If you only had one day to explore Bogota and gain an insight into its culinary scene then you must venture down the bumpy and potholed Calle 19, past the trannies, the prostitutes and industrial sector of the city to arrive at the most unexpected non-touristy (read: authentic) place, the market of Paloquemao.
Translating into “burnt stick”, Paloquemao’s name is birthed from some tree that was supposedly burnt down around Calle 19 some 60 years ago. Today it is recognised as the Mecca of food sites in Bogota, bringing together suppliers of flowers, meat, vegetables, fruits, packaged goods and seafood from all over the country.
Over the past decade, Bogota has seen a big change in the food industry with the growth of supermarket chains such as Exito and Carulla offering picture perfect produce at exorbitant prices. Locals are starting to buy into the western model, preferring to do all their weekly grocery shopping at a large supermarket chain rather than local food markets. Local fruit and vegetable shops are slowly being wiped out throughout the city. Paloquemao is a return to tradition where local farmers and people who appreciate the value of real food gather to do business in an unpretentious environment. Here you won’t find carrots that look like they may have just come out of some cloning machine but rather a gigantic version of a farmer’s market where the produce oozes freshness.
Just walking around the plaza and getting lost between the sections is half the fun. It takes a handful of trips to finally be able to navigate your way through the maze. As you slowly make your way through the market, keep an ear out for the word “permiso” being shouted as you’ll most likely get in the way of one of the hundreds of carriers whose job is to hoard massive sacks of produce on their backs through the tiny passageways that connect the various sections.
The market is broadly separated into four major sections; vegetable and fruit, packaged goods, meat and fish. I say broadly because the market is also peppered with local eateries/restaurants, flower stalls, nurseries, tiendas and delicatessens. There are even internet cafés for those who desperately need to connect to the web.
It would be fair to say that Paloquemao is a playground for foodies. There is nothing more exciting than seeing vegetables that look so alive as though they have just been picked from your home garden ready to be chopped and thrown into the salad bowl. That’s before you even get to the fruit. This market is a must visit for fruit lovers who wish to delve into the full range of exotic fruits Colombia has to offer. There are even mini-sections that only focus on one product such as potatoes, herbs and aromatics, plantains, corn, avocados, eggs and chickens (butchered and plucked right there at your discretion).
It’s easy to let your imagination run wild with recipe ideas when you’re seeing all these potential ingredients in their raw form but how does that translate to a Colombian meal? The answer lies amongst the dozens of food stalls and eateries you see throughout the market while you do your food shop. It takes energy to shop so why not get there early and grab a fish broth and arepa for breakfast? Maybe you had a rough night and need something bigger so have a tamal instead. Still hungry? No problems as there’s plenty to snack on such as morcilla (blood sausage), empanadas and pan de bono (Colombian cheese bread). That’s not even getting to the lunch options. In addition to being a food market, Paloquemao is also an open food court offering a full range of traditional Colombian grub. Be sure you fast before you arrive as you’re probably going to want to try a bit of everything.
While Colombian produce is obviously the priority here, on close review it’s clear that Bogota is finally starting to open up its doors to international cultures. Finding the wide range of spices and chillies from gastronomy giants Peru and Mexico is no longer a search for the holy grail. A quick inspection of the packaged goods section will you to gems such as imported olive oil, oyster sauce, Mexican tortillas, sesame oil, sushi rice and wasabi just to name a few. There are now even stalls specialising in Asian vegetables like bean sprouts, bok choi and Chinese water spinach. That was unheard of just five years ago.
It’s an exciting time for food in Colombia. With the growing range of international cuisines in Bogota, coupled with the growing exposure of Colombian cuisine on the world stage, it won’t be long before Bogota becomes a true international culinary city along the likes of its South American counterparts Lima and Buenos Aires. Don’t believe what I tell you though, its better to come visit Paloquemao and see the changes with your own eyes.