Colmados in Puerto Rico

By Kristy Decker

Welcome to my Puerto Rico travel blog! I have been traveling to PR over the past ten years usually about once a year because my hubby calls it home! I too will call it home one day when we retire, but until then I am enjoying becoming familiar with everything and engrossing myself in the culture as much as possible!

Our future Home(2013- a work in progress!)house

So, for my first blog I am going to talk about Calmados! The word “colmado” in Spanish is actually an adjective meaning “overflowing, heaped, or very full”. It is also the name given to the many little corner stores on every street in islands all over the Caribbean. Other names for these stores include “tiendas” or “bodegas”. Before the introduction of big box stores such as Wal Mart or Sam’s Club, or even midsized grocery chains, these colmados were the place for locals to buy everything from meats and vegetables to cleaning products. Many are still in operation despite the competition, though many have had to change in one way or another to keep up with the times

Colmados are one of my favorite places to explore. One in particular is just a 5 minute walk from “home”! Good old Colmado Cafetin – The color of the building and inside decor changes every so often, but the people and atmosphere are always the same!022813195434

Above pic taken 2013

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Above pic taken 2009

Colmados in such places as Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico are located on almost every street, and in most cases you can’t drive more than a block or two without another one popping up. The sad thing is that for every colmado you see open and running, there are two or three closed down and boarded up. As with so many “Mom and Pop” stores, aka locally owned businesses, right here in the US, big business has taken a toll on them. Colmado owners in the Caribbean that have been able to prosper and remain have had to come up with creative ways to sustain their customer base in order to thrive. Many that remain also may not actually be thriving, but existing because it’s their way of life.

Below: Traditional Colmados in Dominican Republic

 

Many of the colmados open as early as eight in the morning. Closing time varies for most anywhere from eight at night to midnight. There are some that stay open until the customers go home! The staff generally consists of the owners and their immediate families. Many colmados are the front portion of the owner’s home, so in essence they never really get away from their work. Their work becomes their life and the customers become family.

Most colmados stick to the tradition of offering the option for their customers to buy goods on credit. This occurs in most cases the old-fashioned way of keeping a paper notebook with customer’s names and their running total for a certain period of time. If a customer receives weekly income they can pay weekly. If they only receive a monthly income, the owner allows them to pay monthly. This is one convenience and service that keeps customers coming back as opposed to buying everything at the supermarket.

As you would imagine, the business owners tend to have a close relationship with their customers. Sometimes the relationship goes back to the last generations. This has prompted many colmado owners to provide a delivery service to their customers. As customers age and become unable to get around like they once could, it becomes hard to get out. A delivery of goods right to their home is an invaluable resource, and one that is not provided by a store such as Wal Mart. It benefits both parties in this case.

The colmados generally provide a wide variety of items for sale – usually something for all ages. Items for sale may include candy, canned goods, cleaning products, fresh produce, fish, meat, whole chickens, milk, soda, beer and liquor. Most everything is sold at a fairly good price, although by first world standards there may be a slight lack of general hygiene in the stores, the convenience is worth looking the other way. Because most of the customers are like family, this does not present an issue.

The environment of the colmado is most usually a lively one. There is always a source of music which is loudly played throughout most of the day. This usually consists of a stereo with large speakers, playing bachata or merengue, positioned near the front of the store for all to hear. Many colmados have a television so the owners and their customers don’t miss out on their favorite “telenovelas” or soap operas. Baseball games are just as important, so there may be large gatherings at the colmado for this also.

While many colmados have had to change their game plan when it comes to keeping a large stock of grocery items, the festive atmosphere remains. Many have shifted more towards serving as a community watering hole and eatery, aka a bar and restaurant. Many have added juke-boxes and pool tables in addition to their traditional domino tables. Another addition providing the colmado owners income are gambling slot-type machines.

Many colmados still keep a stock of basic non-perishable grocery items for their customers, but have had to limit the amount of fresh groceries available in order to cut their losses. This allows them to limit the loss of products going bad while still providing the last minute item a customer may have forgotten when they did their weekly grocery shopping. This tradeoff has been the operating basis for many colmados in recent years, but their customers understand and still want to support them.

Below – Various colmados that we frequent:

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Above -My daughter with her college sweetheart (and now Husband!) 2009

Below – the same colmado 2016

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Getting back to our favorite, Colmado Cafetin – kind of like our home away from home away from home! During my latest visit I conducted an interview with the proprietor, Aly Navarro, who has been the owner of Colmado Cafetin in Humacao, PR for over 45 years. She and her husband opened this store together, and although he passed away over 15 years ago, she and her oldest daughter Carmen Julia continue to keep it open. ‑The store is located in the front and on top of her home. Many of the people on the street are related to her in one way or another (including my better half!), and although she doesn’t stock a full store any more, she keeps the basic dry goods to sell, and operates as more of a bar. For a time, she was operating as little restaurant there as well, but that has now changed to keeping a small menu with a few popular items available to order. The store is open daily around 2:00 in the afternoon, just in time for people to stop by after work to grab an item or two for dinner and a cold drink before heading home. During the week closing time varies with business, and on the weekends she closes when the last customer leaves. We know this for sure because many a night (or morning) we are the last customers!! Between the pool table, domino table and jukebox, it’s easy to loose track of time!

Below: Various pictures over the past few years at Colmado Cafetin.

 

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Above: Carmen Julia(2009)

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Above: Aly cooking us frituras at the end of the night (see pic below!)

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Above: Me, my hubby, Aly and Carmen Julia

Although colmados are mostly known to locals and not much along the lines of what many tourists seek out, these stores are part of the history and the real culture of island life in the Caribbean. Tourist attractions are great, but if you want real authentic experience this is it! I know from both research and personal experience, this is true life for many people. I highly suggest visiting and seeing for yourself the energy and authenticity of any colmado you might pass by while vacationing in the islands.

So, there you have it, the first entry in my new travel blog! Hope you enjoyed it!

Next time – My Favorite Beaches in PR – Here’s a little  preview:

beach

Works Cited

“Colmados | Cabarete Guide.” Cabarete Guide | Responsible Tourism and Investment Guide. N.p., 9 Feb. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

De Feliz, Lindsay. “The Colmado in the Dominican Republic | JetSettlers Magazine.” Jetsettlers Magazine :: Living Life Through Those Who Live It. N.p., 10 Nov. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Navarro, Aly. Personal interview. 18 Mar. 2016.

Taina, Rosa. “Colmados look for ways to survive.” caribbean business 30.29 (2002): 13. ebsco. Web. 13 Mar. 2016

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