Pretty much everything you will ever read about the infamous people's market in Cartagena will reference the above description. There will also probably be some kind of mention of the thieves and pickpockets it allegedly harbours. It is all true. But if you discount Mercado Bazurto based only upon what you read, you are missing a place that is also incredibly vibrant; filled with coloured foodstuffs, the energy of frenetic commerce, the inherent warmth of the Costeno people and the widest smiles you will ever see. You'll also be skipping one of my most favourite places in Cartagena.
Yes it is dirty. The street gunge that seeps between your unprotected thonged* toes is a less-than-hygienic combination of mud, decomposing rubbish and fish juices. A misplaced step and your foot will be plunged into a pool of it, splashing the brown gunk in an attractive splattering up the back of your calves.
And my, does it ever sprawl. Unlike other Latin American markets I have been to with their more or less ordered zones (ie separate sections for shoes, meat, electronics etc), the Bazurto's floor plan defies rhyme or reason. Legumes lie next to lingerie. Fresh(ish) fish are displayed alongside fake flowers. There's also plenty to rate highly on the gore factor scale; like grey entrails and eyeballs freshly plucked from unfortunate cows.
Being tall and blonde, I often describe myself as high-vis here at the best of times. In the Mercado I swear it feels as though I have a neon sign pointing at me that flashes and screams GRINGA while the song Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport is playing and monkeys cycle around me on miniature bicycles. Which is to say, I definitely do not blend in. But I like it. Got distracted buying Bolis (frozen fruit ice-blocks)? No problem! Look slightly lost and 4 or 5 people who have been clocking your every move will be ready to tell you exactly which way your friend went. Hmm.. where can I buy Cilantro? Again, volunteers everywhere to lead you directly to a vendor and to help you bargain a good price. There's the usual hissing, bonitas, “beautiful eyes” etc, in fact the frequency is actually cranked up here, but it's nothing if not good for the ego. And as soon as you require any help or information, the lewdness is quickly replaced by a genuine desire to help out.
I like to arrive early - before the traffic dust has settled on the produce, negating its freshness. Recently I've taken to getting the supplies for a simple ceviche. Fresh Corbina (white fish), cilantro, onions, limes, chilis and tomatoes. The whole lot, including the 2 giant fish (filleted while you wait) will cost less than $7. Sweaty, fatigued, I will then pull up a stool at one of the many outdoor eating spots for a hearty corriente (daily meal). A pile of coconut rice, fish/chicken/pork, fried platano or banana, lentils and salad, with a giant bowl of satisfying soup to start. It also comes with a glass of the revered panela. This is basically a cordial-like drink made from cane sugar. I continually make the mistake of telling them I don't like it. Woah! It's like I have spat all over the Colombian flag, so closely tied is this drink to their national identity. “But it's so delicious!”, they insist. I joke with the owners and share smiles with my fellow diners. I smile at the faded pornographic pin-ups of big busted women, lovingly pasted into place (and completely without irony) above the painted wall sign declaring “Todos gracias a Dios” - Everything thanks to God.
Then it's back on a bus, with their pimped up gilded curtains and travelling buskers, to the slightly less pungent world of Centro Cartagena. You've spent less, got more and got better.
When speaking to locals, they are genuinely amazed that I love the market so much. They talk of it being a dangerous, bad-smelling eyesore.
Sadly the government agrees:- council has recently decided that the Mercado Bazurto must relocate to a new home further out within 3 years time. Apparently the well-to-do consider this sprawling mess something of a blight on the beauty and safety of the walled city and want to keep it far from tourists and business. This is actually the second time the market has been moved. Previously it was right in the centre, near the current home of the convention centre. The rumours abound as to why it was moved at that time. Whether it was the result of some underhanded play by supermarket chain Olimpica or the result of the unhygienic tangle becoming too much to tolerate so close to the city walls is uncertain. Either way, the market has again offended the powers that be and is being pushed further out. How awful?! Cities need markets. And I think Cartagena, more than most, needs the colour and character of Bazurto to stave off the blandness and gentrification that threatens to deaden its personality and charm.
More than likely I will make the trek to the market even after it moves. And until then, I will continue to parade my gunge-splattered calves with pride, knowing I obtained the warpaint getting up close and personal with the real Cartagena.
*Australian glossary: apparently the rest of the world calls this type of footwear, flip flops