If you’re looking for chillies and sweet potatoes in Bogotá, Paloquemao is the place to go.
Excluding tourists, there are only two types of people that come to Paloquemao: those looking for something very specific and those who are buying in bulk. Prove me wrong. Find me someone, anyone, who comes here to shop casually on a Saturday. It’s just not practical. There’s no reason to favour this place over your neighborhood frutiver unless the frutiver either doesn’t have what you need or doesn’t have enough of it. By that logic, I should come by roughly once a month – just often enough to grab a few 100g bags of the hot peppers I can’t find elsewhere, maybe an arepa boyacense if the mood is right, and then leave as soon as I’ve got everything I need. Unfailingly, I hang around long after my shopping is done.
It’s almost 11am. They’re sweeping up outside – you have to get here early if you want to see the flower show – but inside, things are still bustling. The layout of the market is labyrinthine, which adds to its allure. As you walk up one corridor and down another, you never quite shake the feeling that something fascinating is waiting for you just around the corner. In many ways, it’s true, if for no other reason than the extent to which this place absolutely bombards the senses.
The floors are slightly gritty beneath your feet, powdered by the dirt from the thousands of shoe soles that got there first; pressure cookers rattle and hiss as closet-sized diners prepare their soup of the day; the unctuous aroma of just-fried chicharron wafts in from street vendors, filling some halls and disappearing entirely from others; and reggaeton, bachata, salsa, and ranchero take turns as the default background music depending on where you are in the market, only giving way briefly to the occasional “a la orden” or, in my case, “qué busca, papa?”
When you walk through the main entrance, an expansive foyer welcomes you, showcasing fruits that seem too perfect to be real. There are mounds of strawberries and granadillas, oranges and bananas, grapes and papaya, and every last one of them is immaculate. Off to the side, you’ll find heaps of calendula, parsley, mint, and a dizzying array of other herbs whose names I don’t know laid out beneath different spices, incense, and herbal remedies that hang from low-ceilinged stalls. The Colombian grandmothers who try to convince their grandkids that the cure to any strain of COVID is agua de panela and Vick’s vapor rub single-handedly keep these stalls afloat.
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The more you wander the more you see. Miniature supply stores overflowing with cleaning products, tupperware, and a handful of other kitchen staples; egg and cheese shops; and fishmongers and butchers who, for reasons I still don’t understand, are clad in white smocks that have been soiled with the blood of whatever flesh they’ve been carving. Red or black aprons seem more practical.
But too much walking is disorienting. A byproduct of my hanging around is getting lost, not because Paloquemao is set up like a maze, but because so many of the kiosks are exactly the same. It’s something I’ve griped about on myriad occasions – not just in this market, but all over the city. The pet shops on avenida caracas with 50-whatever; the lechonerias around Quiroga; the auto repair garages in 7 de agosto – the sellers all seem to be carbon copies of one another, selling the same stuff and providing the same services at the same prices during the same operating hours.
The silver lining is that the sameness puts things in perspective. It makes you appreciate the businesses that take risks and try to do something new – the woman who sells hot peppers or the hard-to-find kiosk that only sells handmade corn tortillas. It’s one of the reasons why I come to Paloquemao. I’m always looking for something very specific, something different. I don’t always find it, but it keeps me hanging around long after my shopping is done.
The Plaza de Mercardo Paloquemao is open from 4.30 am Monday to Friday at Av. Calle 19 No. 25-04.