La Bodegona: A Guatemalan Grocery Store Experience

Imagine your usual grocery trip in Canada. You grab a cart and head into a big, spacious, clean, well lit grocery store. Sure, sure – nowadays with Covid protocols, you might need to stop for a temperature check and hand sanitizer first, and the aisles are now designated as one way. But you can easily pop in, find what you need, read aisle labels if you need to find anything new, and have an enjoyable experience. 

Well, my friends, that is not my average grocery shopping experience. You’ve already read about the market experience here, but today I’m going to talk about the grocery store itself. La Bodegona

It’s a grocery store chain here in Guatemala, and to be fair to the Bodegona, I’ve only gone to the Antigua location, which – by virtue of the fact that it’s in a historic colonial city with limits on construction and renovation, might be a unique experience even within Guatemala. 

The Bodegona stretches an entire city block from north to south. We usually enter on the north side, do a temperature scan, get hand sanitizer, and grab a cart. There’s a security guard posted at the entrance, and very occasionally he’ll tell me to put my backpack in a locker instead of allowing me to take it into the store. But my backpack only ever has reusable grocery bags in it if I’m going grocery shopping, and it’s part of my strategy to be able to use my backpack in addition to these bags to get all of my groceries home. The last time that this happened, this past week, I stared at the guard for several seconds, trying desperately to think of the word empty in Spanish, to defend me taking it into the store. When I finally remembered and explained that my backpack was empty, he waved me on. Unclear whether that was actual capitulation or just not wanting to have to bother insisting on it. 

So then we enter into the Bodegona proper. The first half is sort of open warehouse with… some sort of semblance of general organization. It’s mostly household goods, not food. There are no signs on aisles, so you just sort of have to wander to find what you want. Also, if goods are being unpacked, there’s going to be a whole ton of stuff on the floor, and you just need to wind your way through the maze. Yes, having an actual cart might make this harder. (Because I’m only shopping for one person, I’ve started using the smaller cart that’s more like a basket with wheels. It’s a helpful strategy here because I can just lift the basket and step over or around things when I’m intent on moving forward instead of backtracking through the maze.)

Then you’ll need to pass through a small doorway into the next section, and congratulations, we’ve made it into the food section of the store. Oh, did you want pasta noodles? Sorry, you’ll have to go back to the household goods. I don’t know why pasta noodles are there. I don’t make the rules. I didn’t organize this place. There’s a bunch of produce in this narrow space in between, but I usually skip past that (market produce is fresher and cheaper). You can buy butter as long as you’re willing to cry over the price (approximately $10 for a 2 cup block). Cheese? Even worse. Are you looking for milk? Why are you looking in the refrigerated section? Everyone knows that milk is pasteurized and shelf-stable until you open the carton! 

Now make your way into the next warehouse space. Aisles are even narrower, so good luck if you need to pass someone. Also good luck if you are looking for something and your intuitive understanding of where to look for it turns up nothing. It’s very possible that the Bodegona carries what you’re looking for, and maybe you’ll find it on a subsequent visit, but you can’t look at any signs to help you out! 

One of the most classic things the Bodegona is known for is taping items together. If you’re buying that bottle of pop, wouldn’t you like this smaller bottle of pop for free? Or with that set of tomato sauce, a free plastic container? Or with that bag of chips, a free pencil case? When you’re buying ketchup, you certainly want a free hand sanitizer, right? There’s actually a Facebook group called (and pardon the language, I didn’t name it!) “Shit Taped Together at the Bodegona”.

Ketchup and hand sanitizer… why not?

Very occasionally, these items actually make a certain logic. When we first arrived, we obviously needed to buy toilet paper and hand soap to supply our house. I couldn’t find the hand soap anywhere in the store. I was sure they had some, just for the life of me, I could not locate it. But what I could find was packs of toilet paper with hand soap taped onto them. Yes, please and thank you. 

Pancake mix (banana nut flavoured, no less) with some complimentary spaghetti… 🤷🏻‍♀️

I also didn’t think too much about how this stuff gets put together, until one time I was grocery shopping and came across an employee taping chip bags onto bottles of pop (another great combo). Imagine if your job is just taping stuff together at the grocery store….

And then one day your boss tells you to tape cans of refried beans onto cereal???

Another thing I can’t make sense of at the grocery store is the supply chain. Sometimes they have things, and sometimes they don’t. One week you can easily find and buy the paper liners for your muffin tins and then for the next three weeks, sorry, unavailable. Any food staples are reliable, but if you want anything at all out of the ordinary, well… may God be with you.

One final note in defense of the chaos that is the Bodegona: because they are in Antigua, there is no storage in the store. They store all of their extra goods across the street, and if you’re ever walking down that street and not really paying attention, you may be in danger of being run over by some guys pushing a pallet over on a cart in order to bring new goods into the grocery store. 

In comparison to the Bodegona experience, most Sundays after church, we go to La Torre, a fancy grocery store right down the street from the church. If you want to see all the white people that Antigua and Jocotenango have to offer, just go to La Torre on a Sunday. It’s clean, with wide, well-labelled aisles. It’s a delight of order and organization and cleanliness and good lighting after the Bodegona. You also have to pay for those , so as someone on a strict budget, I don’t do more than pick up the one or two items that the Bodegona doesn’t carry (looking at you, Nature Valley granola bars!) and occasionally an item or two I realize that I’ve forgotten in my regular grocery trip. 

In general, I have nothing to complain about (except the price of butter. Seriously.) Almost anything I want – let alone need – is easily available, and I am happy to have such a well stocked, diverse supply of food easily accessible to where I live. Just trying to convey the full Bodegona experience!