For an alternative Sunday morning in the streets of Bogota’s city centre, head north along the Carrera Septima instead of towards the well-worn tourist spots of the Candelaria, and dip into an area of the city where old meets new and some of Bogotá’s past still thrives on the streets.
From the front of the Museo de Oro, turn right along the Septima to discover the hidden charms of Las Nieves, which from start to finish is an inspiring mix of the city’s multi-generational layering. Enthusiastic street vendors line the Septima, offering anything from film stills and board games to food and copies of the Kama Sutra. Embedded among these lively vendedores, you will soon find a collection of street artists who vie with each other to paint your original portrait or caricature for a small price.
Hitting the Calle 20, pedestrians will stumble across the elegant, red and cream-colored Las Nieves church. A striking historical backdrop to bustling everyday life, the church is one of the most architecturally distinctive the city has to offer. Every Sunday without fail, and as if immune to and unaware of the surrounding frenetic action, older locals set up chess games in front of the church and are soon challenged by younger devotees – a fascinating way to spend half an hour watching Bogotá street life unfold.
Keep walking along the Septima to the Calle 24 and you will soon arrive at an uninspiring concrete block in the shadow of the Torre Colpatria. A functioning car park during the week, the area flamboyantly transforms every Sunday into Las Nieves’ crown jewel: the San Alejo Flea Market. Despite its uninviting exterior, the buzzing atmosphere of people excitedly gathered around the high-walled entrance provides evidence that something special is happening here. Step inside and you enter a treasure trove of Bogotá past and present.
Scores of market sellers fill this unassuming space with dazzling rows of antiques and artifacts alongside stalls of jewelry crafted by young designers. In this Pandora’s Box, you can find old gramophones, vintage telephones and other assorted household items all now beyond use, but a reminder of times gone by: dusty books, plants, movies, body lotions and clothes.
One of the market’s most famous residents is a poet well known to regulars. The walls of his booth are papered with examples of his intricate calligraphy and poetic talents, and he is on hand to provide you with an original acrostic poem. In just a few minutes, you can leave the market with your very own piece of Bogotano literary heritage. At the other extreme, a first-time visitor from Canada left San Alejo armed with brass knuckles and a massive poster of heavy metal album artwork.
“It is impossible to know exactly when the market started on this spot”, says Claudia Torras, of the San Alejo Flea Market Association. “It has certainly been part of the culture and city for years. Bogotá families traditionally hold on to old objects they no longer have use for and store them below the stairs, similar to an attic. Today, families who have sold their goods in the market for four or five generations continue to come here to sell,” she claims.
The market is an unforgettable place where families from Bogotá and visitors from across the country and around the world come to explore and spend a pleasant Sunday morning. “These days, technology changes our culture so rapidly. Here in the San Alejo Flea Market, people are able to rediscover our past,” says Torras.
The San Alejo Flea Market Association was formed in 1983 to administer the market and represent traders, promoting the market as “San Alejo: Unforgettable Memories of Bogotá.” In 2005, it was listed as Patrimony of Cultural Interest and Tourism of Bogotá due to the market’s role in preserving the city’s heritage. The Association organizes cultural events throughout the year to celebrate the historical and cultural traditions of Bogotá.
Allow yourself time to browse the multitude of items on offer here, and when you are ready to leave, laden with goods from Bogotá’s past and present, enjoy a well deserved Colombian almuerzo. La Cuchara Colombiana offers a typical meal with soup, juice and a main course to revive weary shoppers and complete a Sunday morning “Las Nieves” style. As you head home with a satisfied stomach and lighter wallet, savor the experience of a unique fusion of city life that will likely continue for many generations to come.