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Inside One of Colombia’s Wildest Food Markets

The Mercado de Bazurto may be a chef’s dream, but it takes street smarts to navigate.

© Nikki Vargas

It’s 6 AM in the land of coffee, and I am blinking the morning light out of my eyes as I clamber out of the car and make my way toward the Mercado de Bazurto in Cartagena, Colombia’s seaside city. Just steps away, fishermen are speaking in rapid-fire Spanish as they circle around plastic tarps piled high with locally caught seafood. Bright blue parrotfish, large tuna, and red snapper are all laid out for purchase as crowds of pelicans stand alongside barefooted locals.

Across the dirt road, fruit vendors are setting up shop, sitting among baskets of oranges and stacks of pineapples while bagging generous portions of strawberries. Butchers holding cleavers stand beside carcasses of recently slaughtered pigs while machete-wielding farmers whack coconuts nearby. The market seems to stretch on forever in every direction, offering everything from guavas to electronics. It has both the feel of an ongoing party and the aftermath of a riot, as though one wrong turn in the maze of Bazurto would prove detrimental. Like an assault on the senses, Mercado de Bazurto lives up to its reputation as a bustling, chaotic, and dirty-as-hell tourist-free marketplace of winding alleyways and stalls barren of camera-toting tourists.

Located just 15 minutes east of Cartagena’s city center, Mercado de Bazurto is described as being “for adventurous souls only” as it is seemingly far removed from the colorful, cobblestone streets of the Old City and the modern high-rises and beaches of Bocagrande. You’ll be hard-pressed to find Hawaiian shirt-wearing Americans with socks and sandals roaming the passageways of Bazurto, which carries a reputation for pickpockets. This market is for the culinary daredevils and the dedicated chefs who know where to look for quality, local ingredients and how to brave the chaos of the market to get them.

© Nikki Vargas

One such chef is Juan Felipe Camacho, who is leading me through the Mercado de Bazurto. Camacho is the chef and owner of the popular Don Juan Restaurante and Maria in Cartagena’s Old City; he’s a respected culinary talent whose cooking is defined by his expert technique and love of Colombian ingredients. His love of cooking was discovered somewhat serendipitously while learning English in Vancouver; finding that he had time to kill in between conjugations and grammar, he signed up for a cooking class to pass the time. Camacho went on to study at the mecca of culinary talent in San Sebastian, Spain, where he was accepted into an elite cooking program — of which only 20 aspiring chefs from around the world are selected to train at Michelin-starred restaurants like Arzak.

Happy and mild-mannered, Camacho excitedly points out exotic fruits and beloved food stands like he is greeting old friends. He hands me a sort of orange-looking fruit with paper-thin skin that gives way to a clear-milky pulp reminiscent of lychee. I think back to New York and the sad-looking pineapple delivered directly to my office every Friday, the poor excuse for fresh grapes and lackluster melon. What the hell have I been eating all these years?

The Mercado de Bazurto celebrates Colombian fare by bringing in food from all over the country for restaurateurs like Camacho to use in their cooking: vegetables from the colder cities such as Bogotá in the mountains, and tropical fruits from Cartagena and Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. While some chefs may look toward distributors for their vegetables and fruits, Camacho takes on more of a grassroots approach, opting instead to roam the stalls of the local market. In a country that is often said to be lacking a food identity, where restaurants frequently give nods to poor recreations of Italian staples, Camacho celebrates Colombia by combining his culinary training with his Basque-influenced philosophy of focusing on the ingredients at hand.

© Nikki Vargas

It is almost comical to imagine the food I am seeing now being incorporated into the effervescent and elegant dishes served to money-wielding diners at Don Juan Restaurante later that evening. If they could see the 30-pound tuna I just picked up, or smell the succulent mangos being sold just steps away, would they appreciate Camacho’s extraordinary talent that much more?

Camacho leads me back to the car with the ease of someone who has found order at Mercado de Bazurto. A donkey — Eeyore incarnate — stands sullenly by the side of the road. The vendors whose stalls were bursting with produce only an hour earlier now sit beside half-empty wooden crates and barren makeshift tables. “This is the real Cartagena,” Camacho says to me. And with one last look around the marketplace, I know he’s right.

This article originally appeared on VICE Munchies. You can see more of Nikki’s work here.

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