Stroll through the streets of the colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia, and you'll see locals wiping watermelon juice off their chins, slurping down slices of mangoes, and popping small, round exotic fruits like candy and sucking on the pits. Even kids drain cups of freshly squeezed juice with the fervor normally associated with ice cream.
The heat and sun and air in Cartagena brings on a particular thirst. Not just for water or beer or mojitos; but for something rich in color, satisfying in texture, and with a surprising punch of flavor.
When a Colombian friend heard I was traveling to Cartagena, his enthusiastic reply was a list of unfamiliar words: uchuva, lulo, guanabana. These are the exotic fruits of Cartagena, the bright pop of color in already color-saturated streets, where vendors sell everything from pre-cut ready-to-eat fruit to tiny, flavor-packed mini bananas. The stands are community centers, with locals sauntering between tables to see who has the ripest mangoes or the best price on limes.
Produce this bold in color seemed to inspire a friendly competition between the stands. To draw the eye, some vendors chose to stock their stand entirely in one color, allowing different hues of red or densely packed green to lure in the customers. One stand focused on red fruits had mangoes piled high with fire-engine red skins. When I asked about the mangoes, the vendor blushed, hesitating before revealing that the mangoes are called "gringo cheeks," in reference to the often-sunburned visitors exploring the streets of Cartagena.
I started my days with a tall glass of lulo juice—a citrusy fruit, sometimes described as a combination of lime and rhubarb—and began my nights with mojitos spiked with the tartness of uchuva, a small yellow fruit related to the tomatillo. I began to look for ripe uchuva as an afternoon snack, mimicking the local children and popping them in my mouth like candy. I began to learn that fruits that look scary on the outside often have serious rewards within. Guanabana resembles a thorny apple or pear, but its white, creamy interior contained unexpected hints of strawberry, pineapple, and even coconut.
The fruit in Cartagena evokes childhood-like wonder in even the skeptical traveler. To pick up a ripe piece of fruit, smell it, feel its weight, break open its skin, and have no idea what lay inside was a delicious discovery each time.