Oct 04

Colombian Markets, or… Why Malls Suck.


The beaches may be crazy, but what Colombia´s major cities seem to be crazy about is their malls. Even though these centres of commerce are rather liberally dispersed throughout each metropolis and reach frankly titanic proportions, you´ll still find them absolutely choc-a-bloc any given Saturday. Their crisp white interiors generate an air-conditioned atmosphere of security, convenience and abundance.The rise of the Colombian mall matches the rise of the Colombian middle class, and, as such, symbolise a nascent affluence that, until now, seemed out of the reach of most of this country´s population. As far as shopping centres go, they´re actually pretty good.

On the other hand, Colombian markets are also everywhere – pretty much in every neighbourhood around the country. They´re dirty, loud, and often at the mercy of the elements. Their structure and organisation are ramshackle. The vendors there are kind of gruff, if not a bit rude. There aren´t any shopping trolleys.

So, you may be justified in asking me, oh Gentle, Astute and Possibly Confused Reader, what exactly is my problem with malls? 

Well, at the risk of being unfairly labelled a hipster (totes not, btw´sies, brah), I´ll let you know. My problem, my Gentle, Astute, and Possibly Confused Reader (do you mind if I call you GAPCR for short?), is that even though Colombian malls might actually be pretty good examples of malls, there remains one small detail.

They´re still malls.

A mall, no matter where you find it, is a spooky example of what have been dubbed “non-places.” Just like a 7-11 or an airport, once you get lost in one of these shiny-white spaces, you could be pretty much anywhere around the world. Or, nowhere.


BE Where You Are.


you are here


Once you´re at your local market, there´s no mistaking that you´re definitively and unavoidably there. From the mud on your shoes to the incessant cries of “a la orden,” there´s absolutely no mistaking that you´re part of a local community – at least for the time you´re there. You´re firmly in a local space bursting with its unique personality. You don´t need a little arrow on a massive, confusing and impersonal sign telling you that “YOU ARE HERE.” It´s palpably obvious that you couldn´t be anywhere else.

It´s generally the case that the livelihood of the person you buy that delicious granadilla from at your local market is closely tied to the continued existence of that particular stall. Compare that to a giant supermarket in its impersonal mall, where the relationship between the owner of the chain and the particular employee serving you is about as remote as it´s possible to be. They might as well be in Mexico. Actually, they probably are.


Don´t Follow Someone Else´s Script.


ron burgundy


“Do you want fries with that?” “Do you have a points card?” “Cash or credit?”  You´re not going to hear any of these rehearsed lines at a market. Sure, a fun game to play is to see how many times you hear that famous “a la orden,” but, following on from the last point, I defy you to find me a more genuinely Colombian phrase. After that greeting, you´re on your own. You choose your own shopping adventure. Instead of the institutionally-instilled uniformity of your transaction at a mall, you´ll get a truly personalised, personal interaction. It could be gruff sometimes, but it´s a heart-felt gruffness. No fake smiles, or “thank you for shopping at”s here.

You may still ask, “why is that a good thing?” “What´s in it for me?”

Well, GAPCR, in the grand style of Derek Zoolander, let me answer your question with another question: “do you know what a ñapa is?” Once you´ve worked out the awesome significance of this little word, I challenge – nay! double-dare – you to ever be the happy recipient of such guileless generosity in a mall. It´s common custom at pretty much any market here to get a little something extra with your purchase.


Your Market Is Better For You.


Paul and friends enjoying a gigantic yucca in one of Bogota's many markets
Paul Fowler and parents enjoying a gigantic yucca in one of Bogota’s many markets.


To continue answering your (admittedly selfish but) perfectly reasonable question, let me just point out that markets are way cheaper than supermarkets. It´s a little crazy, but it´s often the case that even your little local cornerstore is going to be cheaper than that massive “convenient” supermarket over there in the mall. As for the comparison between markets and malls, forget about it. There is no fair comparison. And, especially if you get there in the morning, the produce is going to be way fresher and better.


Your Market is Better For Colombia.


seecolombia staff jump


Here´s another reason that crappy little local market can make you feel good. If you frequent it, you´re directly supporting a Colombian farmer or producer. And, believe me, they need – and deserve – all the help that they can get right now. With no intermediaries or giant corporations involved, it´s cheaper for you, and better for your farmer.


Markets Are Awesome.


Bazurto markets. Image courtesy of Off 2 Colombia.
Bazurto markets. Image courtesy of Off 2 Colombia.


Even ignoring all those above points, there´s no denying that Colombian markets are totes amazeballs. If you´re in Bogota, for example, you need to go to Paloquemao at least once, just for the experience – even if it´s just to take photos. Other markets that also double as tourist attractions in their own right include the massive, baffling Bazurto Markets in Cartagena (of course, keep an eye on your personal items here), or Bombona in little old Pasto. Even if – or especially if – you´re just passing through, there´s no better way to get an insight into exactly how Colombia is than heading to such markets. Buy some fruit while you´re there. It´ll make you happier.


All in all, I guess my title to this is a little unfair on the poor old mall. It´s not really that they suck, it´s just that they seem to, when compared to the mighty awesomeness that is the traditional, humble Colombian market.

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