It’s Friday shortly after seven in Bogotá, the streets are empty and the fresh wind calls for warm clothing. You can’t even imagine that anyone is already awake at this time and yet a few kilometers further to the north the Paloquemao market paints an entirely different picture.
The gates of the market are filled with people carrying this and that, transporting heavy packages on their back or tuned bikes. Once you set foot in the market heavenly smells of sour and sweet fruit, fresh pastries and herbs will tickle your senses.
Mornings at Paloquemao are busy trying to get everything ready for the customers
What is Paloquemao?
But let’s start from the beginning: You may ask yourself “What is Paloquemao?”. It's the second biggest food market in Bogotá. It’s history dates back a few decades and it should definitely be on your to-do list if you pay a visit to Colombia’s vibrant capital.
The usual visitors of Paloquemao are locals and often restaurant owners who are buying their weekly supplies. Adapting to its usual crowd, the market is set for buying in big bulks and consists of large alleys with store after store overflowing with the most mouthwatering ingredients from fresh fruits and vegetables to roots, spices, herbs, meat, and fish.
Fruit stand at the market
While some stores offer ridiculous amounts of one product (there are entire avocado stores – welcome to heaven) others blow your mind with the variety they offer. They have everything from the oil you heat up in the pan to the garnish that you use to decorate the finished dish.
One of the many avocado booths
Paloquemao is a mecca for all food lovers but equally interesting for everyone who wants to learn about Colombian culture. Food is an important part of the culture here and while the cuisine might not be world famous, you will be able to make some discoveries that knock the socks off your taste buds.
The Colombian kitchen is also often described as a “cocina de regiones”, a food culture that is strongly influenced by the different regions. That means you’ll be able to try most foods, like Arepas or Empanadas, in millions of variations depending on where you are in Colombia.
Why is the market worth a visit?
Starting with the most obvious reason first – the variety of products is just impressive. Just have a look at the choices named in this post and multiply by a thousand to get close to the actual scope of the market. Paloquemao will make you walk around the paths, eyes wide open and engaging all your senses.
The people you will run into at the market are often locals. You’ll be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the business people and their customers haggling, chatting and checking the products. The atmosphere will give you a very authentic experience of what Colombians are like and allows you to dive deep into the local lifestyle.
Last but not least – the food. It is hard to explain the fascination you feel when you see how Javier prepares the cheese-filled Arepeas de maíz pelao on his special grill plate that has a particular section to make the sides of the round pastry just as crispy as the top and bottom. You just have to visit and experience and try all the different stands yourself.
Javier explaining how to make crispy, yummy Arepas de maíz pelao (just one of a million variations of arepas)
How to find your way through Paloquemao
As mentioned in the beginning, you’ll be carried away by the tempting fragrances of the market as soon as you enter. But stay focused because there’s much to see and you can get easily lost in the winding aisles.
The Paloquemao market has many different sections each focused on a different product. There is a large section of fruits, veggies, and herbs as well as a section for buying meat, one for seafood and fish and a whole part where you can find numerous flower stores. In between the different sections, you will find a lot of small restaurants and food stands that will make it possible to follow the journey of the products from the raw ingredients until trying the finished goods.
A small part of the huge market halls
You should first visit the fruit, vegetable, and herbal stores. This section offers you the best smells and depending on when you go you’ll receive a live presentation of some of the typical Colombian food preparations. If you pass by a stand with giant green leaves and ask yourself “How the heck do you eat these?” you have discovered a typical Colombian dish – Tamal. This is a paste that typically contains corn, chicken or some kind of meat, onion, and local spices but of course, the ingredients vary from region to region. The raw paste is wrapped in big leaves usually of plantains and cooked for various hours developing a unique taste.
Another aisle (or rather set of aísles) that you should visit is where they sell the spices and raw chilies, paprikas and dried ingredients. Here you will find the little wooden stall of Doña Eugenia who sells her homemade spices and pastes. Maybe this will make a great souvenir to take home?
In this section of Paloquemao it gets spicy
Turn around a few corners and you will find “mi molino”, a booth that might not look like much with all the big blue tons but wait until the owner opens them for you. Any kind of flour, bean or corn you know (and even more you haven’t even heard of) – you’ll find them here. The vendors are super friendly and when they have a few minutes they gladly take the time to explain you the use of yuca, almond, potato, garbanzo and cornmeal in the Colombian kitchen.
The meat and fish sections have changed a lot over the last years. While a few years back customers could choose their own chicken when it was still alive, you don’t see this nowadays. Still, it is impressive to experience the variety of products offered in these sections, although a lot of them are not of Colombian origin. Especially fish is imported a lot, so if you want to experience the fresh Colombian produce you can stick to the sections mentioned before.
Now once you’ve been amazed by all the different colorful stands that is when it’s time to wake up your taste buds with some snacking. From Arepas, Buñelos, Pan de bono and panela over guanabana, carambolo, strawberry, maracuja, mango and kiwi juice to local soups and more filling dishes you can taste your way through the market. If you have no idea what half of the listed things are then you’re in luck – this is the perfect condition. Surprise yourself with the unexpected flavor combinations of Colombian dishes and you won’t want to leave this place ever again.
How to get there and when to go
You can get to Paloquemao by taxi or bus. A taxi is definitely the more relaxed choice and they are relatively cheap compared to most European countries or the US.
If you want the full-on Colombian experience you can also take a bus to Paloquemao which will cost you a little more time. From the center, several buses, like the Transmilenio line F23, will take you close to the market. To check which bus to take you can use the moovit
app or webpage. Make sure to get off at Calle 13/ Carrera 22 or Carrera 23. If you are unsure you can also sometimes ask the driver to let you know when to get off. From there you will have to walk a few blocks to the north. The exact address is Avenida 19 #25-4.
Lastly, you can also book a guided tour to Paloquemao
to be led through the many different stands, learn some interesting facts about the Colombian cuisine and get in touch with the vendors through your guide. They mostly only speak Spanish so if you don’t know any, your guide can translate for you. The guides are also often friends with the vendors, which makes it easier to try some products for free and get a bit of background information. In case of booking a tour, you’ll be taken to the market in private transportation.
One of the best days to visit the Paloquemao market is Friday. As most restaurant owners do their shopping on Saturday the market will be overflowing with fresh and colorful products. It is also recommendable to go in the morning. Not only to avoid the crowds but also to experience the preparations of the vendors. The market is open Monday to Saturday from 04:30 am to 04:30 pm and on Sundays from 5 am to 2:30 pm.
If you stick to the few tips and tricks mentioned in this post, you’ll leave the market dizzy with all the compelling smells and tastes and your eyes full with all the impressions.