The Bogotá District Phenomenon: Yes, it’s weird

There’s a reason why I’ve never discussed the District Phenomenon in Bogotá – you know, the strange way this city concentrates all of the shops selling one item in just one place – because I’ve come to accept it. And it’s never previously caused me any emotional distress.

Of course, when I needed a lamp, I went to the Lamp District – that mecca of lighting where 20 or more lamp shops converge, leaving the rest of the city entirely lamp free. It was quite nice. I saw the same lamp in five adjoining shops before I got tired, bought my lamp and went home.

Similarly, when I wanted a new leather jacket, I went to the Leather District – although I’ve since discovered the Leather District is a bit like the lost city of Atlantis. I know it’s somewhere on August 7th Avenue, but I keep being unable to find it and am too embarrassed to take a taxi. I suspect it’s always just around the corner, taunting me like a near-yet-so-far paradise with all its leather jackets and brightly coloured handbags.

Friends laugh about the Screw District too (that’s the hardware folks, nothing raunchy) and the Uniform District, where you can buy chef jackets and cleaner coats in every colour.

So now I see why I’ve never described the District Phenomenon. People from Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada etc. could never believe, without first hand experience, that an eight million-strong capital city could be organised in such a way. That we have a Printing District and a Wig District and an Office Furniture District and the only way to find the district you need is to ask around, because, of course, no-one has ever mapped them all out.

I mentioned this to a Colombian friend once. “Don’t you think it’s weird, you know, that all the shops selling one thing are in one place?” I ventured. “No,” he replied, looking surprised. “It’s completely logical. It means you always know where to go.”

Hmmmm. I may never have written about the District Phenomenon, but I’ve certainly always explained it carefully to people who are even newer in this city than me (Sometimes people write to ask me for advice on life in Bogotá. I know! Apparently my make-it-up-as-you-go-along-and-don’t-tell-anyone-if-it-goes-wrong approach is not immediately obvious on this blog)

But it’s weird right? No-one ever believes you and then there they are, a week later, saying: “I need a new fridge… do you know where the White Goods District is?” or “I need to practice my Spanish, do you know where the Book District lies?” And somehow we figure it all out.

I’ve recently moved house – again – to a nice place; central location, good price, TV, internet, apparent lack of weirdos. But it’s made my friends laugh because, yes, I’ve moved to the Mariachi District. Not that I mind. My walks home in the twilight are now punctured by the sight of faux-Mexican singers who, like ladies of the night, tout their fares until eventually a desperate husband picks one up and carts him home to serenade apologies to his wife.

(I hate to digress, but I’m a bit obsessed by the mariachis – particularly as they never seem to expect anyone to hire them, hence the streets are littered with men in ornate white suits and sombreros, clutching huge guitars as they smoke and fight with their girlfriends. Their lack of employment gives the neighbourhood a whiff of dejection that can only be likened to the sight of a circus clown slumped in a gutter, with smeared make-up and a wonky red nose)

No, I only became truly devastated by the Bogotá District Phenomenon when I realised I’d inadvertently moved next door to the Pet Shop District. Yes, there they all are – 40 pet shops (I’ve counted) all in a row and all, without fail, offering some kind of cute puppy – generally behind glass – to whichever soft-hearted, dog-loving English girl happens to be walking past.

I’ve seen Labradors, Dalmations, even a German Shepherd – already far too big to be spending his days smearing a glass window with his nose as he gazes longingly at the Transmilenio. There are kittens too, fish and birds, but it’s the puppies, so many puppies, some with unknown breeds, others with breeds I can’t even pronounce.

Besides the fact I’d very much love a dog in my life, I loathe the Pet Shop District because I hate seeing them behind glass, weeing and chewing and fighting each other for goodness knows how many hours a day. I know Bogotanos are dog-loving folk so I suspect this puppy-in-a-display-cabinet onslaught is all part of some evil sales technique.

Well it’s working. I can never leave the house with spare cash again.

So I was hoping to make my first million by ending all the fun and creating and selling the first Bogotá District Phenomenon Map. But now I might have to erase the Pet Shop District from history. And, while I’m at it, I can subtely delete any other dangerously tempting districts out there. We don’t have a Chocolate and Red Wine District … do we?

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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70 Comments

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Do you want to help me with my map – considering I didn’t even have room to mention the Art and Framing District (aka Galerias) and the Flower District (erm, Flores) After long and careful thought I have concluded this is the most nuts thing about this city – where else has a PAPER GUILLOTINE DISTRICT?!

  1. Zoë Bassett

    What made me laugh out loud even more than your article was mentioning that you now live ‘in the mariachi district’ to my bf – he said ‘oh in Chapinero?’ …..WTF? He didn’t even blink at the existence of a MARIACHI DISTRICT *and* he knows where it is??? I only recently managed to accept the ‘similar shops grouped together’ system and now you tell me it includes ‘men wandering around in similar clothes and accents grouped together’ too? This city just got a whole lot more loca 😀

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Hee hee, we’ll have to find a way to pass by safely one night (the only time I’ve seen it in its full, full glory was passing in a friend’s car, because obviously more come out the later it gets – but it’s hardly a street you would choose for a midnight stroll) It is quite a spectacle!

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Thank you, but I am very risk averse. The only reason there are no pictures of mariachis here is that I don’t trust anyone not to steal my camera – even guys hampered by gold fringed outfits and large bulky musical instruments!

      1. elpaisaingles

        They are known locally as the Mariachi Mafia 😀

        There is something strangely intimidating about men with big sombrerios and tight trousers hanging around in small groups in the street

      1. Diego

        Thank you Zoe, I´m new to the Bogota´s blog circle and I´m hooked. Can you really see chickens near a bus stop? That´s sad, wait, no, its cool, no sad, hum

  2. Tigre

    Fantastico! Don’t forget these Districts: Arts and Crafts in Chapinero, Auto Repair is Santa Fe (a bit dodgy), mens wear, shoes, dried fruits and nuts, musical instruments, cooking supplies and lechona (perhaps the strangest so far!), and others that I will have to get back to you on. The Districts are one of the things Toby and I love about Bogota. But, now I can see, how skewed it all seems. And I agree, the Pet Shop District is heart wrenching and we avoid it…but one day we didn’t and I had to summon all of my will power!

  3. Tigre

    Then there is Palaquemo, which is like a mini-district where you can find stalls and vendors selling fresh fruits, veg, herbs, spices, flowers, fish/seafood, eggs, dairy for a fraction of what the shop sell them at.

  4. uncovercolombia

    Great article. As Colombians, we didn’t actually realized about the district phenomenon until you wrote about it. Here is a few suggestions for your map (which by the way is a great idea): Curtains district (a bit sparsely distributed along Carrera 17 between Calle 53 and Calle 60. Mattresses district (Around 7th of August, north of calle 63), Musical instruments (Carrera 7a between calles 57 and 60… we love this place BTW), Christmas decorations district (All along Calle 53 between carrera 15 to carrera 24… This are is just coming alive in September and it is beautiful at night…), and finally the Opticians district (calle 51 to calle 54 between carreras 15 and 16… good place to get descent quality glasses for less)…. these are just some we came up with on a quick mental review… most of these are not far from your new place at Marichi district 😉

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Some friends in London have rolled their eyes because obviously we have Fleet Street (formerly home to the national newspapers) Bond Street (jewellery) Carnaby Street (fashion) Harley Street (doctors) and Saville Row (tailoring) – however it is the specificness of Bogota that gets you – it’s not hardware, it’s screws. It’s not art, it’s painting. It’s not fashion, it’s leather. It’s not stationery, it’s paper guillotines.

      Apparently there are random districts in other major South American cities too but having explored many of these, the scale and range is nowhere near that of Bogota…

  5. Manlio Larotonda

    Mmm more than half of the world has the district phenomenon.. Seem to me that u discovered warm water hermano jejeje

    By the way thanks for the map

  6. Charlie

    Districts are OK so long as your have variety, BUT what I have found is that you have a lot of stores selling the exact same product. Now please tell me what sane and rational business person would open a store, next to another to sell the SAME THING ? Is this business Colombian style ? I was in the ceramic tile district and this was VERY depressing. Same products in all the stores !! How depressing !!

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      This is the great debate. Against the idea is the competition which you would assume damages your sales and drives down prices. For the idea is the ease of price fixing, shared possibilities for delivery and the fact 100% of potential customers will be in or near your store because they only have one place to go!

  7. Esben

    When I was in the big B and had some great shoes made, we also had to go to the skin and hide district. And of course to get some laces, we had to go another place. It really took me by surprise, and I guess I have never stopped thinking about it (alas latently) until this post! Thanks! Now I feel like I have been to Bogotá again 😉

    Great blog, and cheers from Denmark.

  8. Stan

    Great idea. I will buy your map and you will be rich. Don’t forget la zona de tolerencia…Santa Fe. Not that I will go, but just to be complete.

  9. Morgoth

    You can add the Shoes District in the Restrepo neighborhood. And the electronic components district in the carrera 9 between the 19 and 22 streets and in chapinero near the SENA building in the 65 street wih carrera 13, a lot of engineering students go there. Also the car parts district near the 7th August.
    I’m living in BsAs, it has a leather district in Murillo street and another one in Florida street. Also you could find here the “theaters district” in Corrientes street. I think BA has the district phenomen too.
    By the way are you going anytime to Boyaca (Paipa, Villa de Leyva, Raquira, Corrales, etc, etc…)? I suggest you going there in December.

  10. el paisa Ingles

    Sounds like you have moved very near me, I live about 5 minutes walk from the pet district. You will be pleased to know that my business partner goes round the pet shops a few times a week, berating any owners that do not put enough water in with the animals. Woe betide anyone who does not keep the cages clean!!

  11. Carolina

    Awesome post! Hadn’t really thought about it in terms of districts. Anyway, it turns out there’s a new double-decker tour bus service in Bogotá that I discovered just today! I haven’t been on yet, but looks promising! It goes through some of the districts. http://www.turisbog.com/index_eng.php Let me know if you need any help with the map! I am all about maps! Pet district is a shame and no self-respecting rolo should buy there. However, the store Agrocampo at Caracas and 73 (at the pet district) is an amazing legitimate store for any pet supplies! Thanks and keep up the great work!

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      A double-decker tourist bus?! Is it open top? I have to try it out although I’m not sure asphyxiating our tourists or driving them past miles of carpet tile shops is really showing the city’s best face… although I guess the chaos is all part of the charm!

  12. Carolina

    Not sure if it’s open top…. looks like it on the website! I think at least it’s an effort to invest in tourism in Bogotá, and we’ll have to see how it works out. It’s unfortunate that the streets in La Candelaria are so narrow, because the bus won’t be able to go through them… And the chaos… i don’t know, I guess time will tell if the experience of the double-decker is good in Bogotá

      1. bananaskinflipflops

        I’ve never seen one and, now you’ve flagged it up, I wouldn’t go on a normal double decker either – imagine that flying down the 53! I expect the tourist bus will be nice and sedate… until it gets cut up by a few frantic colectivos anyway!

      1. bananaskinflipflops

        P.s Loved your comment by the way. They should have that sign up at El Dorado: “Welcome to Bogota. Please ensure you have remembered all personal belongings including a pinch of bravery, a bit of hope and a very open mind. Gracias.”

  13. Carolina

    Well, I am a designer, if we could get a royalty free map that we could adapt, then maybe we could do it! And I just realized, about the money exchange district! It’s just one place, the Hacienda Santa Barbara mall!

  14. Diego

    I´m kidding 🙂 well, Carolina is a designer, we could work together. I was thinking about those leaflets one is given in tourist offices about a city, for walks, museums, etc. I could ask around and see if she can do one for us. She will charge of course but I take care of that. She probably will ask for maps of Bogotá, etc., as she is not bogotana, and I´ve been only twice, and many years ago. I guess it has to be a team effort. Once the illustration is done then we are going to need to design the brochure/leaflet itself. That´s what I can think of at the moment. But we can discuss more ideas of course.

  15. sanschaise

    there’s also a military supplies district (jackets, boots, bags, etc) near the town hall. And many fast food districts all over the city (especially Calle 116 con autopista; Calle 53 con 8, between many others). There’s another district where university students go to print their papers, essays or homeworks or buy any kind of relevant supply for their studies. These shops are open 24/7 (Calle 98 con cra 15). In fact, after reading your post, these are the few districts that I can think of, taking into account that there are loooooots of them. As a rolo, I’ve never thought about that, which may suggest that an external mind can have many interesting analyses about Bogotá. Finally, the mother of every district could be San Andresito. Keep it up your mapping idea, that could be fun and useful.

  16. Diego

    Zoe, I tried kickstarter, my project didn´t work out but many do. I think is a good idea. I think we should have an idea of what we want to do with the map. Is there a crowdfunding platform in Colombia?

  17. Jorge

    Fantastic. It toom me moving out of Bogota to realize that districts existed and that I knew how to navgate them without being aware of their existence. Now I really wish that Boston had districts just like Bogota has. Other much missed shopping convenience amenities that may be unique to Bogota are the Panamericana (hopefully it still exists); where else in the planet can you buy cartulina and plastilina at midnight if need be. (And necessity does strike. I remember, as a child, waking up in the middle of the night to wake my parents to ask them for a ride to Panamericana because I had forgotten to buy some school supply I needed for the next day. Panamericana was always open and always there.)

    The other shopping-related thing I’ve come to believe over the years when I return to Bogota is that no other city in the work has more malls per capita than Bogota. Every time I return is not only the city bigger but it turns out that there are four or five new and huge malls that didn’t exist in my previous visit all of them clad with a huge multiplex cinema, of course.

  18. Ceri

    Awwww, the pet shop district would kill me. My first house here was right opposite a pet shop and I’d constantly see posters in the windows from people selling litters of puppies and kittens = So tempting!!!

    I like the idea of there being different districts for the same kinds of things. It would definitely make it SO much easier.

  19. Fidel Londo´p

    The Leather District: the north block next to the San Victorino square. just get out in the Av. Jimenez station and you’ll find a sort of mall (centro comercial) full of small shops selling leather articles. its mixed with articles for sewing, but its there. and dont get confused, because along the Av. Caracas is the district for leather articles related to horse riding.
    Being a bogotano has taught me lots of things, but one of them is that there is always a copy of a district somewhere else in city and its probably cheaper.

    I really like the idea of the map, I happen to deal with that sort of things in my profession, I would be very happy to help you with that project if you like!

    other districts:
    fisherman’s articles
    I-repare-your-camping-stuff district
    carpenter district
    religious articles district
    emeralds
    the book district exists!!
    tractor parts districts..
    and so on…

  20. David Serna

    there are a bicycle district, and not just one, there are 3 of them in the city. the first one is in cll 68, between kr 30 and 27, here you find imported bicycles, most of the road and montain bikes, now there are making customized bikes and even fixies. the second one is in cll 13 between 24 and 19, here you find colombian frames (most of them crapy ones) in this district is where parents come in december to buy the christmas present. And the third one is in av cali wuth americas, here you find the most crappy bikes with the cheaper parts for poor people that dont have money to afford any better. and ther are the district where go all the stole bikes in The Bronks (where all homeless live) and there are the district where bikes are made.

  21. Graham

    There is a pawn shop district quite close to you, just around 60th on Caracas, there is also a motorcycle accessories and repair district at the 19th ave transmilenio station.

  22. Laura Alfaro

    It also lacks the fabrics and sewing materials district: Barrio la Alqueria, around the carrera 50 close to the Autopista sur, and Barrio Policarpa, carrera 10 with calle 10 sur
    Military equipments: The streets in front of the police school (autopista sur with carrera 44 in Muzu and the streets in front of the other side of the school in Barrio Fatima), and the carrera 10 with calle 9 in the barrio Candelaria
    Bars and pubs districts, from the fancy ones in the Zona T to the pubs in the Avenida 1 de mayo
    Universities district: almost all the Candelaria zone, from the calle 28 to the calle 6 between the calles 5 and 7, many universities have at least a campus here. It also hapens to be the museums district

      1. namastesepitara

        What a hoot, please tell me is the Map available? Tourist here for 6 weeks I want to see these districts ( this all came about because I wanted a reading lamp in my AirBnB ! And good old Google led me here.)

        If the Map didn’t materialise, can I get a list of the main areas / precincts together with the name of a key intersection of roads?

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