ng, then, that her signature fish is perfect. She seasons a chunk of sierra fish with lime, garlic and salt, fries it, then tips it onto a plate with a strip of yuca. We eat with our hands, huge chunks of soft fish falling apart on our paper plates.

Next, we take a seat within the purple walls of a tiny restaurant called Cecilia, before the nation’s unlikelies­t hangover soother is placed in front of us: fish soup. “Hot soup on a hot day doesn’t bother us,” Andrea says. “And this is a cheap way to eat.” It’s also delicious, with a delicate, fragrant broth and small flakes of fish so moreish that Bourdain referred to it as “the promised land”.

Chunks of cheese with squidges of quince, bowls of rice and two servings of fish soup later, we reach the most popular spot in the market: the bar. We order costeñitas

— refreshing local beers so miniature they’re consumed in three gulps. In the heat and chaos of the market, sitting at a table with an ice-cold beer feels almost meditative. “Everything moves so fast in this city,” Andrea says. “New hotels, new restaurant­s, new visitors. But this market? It’s frozen in time.”

How to do it: The Bazurto Market Experience costs £36, including several meals and drinks.­s

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