Despite being one of the most important markets in Colombia, Paloquemao is not necessarily the kind of place most include in a Bogotá city tour. Maybe it’s the fact that it barely makes a footnote in travel guides and is located in an uninspiring part of the city, but Paloquemao is worth a trip for anyone looking for a glance into the heart of Colombian gastronomic culture.

Colombia is one of the world's largest flower producers, and Paloquemao offers a truly impressive variety of blooms.

Colombia is one of the world’s largest flower producers, and Paloquemao offers a truly impressive variety of blooms.

One of many indoor markets that supply the capital with food, Paloquemao’s claim to fame isn’t its size, but rather the volume of trade carried out within its walls each day. From the moment it opens its iron gates in the early hours of the morning until closing time, thousands of Bogotanos flock here to stock up on meat, fish, fruits and vegetables. The market is also a favorite with city chefs who supply their restaurants with high quality produce and hard-to-find ingredients.

Dating back to 1946, when the market first opened on the corner of the Carrera 30 with Calle 13, Paloquemao got its name after a tree was burned to the ground during the civil unrest of the Bogotazo. More than just a market today, its name is also synonymous with an entire part of the city center, so when heading there be sure to tell your cab driver to drop you off at the mercado.

The market bursts with color, and traders from all across the country man the stalls, selling their produce, including many of the exotic fruits and herbs Colombia has to offer. The plaza is separated into three main areas: the first dedicated to greens and spices, the second to meats and fish, and a large covered patio houses the flower market and fruit sections.

A stroll through the market becomes a tour de force in cultural education. Every salesperson seems an expert with their produce and will gladly explain, under duress of buying a half-pound of this or that, all the details of the foods they are selling. It beats your weekly supermarket shopping trip any day. But be warned: patience is a requisite.

The marketplace is a two-tier maze, but with so much on offer the fun lies in wandering between the stands and picking out the most interesting goods you can find. Bring a big shopping bag and set off on your quest to pick out the most unusual things – but in the meantime, here are our picks for Paloquemao’s top exotic fruit offerings and other essentials.

Colombia is fruit heaven. Along with the more ordinary fruits readily available in restaurants and fruit stores – lulo, guanabana, maracuyá – here at Paloquemao, you can find all the weird and wonderful fruits that often don’t exist outside the country, let alone on every Colombian supermarket shelf.

Grown deep in the Amazon, this bright yellow arazá fruit is a perfect example the exotic diversity found in the jungle. The production and circulation of arazá has risen in recent years, and it is one of the market’s most interesting fruit finds famed for its delectable smell and furry outer texture. Don’t be fooled, however. The soft exterior hides a tangy acidic pulp but, despite the sharpness, it makes for a refreshing juice. Simply cut the fruit, scoop out the seeds, and juice with water and plenty of sugar. Not only a delicious drink, arazá has twice as much vitamin C as an orange.

Perhaps the secret to Cali’s sexed-up salsa scene, the one-of-a-kind borojó fruit is the epitome of all the weird and wonderful fruits that Colombia has to offer. Originally from the Pacific, borojó is reportedly a natural aphrodisiac for men, famously consumed as a potent juice by Caleños in preparation for those sensual nights out .

This fist-sized fruit is brown on the outside when ripe, with a squishy texture and sticky inside. Borojó is consumed as a juice, so don’t be put off by the initial vinegary smell, and simply mix with milk in a blender to try this famous concoction. In fact, for a fruit with such supposedly potent affects, the taste of your milkshake-like drink is rather bland and powdery – add a splash of your favorite tipple to improve the flavor.

If “exotic” were a flavor, then the gulupa – part of the same family as the better-known maracuyá or passion fruit –would be a strong contender. Inconspicuous with a brown outer shell, this one doesn’t immediately stand out on the fruit stalls but is definitely worth the search.

Cut open, the fruit has a purple inner rim, and is full of yellow-green seeds. The fruit is delicious eaten as is, or as a juice with added sugar in water or milk. Gulupa is packed with nutrients, and also makes a great salad topper or base for jams, ice creams and sensational cocktails.

Another diamond in the rough easily hidden amongst the rows of vibrantly colored fruits, the large pear-shaped zapote is light brown on the outside but vibrant orange on the inside. Not always a hit with first time tasters, the zapote is a firm favorite in Colombia, particularly in the coastal regions, and another nutrient-filled treat. Most describe the slightly stringy pulp as having a taste similar to mango mixed with carrot or pumpkin.

While most Colombian food isn't spicy, a dollop of ají livens up a hearty soup or plate of frijoles.

While most Colombian food isn’t spicy, a dollop of ají livens up a hearty soup or plate of frijoles.

When leaving the fruit section of Paloquemao, make sure to stop at Doña Eugenia’s stand. As the “Queen of Ají” she has waist-high sacks of hot peppers in all imaginable colors, shapes and sizes and will encourage – to put it gently – visitors to try each one. “If you just bite a little bit,” she says, “it won’t be that hot.”

No Colombian dining table is complete without a bowl of ají sauce, and after selling for more than two decades to Bogotá’s restaurateurs, Doña Eugenia knows her chilies. Her stand features jalapeños and habaneros – both grown in Colombia – as well as imported Peruvian ají, largely destined for Peruvian eateries. Luckily there is a stand selling beer and water nearby if you need to cool down.

A natural backscratcher, estropajo is another Colombian peculiarity found at Paloquemao and not to be missed.  Cultivated mainly in the Coffee Region and the Cauca Valley, estropajo is made from a plant in the cucurbitaceae family (which also includes melon and cucumber) and passes through a dehydration and drying process before being turned into a strange, stringy but sturdy-looking bathing accessory. 

Colombians swear by the benefits of this vegetable sponge, which is a great for exfoliating the skin, controlling acne, banishing cellulite and massaging tired muscles. Completely biodegradable, this is definitely a green way to wash, and one long estorpajo can be cut into pieces and last for months.

The bustling fish section of the market is another cultural experience. Here you can find fish that have traveled from all corners of the country.  Fresh trout from the lakes of Boyacá are lined up on ice beds next to squid, tilapia and red snapper from the coast. Wander the stands and marvel at rows of catfish and Amazon catches such as black cuchas. The impressive variety is worth a look, even for those who aren’t fans of fish.

If you can stomach the blood and the sight of assorted organs, the meat section of Paloquemao is a carnivore's dream.

If you can stomach the blood and the sight of assorted organs, the meat section of Paloquemao is a carnivore’s dream.

Paloquemao also offers delicious and succulent meat at great prices with the added bonus of some raucous fun with resident carniceros. The meat area is not for the faint of heart, as rows of carcasses drip blood and fat bellied pigs are strung up in full view. It’s not possible to simply lower your eyes as you pass through. You will have to dodge the jolly butchers as they stroll along with blood-stained shirts, carrying fresh meat on their shoulders.

Of course, their grisly appearance doesn’t mean most butchers aren’t in good spirits and keen to chat. One explained why the meat is better here than in the supermarket. At Paloquemao, for example, butchers don’t trim off all of the tasty fat normally removed before meat reaches the supermarket shelf. Make sure you look out for the stands with hanging sheets of pork rind – chicharrón – ready to be fried and served up on a Bandeja Paisa.

The best time to visit the market if you’re after fresh flowers is Tuesday or Saturday morning when Paloquemao’s outdoor area is awash with multi-colored rows of homegrown roses and carnations. When we visited, the most abundant display of flowers for sale were bright sunflowers, and with such beautiful arrays on offer, it’s tough to make it home without purchasing a bouquet or two.

The savings of a shopping trip to Paloquemao more than offsets the cab fare, and the market is easy to access from Transmilenio. With $20,000 pesos and a little bargaining skill, shoppers can walk away with bulging bags filled with weeks worth of fruit, vegetables, flowers and just about anything else edible. Besides, the fun is free.