Lima Peru: The City of Kings

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

My plane landed on a warm and humid evening, the ocean’s fog in combat with light, city-smog. I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Lima, but after a few days of guided, local experiences led by USTOA tour operator Travcoa, I fell in love with Lima’s charm. It’s an inviting city and one with ample signs of growth: western billboards line the streets, luxury automobiles cruise the streets and construction projects emerging EVERYWHERE. I found it to be an exciting city that is finding a fantastic balance between old-world charm and new-world comforts. It is a city of contrasts, inviting locals and there is so much to explore.

On our first day in Lima, we first started the day at the vibrant Mercado de Surquillo in south-central Lima.  As we entered we were stopped in our tracks by a plethora of unrecognizable fruits and with help from our local Prom Peru guide a vendor let us sample some: the custard apple, the yellow dragon fruit and the lucuma – with a texture akin to pumpkin but a flavor that resembled maple syrup! After our healthy fruit-filled tour of the market, we headed towards Señoria de Sulco in the Miraflores district of Lima where a cocktail and cooking demonstration awaited us. We were introduced to the head bartender who had the ingredients of Peru’s best known cocktail, the Pisco Sour, displayed in front of him. The bartender began to masterfully exhibit the process of making a Pisco Sour. Its ingredients are few: pisco (a grape derived alcohol), lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, and a drop of bitters. The result was a very refreshing cocktail that is reminiscent of a margarita. Following the Pisco Sour lesson, we moved downstairs to watch a ceviche demonstration. Ceviche with its unadulterated simplicity, has always been one of my favorite meals. The chef chose sole, a mild white fish, and after mixing in a few other ingredients had crafted a light dish bursting with citrus and seafood flavors, all with a subtle underlying heat. It was some of the freshest and most well prepared ceviche I have ever had.

Later that evening we headed to the Larco Museum for an extremely insightful guided tour of the museum’s thousands of well-preserved ceramics. The museum is roughly divided into three parts: the main museum with tidily displayed exhibits, the warehouse museum – a mind boggling labyrinth of ceramics, and the erotic art museum which houses an intriguing selection of Mochica inspired, sexually-fused pre-Inca artifacts.  The Larco Musuem is absolutely packed with what is the largest collection of Peruvian antiquities on the globe and is a destination that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The following morning our group toured the incredible San Francisco Church in central Lima. The church and attached convent grounds provide enough material for hours of exploring. As you enter the church’s grounds, you notice the stone façade towering over the entrance. On the day we visited a group of school children waited in line to tour the church while they whooped in glee as a group of pigeons confusingly flew laps in front of the church’s towers. Tucked away in the churches depths we were led through the catacombs which were only discovered in 1951. The eerie tour takes you through winding tunnels underneath the church where you can see the human remains of an estimated 70,000 thousand people – very spooky as many of the remains are arranged into patterns or designs. Despite the catacombs, the church is architecturally stunning and I recommend visiting earlier in the day when the grounds are still quiet and you can walk through the vaulted ceilings and columns undisturbed.

One of our final activities in Lima was a visit to Hacienda Mamacona, a family run hacienda that offers guests a rewarding look into Peruvian traditions and culture. Once we arrived at Hacienda Mamacona we were given a frosty Pisco Sour then led to our seats near the performance arena. The host formally welcomed everyone in attendance then we watched the “Dance of the Devils,” a Peruvian folklore dance where a group of masked performers engaged in funny and quirky pantomimes. Next, we were introduced to the unique and indigenous Peruvian Paso horse. Through a series of routines, the Paso horse displayed its’ prized gait – one that is so smooth riders often hold a glass of liquid which will not spill. After the horses paraded around the ring a few times, Peruvian folk dancers came out and graced the ring with their elegant costumes and even more elegant movements. Finally, in an incredible display of skill, the Paso Horse “danced” with a female folk dancer, and even though they weren’t hand-in-hand the horse’s ability to mirror the woman’s movements was astounding.

We left Lima for a short time only to return for one last day, and for me (and I believe the rest of the group) that wasn’t enough. I was impressed by the city and truly wanted to explore more; I felt as if I had only began to see what this city offered. Lima’s pulsating energy was irresistible and once you’ve experienced some of its hospitality and charisma you will definitely crave more!

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California. Hear more about his journey to Peru at AFAR.com.

Cuba: Local Life, Art & Architecture

Cuba has been a forbidden fruit for Americans for years, and with the recent loosening of travel restrictions, demand for the predominately untouched island continues to soar. Join Kelley Ferro, travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, on her search to discover the real Cuba and experience the Cuban passion for life. With the help of USTOA Associate Member Cuba Travel Services, Kelley explored Havana, met local artists and students, savored fresh and local dishes, and drove around in a legendary 1950’s Thunderbird.

Enjoy the Art & Architecture in Cuba

Havana’s Old City Center is the most popular spot to visit for good reason. History is found around every corner from its capitol building and oldest churches to its picture perfect fortress. USTOA’s Associate Member Cuba Travel Services exposes travel expert and video journalist Kelley Ferro to Cuba’s vibrant art scene, rich history, and the ever-evolving architecture.

Traveling Back in Time: Artsy Havana Cuba

by Kelley Ferro

As many Americans have discovered, there are a slew of breath-taking islands in the Caribbean, making it a  tropical playground for US travelers for generations. But the closest and largest Caribbean island, located  only 90 miles from the US coast, has been the most inaccessible island…until now. This year is marking a big year of change for Cuba as restrictions for American travelers are loosening. Now Americans eager to experience a “new” island paradise, complete with historic cities, an artistic culture and 1950’s charm can actually travel to Cuba.  And tour operators, such as the members of USTOA, are making it possible. For me, and many others, this was the trip of a lifetime so without a pause, I was on a plane with USTOA, to explore this previously unattainable island nation.

Beautiful Architecture of Old Havana

Beautiful Architecture of Old Havana

With only 48 hours on my people-to-people visa,  I was eager to dive headfirst into the authentic, artsy side of Cuba. What I didn’t expect to find is that Cuba is like no other destination.. The “real side” of the country was right there, in your face, no searching required. Even what someone would expect to be “touristy” wasn’t at all, like the old-fashioned cars. From the window of my first ride into town, I watched the famous 1950s Studebakers, curvy Chevy’s and voluptuous Buicks zooming past, filled to the brim with locals simply going to and from their daily tasks. And yes, a lot of locals do smoke cigars right on the street. These weren’t tourist stunts; it was just real life in Cuba.

Street Art, Old Havana

Street Art, Old Havana

Our itinerary was centered on Havana, the largest city and epicenter of the country. Though it’s a large city, Havana’s romance bounces off the cobbled paths and down the narrow streets. Paintings are hung in the doorframes of tiny shops, which double as homes for the smiling shopkeepers. Artists display their collections in the tree-studded parks for browsing tourists. Galleries are nestled in every nook and around every corner, from modern paintings and life-size sculptures, to collectives with local artists doubled-over perfecting their canvases inside.

Daniel de La Regata, Local Architect

Daniel de La Regata, Local Architect

Daniel, a young local architect, gave us an architectural view of the old city on a walking tour. He pointed out the variety of artistic trends found in the building styles, from art deco to art nouveau, and colonial to classical. Havana wears its history on its walls and you find its pride in every stone, on every wall and in every brushstroke.

kelleycuba4

Iconic Old Havana wasn’t the only area inspired by the arts. In nearby neighborhoods, there were young, vibrant art communities springing up. One in particular, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, or F.A.C., is an invigorated gallery meets showroom, housed in a former olive oil factory. This converted space now displays the work of emerging Cuban artists in a fresh, new way. This is not your average gallery. From edgy photographs that will stop you in your tracks, to “found art” sculptures that you wish you could put on your wall at home, this is the new generation of artists and here they are celebrated. But F.A.C gets even better. This energetic space morphs from artist incubator by day to trendy club by night, with an outdoor bar, two stages, films, concerts and performances every weekend. This was one of the most cutting-edge artistic spaces that I’ve ever seen. Cuba surely is a place of contrasts.

Taxi Wall Sculpture at F.A.C.

Taxi Wall Sculpture at F.A.C.

We were invited to hang out with a well-known local artist, Lorenzo López, famous for large scale dramatic art installations, who welcomed us into his own home. Each doorknob, dish and side table of his home was on purpose, which could only be expected from one of Cuban’s burgeoning artists. He sees the world through art. He has already received international acclaim and accolades from many of his dramatic pieces, especially because each had a message. For me, the message of Cuba can be summed up by Lorenzo perfectly.

“Art here is very strong. It enriches Cuba in a very strong way… Cubans are very alive. Cuba is alive. It’s always alive.”

Artist Lorenzo Lopez in front of his art “Love Me, Love Me Not”

Artist Lorenzo Lopez in front of his art “Love Me, Love Me Not”

Whether you are walking along the Malėcon withsea spraying against the rocks and a saxophone player serenading you, or you are enjoying a sunset mojito at Hotel Nacional de Cuba under the swaying palm fronds, you are a part of the living art of Cuba. Every moment is full of life and when you are in it, you feel like it should be eternalized in a piece of art.

Cityscape from El Morro Fortress

Cityscape from El Morro Fortress

Classic Cars in Havana

Classic Cars in Havana

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

 

 

Cartagena de Indias’ Vibrant and Exciting Nightlife

As a country known for its dancing, it’s at night when Colombia really starts to heat up. USTOA tour operator member, Avanti Destinations shows travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, Kelley Ferro around Cartagena de Indias’ vibrant and exciting nightlife – complete with a personal salsa lesson.

For more up close and personal looks at the people and experiences of Cartagena de Indias, check out these specialized videos from Kelley on foodshopping and day trips.

The Beat Goes On in Cartagena

by Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

I could feel bass beat reverberate through my body and waft through the neighborhood as I stepped out of the car and walked through the open door twinkling with Christmas lights.  The beat seemed to be as powerful as the hug I received when entering the Perez-Cuesta family home in the suburbs of Cartagena, Colombia.  It was a welcome like no other for my first night in Colombia.  I was expecting a handshake and I received a powerful, emotional hug – one that in my culture is normally reserved for close family or friends.  I quickly learned being hugged with gusto was a normal greeting in Cartagena, as each of the four daughters came and did the same thing as they seemed to burst with excitement about the evening.

Upon arrival in Cartagena, my first exposure to the local culture was to actually set foot in a local’s house and be treated to one of the most genuine and heartwarming nights I can remember in my travels.  As Ruth, the mother, was busy cooking dinner the daughters entertained us showing us the small but lovely three bedroom home and answering my many questions about life in Cartagena.  More family members and neighbors seemed to pour in like a moth to the flame.  I was struck by the affection of the entire extended family and random neighbors, all hugging and greeting as if they hadn’t seen each other for ages.

The Perez-Cuesta family + cousins + neighbors + me = a bundle of energy!

The Perez-Cuesta family + cousins + neighbors + me = a bundle of energy!

The plantanos were frying as we shared beers in the living room, but all the while I was aware of the music in the background.  The whole neighborhood had their doors and windows open and everyone seemed to be living to the beat. Thinking about all the times I wanted to scream at my neighbors for playing music too loud in their apartment, I asked if any of the neighbors ever complained about the music in the neighborhood.  They looked at me surprised as if they didn’t even hear the music outside, and they had suddenly become aware of it now.  “No, everyone loves the music” Ruth answered slightly confused at why I would even ask the question.

Cartagena, Colombia is a symphony of sound more than any place I’ve ever been.  The constant drumbeat seems to be the heartbeat of the city.  Musical scenes play out on every corner of Old Town, Getsemani, and even little beach towns like Manzanillo.  Everywhere I went people were laughing and moving to the beat.  Giant speakers in public were the norm as people spilled out of establishments and into the streets of Cartagena at all hours of the day.  This music was the canvas to their overall bubbly free-flowing personalities.  This was a culture with gusto and energy, they lived outwardly and because of that, I immediately loved Colombia.

As I walked around the Old City, I watched a waitress move her hips to the beat and pump her arms up in the air for a moment as if everything else around her has disappeared.  The barefoot man in Bazurto market walking among a dozen big pots of oil with furious flames lapping up beneath them plops whole fish in the hot oil in perfect beat to the music.  As he moves on to the next big pot he shuffles his feet as if he’s salsa dancing with a ghost and then plops in another fish.  All the while with a big smile on his face doing what seems to me to be one of the hottest, hardest, and thankless jobs I’ve seen. I round a corner in the Getsemani neighborhood and find a crowd around three men playing music.  One has an accordion, one has an old pail for a drum, and one has what resembles a cheese grater; together they make beautiful high-energy music.  The crowd of locals moves to the beat and claps along.  All I could do was stop and smile at this scene of pure music joy.

Music and smiles found all over the streets

Music and smiles found all over the streets

I needed to find a way to get more involved; I was tired of being on the outside of this music looking in.  I wanted to feel the music like the locals, and Eduardo, my Avanti Destinations’ assigned guide, suggest I take a private salsa lesson in the Old City.  It was a hot steamy night as I walked up the stairs into the dance studio and startled the tall man lounging on a metal chair.  He didn’t speak English, but that was ok as all I had to do was follow his lead.  He turned on the overhead fans, looked at me, smiled, and a barrage of Spanish started flowing.  I just smiled and followed his steps.

Learning the 1, 2, 3, tap of the Salsa!

Learning the 1, 2, 3, tap of the Salsa!

I learned different salsa steps including the Colombian and Cuban versions which seemed to me to have subtle variations, but to the locals it was very clear delineations.  My hips seemed to loosen up as the music got louder and finally after following his every movement in front of the class he took my hand and we danced together.  I could hear the crowd outside starting to rev up for the night and I bid my instructor adios and went out to test out my newly learned skills.

Now I’m really dancing!

Now I’m really dancing!

Upon the recommendation of Eduardo, I found just what I was looking for at Donde Fidel’s Salsa bar.  As I rounded the corner near Plaza de la Coches you could hear the music.  It was as if the Pied Piper were luring in the dancers around the Old City late into the night as the restaurants closed.  I followed the music to the corner and found a lively colorful scene with women moving their hips like I never knew was possible.  That certainly wasn’t covered in my beginning salsa class; those were advanced movements for sure! But the Colombians made it look so easy and carefree, like they came out of the womb moving their hips and feet in a rhythmic fashion.  But after a lifetime of music, of course dancing would come as naturally as walking to them.

Looking in on Fidel’s Salsa Bar – a mix of people and music

Looking in on Fidel’s Salsa Bar – a mix of people and music

I sat at the bar content to watch the sites of young, old, tourist, and locals all intermix in salsa beat.  There was no real dance floor, but no one cared, whatever space was available was used.  People bumped into each other and no one minded, as eternal smiles seemed to be on their faces.  It took exactly two songs before I was beckoned to join.  I knew the locals wouldn’t let people sit around for long and just be a voyeur.

Locals feeling the beat at Fidel’s in the Old City Cartagena

Locals feeling the beat at Fidel’s in the Old City Cartagena

Soon someone had my hand and I was hip to hip with strangers, smiling, laughing and moving to the beat produced by the giant sound system behind the bar. Instead of being on the outside, I was on the inside now, my inhibitions slipping away with each step.  After the set of songs, I gave my new dancing partner a powerful, emotional hug like Ruth gave me when I arrived in Cartagena.  I didn’t even care that he was a stranger, it just felt right – now I really was a part of Colombia.

 

 

 

Explore Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia is an extraordinary seaside city where modern and age-old cultures blend together, radiating a vibrant energy that is transparent in the people, food, art, and culture. Join travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com Kelley Ferro as she journeys through Cartagena meeting locals, learning to dance salsa, and much more with USTOA member Avanti Destinations.

Ready to see more? Watch the videos below or read Kelley’s latest blog post to experience the incredible food, nightlife, culture and people of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

Custom Day Trips

Experience the Nightlife of Cartagena

Tasting the Food of Cartagena

Cartagena’s Top Shopping Locations

My Colombian Family

Including an interview with Wendy, my Colombian “sister”

by Kelley Ferro

Not everyone would be comfortable opening up their home, their family and themselves to complete strangers–particularly strangers from a different continent without any knowledge of their language. But the Perez-Cuesta family didn’t hesitate to invite our Travel Together group to their home on our very first night in Colombia. Justin, my cameraman, Sherry, our AFAR writer, and I were welcomed into their family with open arms.

The full Perez-Cuesta Family + Cousin Melissa

The full Perez-Cuesta Family + Cousin Melissa

Avanti Destinations arranged for our guide and driver to pick us up from our sophisticated colonial hotel in Cartagena’s old city, Hotel Santa Clara. I’d only been in this country a few hours and I already had seen part of the old city and now, the bustling surrounding neighborhoods, streets packed with people shopping as if it was the Colombian equivalent of “Black Friday.”

Our car pulled down some quieter, residential streets and turned on a street that was simply alight with Christmas decorations. Lucky for us we had arrived the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception–the festival of lights and city-wide kick- off to the Christmas season. It was a wonderfully festive time to see the city and it seemed that every home in Cartagena was bursting with the Christmas spirit.

The well decorated home

The well decorated home

Scanning the street, there was one home that stuck out in particular. The strands of lights were blinking rapidly, the music spilling out of the open door and the laughing voices of people inside carried to our car. To my delight, this was where we were heading–the six-person Perez Cuesta family was inside, expecting us for dinner–and we quickly found that out when they started waving from the windows.

In the doorway, I was greeted by a bevy of beautiful girls, all hugs and kisses and “Buenos Tardes”–the biggest hug of all coming from Mama Ruth Cuesta, one of the warmest people that I’ve ever met without a word of common language. The three of us American amigos cozied up in the living room, surrounded by mama and her four daughters, Wendy, Deymi, Leidy and Yurani, and cousin Melissa.

Carlos & his daughters

Carlos & his daughters

Hanging out before dinner

Hanging out before dinner

Their home had framed photos on every surface showing grandma and grandpa, school graduations and proms, and prime placement was given to the large, twinkling Christmas tree. Perched on couches, steps and the floor, all the girls showered us with questions, their English noticeably good, and they showed us photos on their phones and giggled bashfully at their English. The daughters translated any especially amusing parts for mama, who was laughing along anyway.

Carlos, the patriarch, came in from work, all smiles and warmth, just like the rest of his family. He gave us each big hugs after he too was showered by kisses from his daughters. It was an overwhelming and heartwarming scene.

I was able to communicate my questions about their daily life, school, jobs, and boyfriends–finding we had a lot in common. I’ve said this before, but when you travel you just find that people are more alike than they are different.

Daughters, cousin & our guide, Eduardo

Daughters, cousin & our guide, Eduardo

One exchange that I will never forget was our comparison of Christmas Eve traditions. They asked what my family did on Christmas Eve and I said that we have a fondue dinner, some champagne and we watch a Christmas movie. This sent the girls into hysterics:

”A Christmas movie?! On Christmas, you watch a movie with your family? Haha! Why?”

I love Christmas movies and thought that was a fairly common occurrence on Christmas Eve…

“Well, what do you do?” I asked.

“We dance!” Said the sisters in unison and they got up and started dancing, Mama looking on in approval.

Okay Cartagena, you win. Now that I think about it, I guess it is a little lame to sit silently in the dark, watching a movie you’ve seen a hundred times, with family that you don’t see often,  when you actually could be dancing! That is Cartagena to me in a nutshell: every moment seized, and there’s always a reason to be dancing.

One of the sisters asked if I wanted to see the upstairs, so I got a tour of their parents’ room, and all the sisters’ rooms. I was impressed that three girls split two rooms and two beds.  This was yet another uncommon occurrence in the USA–sisters sharing anything let alone a bed. With a family this close, they didn’t need any more space.

Mama called out for dinner and I found myself in the kitchen watching the housekeeper prepare “platanos.” She would smash each banana disk with a wooden tool, then fry them twice, filling a plate of our soon-to-be appetizer. Just the process looked fun so she let me jump in, laughing when I over-squished my plantain. We ate these double fried “platanos” with a dollop of suaro, or sour cream, and wow, they were devilishly good. I could hear the housekeeper still laughing about my squishing from the kitchen.

She made a great Marisco...

She made a great Marisco…

...and taught me how to make Platanos

…and taught me how to make Platanos

The dinner table was filled, arm to arm, and more plastic chairs were brought in from outside to accommodate the ever increasing number of guests. Cousins walked over from across the street, Wendy’s boyfriend stopped by, our driver came in, and we were joined by the local Cartagena tourism guide–our table was bursting with people. They must have smelled the Marisco, or seafood stew, that had been bubbling all day. Throughout dinner, the conversation never ceased and between bites I learned about Wendy’s job, her sister’s favorite spots to go out,  where to shop and what the locals were getting up to this holiday weekend.

Fish, Coconut Rice and Marisco

Fish, Coconut Rice and Marisco

After dinner we went back to the couch for some sweets– they introduced me to a local favorite dessert: squeaky cheese paired a cube of guava paste–a salty/sweet combo served on toothpick bite. We continued our chats about Hollywood, fashion, travel, weddings–we were able to communicate beautifully without having the same native language.

Bocadillo de Guayaba (or guava paste)

Bocadillo de Guayaba (or guava paste)

By the end of the night, I felt like I was part of the Perez Cuesta family and I just wanted to hang out with them for the rest of our stay! And though it’s hard to believe they’d want to do that, they definitely made me feel like they did. Waving goodbye and thanking them profusely for their generosity, time and genuine warmth, I felt that my American heart had grown three sizes but still it was nowhere as nearly large as a Colombian’s.  <3

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That was my side of the evening, but I truly wondered if the Perez-Cuesta girls and their mom and dad had as much of an impactful night as I did. Well, I’ve kept in touch with one of the daughters, Wendy, via Instagram, and I reached out to her to have her weigh in on her perspective of the night.

Kelley Ferro: What was your reaction to having American guests come visit your house?

Wendy Cuesta: Well, having people from the United States at our home was great, not just because we have fun but because we can actually show something different from what the TV and internet says about people in our country.

KF: How did your family decide what to make for dinner?

WC: If I can be honest… “our family” doesn’t decide what to make for dinner… our mom does! She is actually a great cook because she loves to do it! And in the Caribbean, seafood is of course the main dish… so is not really hard to decide what to serve.

KF: What was your favorite parts of the night?

WC: Well, my father loved the part when everyone just relaxes and start laughing at his jokes, which translated by me may not be as funny. My mom loves it when our guests tell her how much they love her cooking or compliments her daughters, but I think she enjoys the whole process since shopping for food until we say goodbye. I think for me and my sisters, having pictures taken was so much fun, and talking to you about personal lives, like your wedding or my sister’s job. It felt like we were having friends visiting that we hadn’t seen in years… not strangers at all.

KF: What did you learn about Americans from all of us?

WC: I learned that when you are open minded, life is just more fun. You all seemed so happy to be with us and having a ‘different night’ from usual tourism or traditional jobs, that it makes people wonder if maybe we are not being too close to possibilities or too shy to others.

KF: What did you like telling us about Colombia?

WC: I’m not exactly sure if we actually taught you anything… but I think we all loved the fact that you could see us as a family, as a real non-acting family. We love each other so much and are very close, and sadly I think is something parents and children are missing out these days, so I guess I’m just grateful for the beautiful family I have, that even though not all of us speak English, we manage to communicate altogether with you and have a great evening. And that’s actually what happens to us in daily life: we may not understand everything about each other, but we always figure things out, and I think that’s unique and precious.

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I couldn’t agree more. Special thanks to the Perez-Cuesta Family for setting the tone for our entire experience in Cartagena and to Avanti Destinations for making the experience possible.

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

 

Bazurto Market to Table

by Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

The ground was soft and wet with little puddles of muddy water mixed with fish guts, scales, blood and who knows what else.  This wasn’t a good day to be wearing flip-flops.  All of my senses were on high alert while traversing Bazurto Market. It was sensory overload and I felt like a kid in a candy store – bursting with excitement and attention deficit disorder every place I looked.  However, instead of being excited about pixie sticks and gumballs, in a twisted way I was excited about piles of intestines and pig heads.  It was a serious market, the kind where you get a glimpse into local food, eating culture, work habits, and traditions in an extremely ‘Bourdain Parts Unknown’ sort of way.  This is the stuff that’s normally kept far away from most American’s eyesight, the stuff that happens before that lovely piece of prime rib or fish fillet ends up behind the glass in the grocery market case.  And I absolutely loved it.

Crashing through the din of background salsa music was a loud pounding noise.  I panned around until I found the source; a middle age woman with a hair bonnet had her arm raised in the air holding a wooden club ready for her downward motion.  Bam! The club slams down onto the top of a knife driving it into the belly of a large fish.  This motion was repeated over and over until the fish was scored into 1 inch strips.  She suddenly put down the club and reached her arm, plastered in fish scales, across her body and grabbed a ½ bottle of open beer.  In one swift fluid motion she picked up the beer and chugged the remainder of the bottle slamming the empty down on the table with the same force she used with the wooden club.  She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm, picked up her instruments again and moved on to the next fish.

Fish Monger in Bazurto Market

Fish Monger in Bazurto Market

I stood there speechless and giddy.  This was the real Cartagena in front of me.

When I told Ruth, a local friend, that we were going to Bazurto Market she was immediately worried.  She went through all of the normal warnings; watch out for pick pockets, don’t flash around your camera or cell phone, and be careful.  However, I knew what this really meant was the market was a place where few tourists go, which actually made me more excited than fearful.  I wasn’t too worried as we were going with locals, our guide Eduardo as well as Chef Javier as part of an experience offered by Avanti Destinations.

Bazurto Market 8

Chef Javier led us through the market greeting and hugging old friends, inspecting vegetables, talking to vendors, and pointing out various items that were new to us.  The market was partially outdoor and partially enclosed.  It was a maze of little alleys and tables.  As you walked around and observed the people working there, you could tell the relationships ran deep.  Vendors joked among their neighbors, and it was often a family affair as kids helped their fathers butcher and sell.

We started in the fish areas, but then moved further back into the main part of the market where the meat butchers were located.  Men with giant bellies and even bigger smiles were outfitted in plastic aprons covered in blood, happily carving away on big wooden stumps.   Warning: this section of the market isn’t for everyone but if you decide to wander through be prepared to see extremely raw visuals of animal parts. It was super to have Eduardo and Chef Javier with us to answer the inevitable questions of, “What is THAT? And what is it used for?”  We learned of soups, and various other dishes I had never heard of before, nor did I know if I’d be brave enough to try them myself.

Bazurto Market 3

Next we found ourselves in the vegetable section of the market.  You could tell the avocados were in season as there were carts and carts of them in various sizes.   Chef Javier sorted through the stack to find the perfect one for our ceviche he was planning for us.  After all of this walking around I was starting to get hungry.

Luckily for my stomach we finished up in the prepared food section of the market where large metal pots balanced on stands precariously filled to the brim with soup, rice, and seafood.  Tables lined with newspaper had stacks of freshly fried fish on them.   Eduardo saw me looking inquisitively at the various fried foods and soon he was handing me a piece of oily newspaper with a freshly fried ball of something, a lime wedge, and cooked yucca. I eagerly bit into the fried food.  It was salty and crispy and had a fishy taste – delicious.  However I decided it best I inquire about what I was eating once I was actually done eating it.  I had spent too much time in the market that morning seeing every (and I mean every) part of an animal that I decided sometimes it’s best to not know what you are eating.

Prepared Food in the Market

Prepared Food in the Market

Mystery fried food

Mystery fried food

We left the sounds of the market behind and headed out of town towards the tiny beach community of Manzanillo.  Perched right on the beach is Khosamui Hotel, where Chef Javier works his seafood culinary magic.  The vibe was completely different from the bustling market. A big open-air lobby was filled with colorful flowers and throw pillows. The upstairs patio overlooked the beach and came with a fabulous and constant sea breeze to gently rock your hammock back and forth; providing the perfect place for a lazy nap while lunch was prepared.

Kohsamui Hotel – a perfect place to relax

Kohsamui Hotel – a perfect place to relax

I was awoken from my nap with the sounds of salsa music and someone offering me a cold beer.  Eduardo beckoned me downstairs where lunch was ready.  Chef Javier paraded out fresh colorful plates of seafood.  It was hard to reconcile that these lovely culinary creations came from the gritty market environment we were in a few hours ago.  Proving that it’s not how it starts, but how it ends on your plate that is important.   Some tourists might think the Bazurto market is a bit too much local insight, but it’s real, and it’s where the food in Cartagena comes from.   I adored my opportunity to see past the tourist veneer; it may not be pretty, but it’s a real local experience.

Lobster Ceviche

Lobster Ceviche

And if you don’t think you can take the ‘real-ness’ of it, then no problem, simply enjoy what’s on your plate.  Sometimes it’s easier to just enjoy the food and not know all the gory details.

Oh yes, and the fried food Eduardo gave me to try in the market?  Well, I learned later it was fish testicles.  Details, details.

 

 

 

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