Colombia isn’t really famous for it’s food and drink around the world: the true ‘foodie paradise’ destination tags go to South-East Asian countries, Mediterranean destinations, and Latin American countries like Peru and Mexico. When people think of ‘foodie travel’ Colombia is rarely on the tip of their tongues. This is partly fair and partly unfair – on one hand, there are few truly unique cuisines in Colombia, most of the classic dishes here can be found elsewhere in some variety. However, on the other hand, Colombia is a paradise of incredible ingredients and produce, not to mention varieties of fruit and veg that can’t be found anywhere else on earth! So, while Colombia might not be high on your list if you consider yourself a ‘foodie,’ there are some truly fantastic places to explore on a trip to Colombia that will get even the snobbiest food lover salivating…
For me, as an amateur food-lover, top of the list has to be Paloquemao, Bogota’s largest food market, which is open daily, and supplies the ingredients for the vast majority of the city’s best restaurants. Whilst Paloquemao is slowly becoming a popular off-the-beaten-track Bogota travel spot, it is still undervisited, and you are unlikely to find many other foreigners there on a visit. Also, as a working market meant for shoppers from actual restaurants, it retains that authentic market vibe that many popular tourist markets lack.
Visiting Paloquemao can feel a bit like wandering around a labyrinth – it’s a dense maze-like place, with thousands of stalls loudly pushing their wares. And what wares! Fruits that you never imagined existing, in all shapes and sizes; potatoes by the thousand, with varieties that seem like science-fiction inventions (pink potatoes, anyone!?); fish and meat in every species and cut available; not to mention hundreds of little restaurants and tiendas making a tidy sum selling food and drink to hungry and thirsty market employees and customers. It can all be a bit overwhelming at first glance, but once you start exploring you realize that there is a hectic order to the place, and it is divided into sections – fruit and veg areas, meat and fish, flowers…It’s a bit like a metaphor for Colombia: crazy and hectic at first glance but with a structure and order hidden beneath the chaos. Maybe that’s why I love visiting Paloquemao so much – it reminds me of Colombia!
But what is there to actually do when you visit Paloquemao, besides just walking around? My recommendation is usually to go down for brunch and stick around for a couple of hours, freeing up some stomach space for a snack before you leave. You see, unless you’re buying stock for your new Bogota restaurant, then the primary purpose of a visit to Paloquemao is to eat, eat, eat! My trip usually starts out with a visit to one of Paloquemao’s best little hidden restaurants for a hearty brunch meal – either ‘Los Primos’ near the house-plants section (so-named because the owner calls everyone primo; there’s no actual sign or anything) for a delicious caldo de pescado or fish stew, or the lechona (a tasty pork dish) from the little stall near the loading car-park. You might not be used to fish or pork in the morning but you know what they say…”When in Rome…” Or “when in Bogota…eat fish in the morning.” Paloquemao closes at 4:30pm on weekdays and 2:30pm on the weekend, but most places begin to wind down at least an hour before closing, so if you can aim to arrive by 11am then you’re onto a winner.
After a big feed like that, you’ll need to take a stroll to burn off the extra calories, right!? This is the time I usually dedicate to wandering around Paloquemao, taking in the sounds and smells of an authentic Colombian food market. It’s a great local experience, and one which not too many people get to have on a visit to Bogota, so make the most of the madness and take it all in! Plus, if you make sure to walk enough, then you’ll soon be ready for more food…which is really the point of it all, right?!
Next stop: the fruit zone! This is the section that travelers generally love the most, as it offers the most unique experiences in Paloquemao, specifically the chance to sample loads of exotic fruits that you never knew existed…fruits with fancy exciting names like curuba, guanabana, pitahaya, feijoa, and mangosteen! Crazy, eh!? Any vendor will happily tell you the name of the fruit you’re pointing at, and sell you one piece, ready to eat then and there. Some of the most fun you can have at Paloquemao is just hanging out by a fruit stall, sampling the exciting stuff on offer.
If you fancy brushing up on your Colombian fruit knowledge before visiting Paloquemao then you can take our Colombian fruit quiz right here!
Once the fruit sampling is done, I usually like to grab a juice from a popular stall near the main entrance to the market – with regular flavors such as pineapple, strawberry and mango available there’ll be something for even the least adventurous traveler. However, it’s the really interesting and strange fruit juices that should have the foodies salivating – borojo (a Pacific coast fruit which is supposedly an aphrodisiac), guanabana (best enjoyed with milk), lulo (an endemic Colombian/Ecuadorian fruit) and many more are available, and if you really want the full Colombian fruit experience you have to try at least one!
Paloquemao, being off the main tourist track in Bogota, can be a bit tricky to navigate effectively if you don’t speak Spanish or aren’t very confident. It might also be a bit overwhelming for less experienced or shyer travelers. If this sound slike you then I’d highly recommend contacting Bogota Foodie to take part in his tour of the market. I went along last year and thoroughly enjoyed myself – the added bonus of going along with a Colombian food expert could be the highlight of many people’s visit to Paloquemao. You can check out a video of my foodie Paloquemao tour below:
All in all, a visit to Paloquemao, whether with an expert like Bogota Foodie or as a solo mission, is a highly rewarding thing to do on a visit to Bogota, and Colombia in general. Especially if you have just arrived in Colombia, Paloquemao serves as a nice introduction to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Colombia, and the friendliness of the Colombian people as well. So make sure to put some time aside (especially if you have about three days in Bogota) to spend a few hours in Paloquemao market, a true foodie paradise in Bogota…
Practical guide to Paloquemao: If you do decide to visit Paloquemao by yourself, it’s pretty easy to get there. You can either take a taxi – it should cost roughly 5-8.000 COP from La Candelaria, or 10-14.000 COP from Chapinero; or you can take the bus from the corner of Calle 19 #7 (next to the McDonalds) – just look for the name Paloquemao on the board. Once you’re there you can expect to pay roughly 8-10.000 COP for a main meal, 5-8.000 COP for 4/5 fruit samples (depending on the fruit), and around 3-4.000 COP for a juice. The market opens from 4:30am – 4:30pm during the week, and 5.00am – 2:30pm on weekends.
Check out the maps screenshot below to see where some of the places mentioned in this post are located: the yellow dot is the main entrance to the market (there’s a Davivienda cash machine just to the left as you face the door); the red dot is where ‘Los Primos’ restaurant and the lechona stand are roughly located; the green dot is the best juice stand.