Is Cartagena's Bazurto Market the ultimate foodie destination?

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.

Street scene in the Bazurto Market, the beating heart of Cartagena's food scene.

Photograph by Fotomaton / Alamy
By Hannah Summers
Published 29 Oct 2022, 06:03 BST

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. 

The colourful streets of Getsemani. Could this be Cartagena’s trendiest neighbourhood?

Photograph by Fotomaton / Alamy

What to do in Getsemani, Cartagena's most exciting neighbourhood

Visiting Cartegena? The neighbourhood has become one of the city's most exciting corners, full of bars, restaurants and boutiques tucked away in colourful streets. Here’s what not to miss.

Ten years ago, the only tourists venturing from Cartagena’s UNESCO-listed Old Town and into Getsemani, the adjacent neighbourhood, were backpackers looking for super-cheap hostels, and those lured to the red-light district. But over the past decade, government investment in the area has been a remarkable success: what exists today is a district that’s — whisper it — more fun to explore than the traditional tourist sights. Streets awash with bright, vivid colours are now home to boutique hotels, rooftop bars lit with festooned lights and pint-sized cafes for whiling away the afternoon.

Celele 

Stylish locals flock to this 30-cover restaurant, which opened in 2018 and has since made it into the Latin America section of the World’s 50 Best restaurants. The 10-course tasting menu will take you on a journey through Colombian cuisine, with plates that might include smoked fish fritters with kimchi and prawns with coconut milk and water apple. celelerestaurante.com

La Cocina de Pepina

Book ahead for this excellent little restaurant, set up by chef María Josefina Yances to lovingly showcase the best of Colombia’s diverse food scene, which differs from coast to mountains and beyond. After she died in 2014, her nephew took over, doing an equally impressive job. Signature dishes include the mote de queso (yam and cheese soup topped with grilled aubergine). facebook.com/la-cocina-de-pepina

Plaza de la Trinidad 

When the Aguila beers catch up with you, do as the locals do and head to this church square. In the shadow of the buttercup-yellow Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad church, street vendors sell loaded hotdogs and burgers until gone midnight — the Colombian equivalent of a late-night kebab. Love people-watching? This is the spot. 

Cafe del Mural

Step inside this cafe and you’ll feel like you’ve entered owner David Arzayus’ laboratory, where shelves and counters are stacked with coffee machines and grinders from across the decades. It’s a great place to try some of Colombia’s best produce if you can’t make it to the coffee region. instagram.com/cafedelmural

El Coroncoro

This fuss-free, family-run restaurant, with its yellow plastic chairs and tiled floors, is one of the best places for inexpensive Colombian classics like arroz con pollo (chicken rice) or lengua en salsa (beef tongue in rich tomato sauce). Alternatively, take the chefs’ cue and try the changing menu of the day. 39-22 Calle 10

Casa Mamá Waldy

You’ll have your pick of rooftop bars in Getsemani, but this one, located above a hostel and named after the family’s grandma, Waldy, has a lovely, relaxed vibe and is seconds away from the graffiti murals of Calle de la Sierpe. 91 Calle 29

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