Vibrant, fresh and authentic—here are the 3 best local markets in Medellin to visit for a taste of Colombian commerce and culture.
18 percent of the world’s birds.
600 species of bees.
130,000 varieties of plants and orchids.
Fair to say that biodiversity is one of Colombia’s strong suits.
With all that blooming, buzzing and cross-pollination going on, it’s no surprise that Colombia is also famed for its fresh produce. Even in the heart of Medellin, the country’s second largest city, it’s impossible to overlook Colombia’s obsession with fruit and veg of all shapes and sizes.
Every refrigerator in Colombia is brimming with vibrantly coloured tropical fruits, many of which are grown in Antioquia Department, Colombia’s fruit bowl, and sold through Medellin’s humming wholesale markets.
Never one to pass on a pineapple juice, and with a serious mango habit I have no intention of kicking (three years living in Southeast Asia will do that to you), I came to Medellin fully prepared to embrace fruit culture. But we haven’t had the best luck so far—our first market adventure left us with a bag of plantains (nope, those aren’t oversized bananas) to slice up on top of our breakfast porridge.
Figuring we still had a thing or two to learn, when Medellin City Services invited us to join their Local Fruits and Market Places Tour for a guided look at three of the biggest and best produce markets in Medellin, we couldn’t say no.
Colombia: It’s all about the fruit
‘People in Medellin don’t really drink juice when we go out. We much prefer Coca-Cola’, our guide, Steven, told us. It might sound counterintuative, but there’s an easy explanation: Paisas (people from Medellin) usually have so much fruit at home, there’s no need to spend money on juice when they go out.
Fruit is beloved in Medellin. Locals like Steven swear by the high Vitamin C content of certain tropical fruits for keeping their immune systems strong through Medellin’s unpredictable weather. The rich soil and temperate climate in this part of Colombia provides the perfect conditions for growing fruit 365 days a year. The fruit trade is a lucrative export business and has made wealthy dynasties out of many a Medellin family.
Of particular interest to visitors are Colombia’s exotic fruits—some recognisable, but most totally foreign. For the uninitiated it can be dangerous territory: Not all fruits are sweet, some should only be juiced, and others still need to be peeled or chopped in a particular way to be palatable. Some fruits look as if they could be wielded as deadly weapons. Sometimes nature’s sleight of hand turns something you think you know into something else altogether (hence our banana-plantain predicament).
Market culture in Medellin
For as long as there has been fruit, there has been some form of marketplace in Medellin. Organised markets popped up around the same time as Spanish colonisers. It was the conquistadors who introduced the concept of convening at a set place and time to trade produce—before then, as Plaza Minorista so gracefully puts it, markets were more of a verb—an activity, a process—than a noun. Under the Spanish, markets in Medellin evolved into a once-weekly outdoors affair at the city’s main meeting place, the Plaza Mayor.
Medellin’s first undercover market (still in use today and the final stop on our market odyssey) opened in 1881 before a series of smaller daily markets were constructed throughout the city. Throughout the tumultuous years, markets helped keep Medellin running by providing a means for displaced people from rural areas to earn a living in the city. Markets have continued to play a major role in urban development, expanding and mushrooming as Medellin has developed into the city it is today.
For a first-time visitor to Colombia, a lot can be learned about Medellin, it’s culture and people just by visiting a few local markets.
Three unmissable produce markets in Medellin
All of these farmers’ markets in Medellin has its own history and peculiarities. Each differs in size and caters to different customers, but all specialise in one thing: Fruit, glorious fruit!
Mayorista Central Market
Medellin’s biggest produce market accommodates thousands of vendors and serves customers from all over Colombia. To see how the fruit industry operates and to get an idea of what a lucrative business it is, you really need to witness the scale and intensity of the Mayorista.
The Central Market is a ‘model’ market, meaning it’s kept very clean and organised in comparison to smaller markets in the city. Primarily outdoors, it’s made up of rows upon rows of small warehouses. Lorries pull up at the high curb in front of the roller doors to collect fruit and veg by the pallet load. Shoppers travelling on foot can explore the labyrinth of tarpaulin-covered stalls. After generations of trading this way, Mayorista is set to undergo some big changes: Soon, stallholders will relocate to a new undercover, multi-storey market building.
It’s here at the Mayorista that our guide, Steven, gave us a quick lesson on how the fruit business works in Medellin. Farmers in rural Antioquia pick, wash and pack their produce in the late afternoon before driving overnight or through the very early hours to make it to the Mayorista when gates open at 3am. As a result, nothing on the market shelves is ever more than a few hours old.
Restaurateurs and re-sellers buy fruit and veg in bulk. You’ll also see wily locals wandering the aisles at the Mayorista in search of a bargain. By midday, most of the produce has been snapped up and the market starts to wind down.
We arrived mid-morning after the initial flurry of the morning trade had dissipated. As soon as we set foot in the market area it was straight into the samples, each vendor eager for us to try their offerings. We ate creamy pink guayaba (guava), face-contortingly sour curuba (banana passion fruit), and a huge avocado split into quarters and sprinkled with lime salt. We finished with a thick slab of guanabana (sour sop), one of Colombia’s most recognisable fruits (the big spiky green one) and uchuva berries wrapped in nature’s paper-like packaging.
Plaza Minorista José María Villa
As the name suggests, Plaza Minorista is slightly smaller than the Mayorista but no less vibrant or animated. Vendors here have been trading with wholesale customers from all over Antioquia Department since the market opened in 1984. A bit grungier and with beautiful filtered light courtesy of open balconies and skylights, this undercover marketplace is the most atmospheric of the three markets in Medellin we visited.
Los vendedores are the heart and soul of the Minorista, which was originally constructed to house thousands of headstrong fruit merchants who refused orders to abandon their outdoor stalls in the nearby Plaza de Cisneros. So, the government built them a nice undercover marketplace instead.
Up to 3,000 vendors vie for shoppers’ attention. Many of them have personalities as vibrant as the produce they’re selling. Their shouts cut through the din of the market like the sharpest passion fruit, and their belly laughs are heartier than the sound of a thousand potatoes crashing into a steel drum. If you want to hear a good story, ask your guide about the female cartel assassin who was a vendor at the Minorista by day.
Another thing I love about the Minorista are the hand-painted signs that hang above many of the stalls. Each has it’s own name, tagline and logo. You can tell from the way the produce is arranged with utmost care that these are family businesses people pour their hearts into. At one point, we spotted an avocado vendor with a giant crucifix hanging above her cart as if to keep watch.
Something I was surprised to see was bundles of dried herbs, marigold flowers and tinctures—a nod to Colombia’s indigenous culture. Ginseng, Steven told us, is often added to juices for extra immunity boosting oomph. The Minorista is a wonderful cultural melange and if you look beneath the surface, provides lots of clues to Medellin’s religious traditions, history and ethnicity as well as daily life and trade.
As we got stuck into sampling even more tropical fruit, it became apparent that the theme of this market was going to be fruit-eating etiquette. Steven explained that some tropical fruits aren’t eaten at all—they are exclusively used for juicing. He also showed us how he ate one particular fruit when he was a kid—sliced open with two sticks of white sugar poured in to soften the bitter pulp. When we tried another of Steven’s favourites, tamarindo (tamarind), he spoke fondly of childhood memories sucking on the sour seeds in the backyard of his family home.
Upstairs at one of the market’s sit-down juice bars, our conversation again turned to the past. Steven is around the same age as us, so the Medellin he grew up in was a very different place. In a city where it wasn’t safe to go outside and where strangers couldn’t be trusted, hanging out at a busy marketplace like the Minorista would have been very rare. Places to trade, barter and simply converse, the role of Medellin’s markets in rebuilding the city’s social fabric shouldn’t be underestimated.
Placita de Flores
The Placita de Flores (Flower Market) is the smallest of the three markets in Medellin we visited. It also happens to be the oldest marketplace in the city, dating all the way back to 1881. With heritage appeal and a very local feel, it’s well worth dropping in to see how the fruit trade operates on a micro level. The Placita de Flores primarily supplies individual buyers and small businesses and vendors from Medellin.
The entry level of the market is an odd marriage between butchers and fresh cut flower vendors, with fruit and veg located underneath on the ground floor.
By this stage we had run out of fruit to sample, so we opted for an arepa de chócolo from a specialty restaurant in the market basement instead. This particular kind of arepa (a fried maize flour cake) is made from a sweeter variety of corn. Topped with melted butter and a piece of creamy queso cheese, it was a salty saviour after all that sugary sweet fruit and juice.
While it is possible to visit these markets in Medellin independently, I highly recommend going with a guide if you want to understand what’s going on, interact with the vendors, and most importantly, sample some fruit. We chose the Local Fruits and Market Places tour with Medellin City Services—one of few companies that visits multiple markets in one itinerary, and the only provider I know of that goes to Mayorista. Their local guides offer an excellent insight into the markets and other aspects of local culture. Our guide, Steven, was especially knowledgeable—Medellin born and bred, he actually comes from a family that’s been involved in the fruit business for several generations.
Cost: 55 USD per person (minimum 2 people).
Time: Daily at 9am and 2pm (I highly recommend requesting an earlier departure to see the markets in their full glory). The tour lasts approximately 4 hours.
What’s included: Full narration by a local guide; pick up, drop off, and transport between the three markets by private car; unlimited fruit samples.
How to book: Visit the Medellin City Tours website to make a booking.
Tips for visiting: There can be quite a crush at the markets in Medellin, especially in the early morning, so take care to stay out of people’s way. Beware of wheely trolleys which can do some serious damage to your ankles and toes if you’re not careful (I recommend wearing closed-in shoes for this reason). We felt safe inside the markets, but do take care outside Minorista in particular (the street from the metro station to the market is quite shady). If you have a backpack, make sure it’s locked and wear it on your front whenever you’re waiting in a queue.
Bring with you: Small change for buying extra fruit; tissues or wet wipes for those sticky fingers; your camera!
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Transparency: We were guests of Medellin City Services – Medellin City Tour for our Local Fruits and Market Places tour in October 2018. As always, all opinions and endorsements are my own.