*This is part 2 of 2 of Cartagena. See part 1 above.*
Our Lonely Planet calls Cartagena’s central market, the Mercado Bazurto, “not for the faint of heart.” Reading this, we knew we had to go. Catching a cab, we ventured out into ‘real’ Cartagena. Outside of the relatively clean and authentically preserved old city, the authentic part of the city spillovers into a wild mess of poorly paved roads and petrol fumes. Animals fight for space in the road as people dart past pot holes of rotting sewage and into one of them many food carts selling oysters and beef empanadas. I have been to plenty of markets around the world, including quite a few in Central and South America, but never have I been to one as powerful as Bazurto.
Westerners never go to Bazurto. People stared at us in incredulity, as if wondering why we would leave the colonial comforts of the old city for a dirty and definitely-not-up-to-health-code urban mess miles away from the Caribbean coast. But that is exactly why we went, to see real Cartagena and experience the genuine Colombia. After all, we didn’t come thousands of miles to South America to sit in an air conditioned hotel room overlooking the sea; “you can sleep when you’re dead” is a good travel mantra. Anyway, as the picture will illuminate, Bazurto was an intense experience. The market is a maze of narrow dirt alleys and dilapidated wooden stalls. Everything seems to be sold here – in one corner, a butcher chops beef, blood running down the side of the counter, in another, an old woman peddles sliced fish basking in the brutal humidity. On the ground, makeshift bridges from vegetable crates cover cesspools of liquified trash. I can’t even imagine at night when presumably the rats come out to play…or even worse, when it rains…
Later in the trip, we climbed the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and strongest fort built by the Spanish in any of their New World colonies. Completed several years before our country celebrated its declaration, the fort was never conquered. It stands proudly over one of the city’s higher hills, commanding a view of the Caribbean.
In the distance, skyscrapers along the Bocagrande district of the city arch along a sandy peninsula, offering warm winter refuge for Colombian tourists. Later we would walk the 4 or so miles from the tip of Bocagrande back to the old city. Hundred of people come up to you asking if you want a massage or sunglasses or need help applying your sunscreen. I really felt my Spanish, which gets us by surprisingly well in Latin America (6 years of class instruction later…), improved after dealing with hordes of peddlers all selling one of only a handful of products or services. No gracias. Yo no quiero un masaje y yo no quiero que me toques. Ciao. (No thank you. I don’t want a massage and I don’t want you to touch me. Bye.)
Colombia. What a fascinating place. People are blindly unaware of the realities that make up modern, cosmopolitan Colombia today, repeating decades-old soundbites of drug cartels and violence. Look closer and you will find an amazing destination well off the Latin American tourist circuit (we counted – we saw 4 Americans but a good handful of Aussies and Europeans) that rewards those with a little patience (the violence has kept tourists, and therefore English, from percolating heavily throughout the populace) and the intrigue to press further into a dynamic and unique international destination.
I’m already looking forward to going back to Bogotá, the ancient capital 8500 feet in the Andes, and especially Medellín, the country’s cultural second city. Colombia, I’ll see you soon.