I’m excited about today’s plan of a more local experience as I’ve found Cartagena’s concentration on tourists overwhelming. Each time I ask a local what I should do and where I should go in Colombia, everyone lists the same activities and offers to book them for me. It’s nice and helpful yet clear that they’re what the think all travelers want (and there’s certainly a commission for the recommendation). And when I speak with other travelers, they tell me they’ve just done it, are about to do it, or have been told by locals to do it. The suggestions are to take a boat to one or two islands to enjoy private beaches, go to a mud bath inside a volcano (which I’ve already read involves spending a few minutes in the mud before being rushed out to the clear water and put in a van and driven back to Cartagena), or go to Santa Marta and do a four-day hike through the jungle to meet local tribes. These may be great experiences but, as they are recommended to every tourist, they feel less than authentic. In fact, I’ve run into six people who have done the jungle hike, and two more who are planning to, so I’m guessing that I would not only meet local tribes, but many, many tourists. While I decide what to do and where to go next, I plan on enjoying this great city of Cartagena in my own way. Today, I’m spending the day with Kristy, from Cartagena Connections, a local company which takes people on off-the-beaten-path adventures.
At 10:30, Kristy arrives at my hotel aboard her bike. Everyone here is so friendly that they invite her to bring it inside the hotel and park it inside. Kristi speaks excellent English yet with an accent. But it isn’t a Colombian accent. It turns out she’s an Australian who, five years ago on a six-month South American travel adventure decided she like Cartagena so much, she stayed. She saw potential in tourism and opened a company offering travelers more authentic experiences than most companies. Instead of taking a boat to an island and hanging on a private beach, you can visit a Palenque (a village where freed or escaped slaves settled and their descendants still live and keep the culture alive), take a cooking class or, as was our plan, visit the Mercado Bazurto.
We first walk through Getsemani (pronounced Hetsemani). While the area of the city I’m staying in was known as Kalamari (yup, like the squid only with a “k”), this area was (and mostly is) a lower-income area. It’s where former slaves and others who weren’t respectable Christians settled. Areas of Cartagena are divided into strata, basically income levels and values ranging from 1-6 (simply put, it’s a class system). The lower the strata, the lower the value and the lower the prices for services. Getsemani has always been considered a lower strata but is now an up-and-coming area (a Four Seasons Hotel is soon to open) and many residents are not happy that the plan is now to raise the strata as, not only will prices go up, but they’re proud of their heritage and the melting pot of culture and are concerned about losing that identity.We walk through some of the shop areas which are booming with life. Horns beep around us, music plays from stalls where vendors sell random household needs while others offer up bread, fried plantain, and fruit. Kristy buys some Mamonchillo, a sweet fruit which looks like tiny limes and teaches me how to eat them. While the peel looks like a lime, its texture is more shell-like. We insert out thumbnails and crack it open which reveals an eyeball. Well, it looks like an eyeball, similar to a lychee, yet I bravely pop it into my mouth. I then suck on it, scraping the sides with my teeth until I’ve eaten most of the yummy, somewhat sweet and a little bit tangy fruit and all that’s left is a hard pit. These might be my new addiction.
Kristy offers me a choice of two transportation options to get to the Bazurto Market – a taxi or a private bus. Of course, I choose the public bus as they’re always more interesting. We wait on the side of the street and, before long a somewhat dirty, less-than-modern bus approaches and Kristy holds out her hand. We climb up the high step onto the crowded, non-airconditioned bus. During the ride, Kristy explains that, until two years ago, there was no public transportation in Cartagena. These private buses made it so people had some sort of transportation besides their own personal vehicle. They’re privately-owned and, though each follows a specific route, there are no proper bus stops for them. You simply hold up your hand as the bus approaches and, for the price of COP$2,200 (about US$0.74) you can go as far as you want on the route. For the same price, you can get the two-year-old public bus, but you’ll have to go a proper bus stop. The public buses are certainly more modern and you’ll probably get to your destination quicker as they don’t just stop willy-nilly wherever one wants to get on or off so are much better for longer distances.
We soon arrive at our stop and Kristy signals the bus driver by shouting for him to stop. We exit the bus and step into another world. Well, not quite another world, but definitely an area filled with unforgettable sounds, sights, and scents. The market is mainly food and we enter in the fruit section. Wooden booths form aisles on the sidewalk with various materials – tin, wood, cardboard covering the concrete they’re set on. Customers inspect the fruit, taking only what they need for a day. It’s quite orderly with no pushing, shouting or waving money in the air. In fact, this is more tame than most Saturdays at Walmart.
Kristy explains that, in markets like this and Getsemani, you don’t have to buy bulk or even enough for a week. If you want one egg, you buy one egg. The pricing is still the same so people generally buy only what they need for a day. This is partially due to available funds, but also ensures freshness of the food.
We continue through the vegetable section and meat area (every single part of the animal is on display and for sale) and into the fish section. This section is nearest to the waterfront where the fishermen enter through the gates in the morning to either sell their fish to vendors at the market or directly to customers. Needless to say, this section has the most distinct smell of the market; it’s fish mixed with smoke as, while you can bring your fish home to cook, you can also eat it there. Vendors sell all kinds of fish cooked in a variety of ways. Kristy and I grab some lunch here ordering up some fried fish with yucca on the side as well as some Aqua de Panela, a drink made from sugar cane juice and lime. It tastes like neither. I also order a Costeñita, a beer which comes in little bottles so the last bit isn’t warm by the time you get to it. Brilliant! The meal and all drinks cost a total of COP$8,000 (about US$2.70).Tummies full, we continue to a slightly more modern area where we pick up some baseball caps from Kristy’s staff before heading, once again, to a wooden-shack area where Kristy knows an artist whom she’s hired in the past to paint her company name on items before. Unlike in the U.S., you don’t necessarily take things to the print shop or order from Vistaprint to get swag made. Here, you go to the marketplace, tell an artist what you need, and in a day-or-two, you’ve got artisanal swag.
We head on back, this time taking the public bus. After paying our fee at the bus stop, security lets us
through the turnstile where we wait on the platform. We wait. . . and wait. Buses pass, but none stop. Finally, after about twenty minutes, a bus pulls up. The people are packed in as tight as a pair of skinny jeans on a plus-sized woman. They’re so tight that we don’t stand a chance of entering. The doors close and we wait for the next bus which, thankfully, appears within another five minutes. This one is tight, but we manage to squeeze our way on. About ten-minutes later, we arrive at our stop and Kristy takes me to the Volunteer Hostel where I find my volunteer activity for this trip. Tune in tomorrow to hear about that adventure.
Big thanks to Kristy at Cartagena Connections for hosting me on this tour. While I appreciate that, it does not sway my opinions here – my Virtual Travel Buddies know how honest I can be – and I recommend you do this tour. And maybe one of the other unique ones they offer.