There are several indigenous mercados in Cuenca. If you want to have the freshest, and usually the cheapest, food, you'll want to shop at these markets.
The only thing you have to be willing to do is negotiate (in other words, haggle). It may seem like you'll be stealing from one of the vendors when a head of broccoli is only 25 cents, or 20 mandarins are $1.
We've learned from experience, however, that they'll respect you more and be happier with the outcome if you do negotiate.
We're not saying that you should ask for that head of broccoli for 20 cents, if that's all you're buying from the vendor. However, if you like what you see there, and plan on buying $5 or $10 of food from her (most of the vendors are women), then negotiate a discount, or ask her to throw in something extra for free (this free product is called yapa).
Most of these vendors are full-time, professional business owners. They won't take a loss, so don't worry about putting them out of business with your haggling. They'll quote you their lowest price eventually. But it may take you starting to walk away for them to do so. So be willing to walk away.
This question could be more easily answered by asking about what you won't find at the indigenous mercados. The answer to that one is very close to "nothing." There's just about nothing in terms of food that you won't find at one of the mercados.
You can find meat still hanging on the carcass, and chickens with their claws still attached.
You'll find whole fish, from tuna and corvina (sea bass) to tilapia, catfish and many other small fish. Buy the small ones by the fish, and the larger ones by the pound. They'll cut it for you while you watch.
Camarones (shrimp), langostinas (like crayfish in North America), langostas (lobsters), cangrejas (crabs) and other types of seafood are also available, usually from the fish vendors.
If a fruit or vegetable grows in South America, and it's in season, you'll find it at the mercados. Almost all the apples are imported from Chile (it's not cool enough in Ecuador to grow them), the grapes are from Chile (it's too cool to grow them well in Ecuador), and the navel oranges are imported from the U.S. Other than that, the rest of the produce comes from Ecuador.
And what a selection of fruit there is:
Vegetables and herbs include broccoli, cauliflower, peas, beans, potatoes of all sizes (and colors), yuca (cassava), green beans, chard, tomatoes, white and purple onions, green onions, avocados, basil, rosemary and several others herbs.
Chickens and ducks are available at some of the markets. Their eggs are available at every market, as are quail eggs.
If you want an Ecuadorian "delicacy," buy a cuy ("coo-ee") and cook it yourself. If you had a guinea pig as a pet when you were a child, you'll have a hard time though; cuy are guinea pigs, which are indigenous to the Andes mountains.
If you're looking for a pet, puppies and kittens are also available at some of the markets, as are some types of small birds.
There are usually a few stalls selling packaged goods, whether boxed or canned, and things like grains and flours. Large slabs of unsweetened chocolate can be had as well, for baking and for making hot chocolate.
By far the largest indigenous mercado is Feria Libre (Free Market, or Free Fair), on Avenida de las Américas, at the traffic circle where it meets Remigio Crespo. Its official name is Mercado El Arenal, but everyone knows it as Feria Libre.
If you're agoraphobic, don't go to this market, especially on Wednesday or Sunday. Or go later in the afternoon, after the crowds have thinned out.
There are three mercados in El Centro, Cuenca's downtown area:
If you enjoy haggling, and don't mind crowds and carcasses, you'll find Cuenca's indigenous mercados a fascinating experience and a fun place to shop. And you'll be keeping your food costs very low.
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I just want to thank you both soooo much for creating this web site. I am originally from Cuenca but moved to New York 11 years ago and have not being back since. My husband and I are planning on visiting Cuenca over the Summer and this web site has helped me a lot.
When I came to the US we still had the "sucre," the bus ride cost 1,000 sucres and a pack of trident gum would cost 3,000 sucres. I am very nervous to go back, but thanks to your web site I now know what to expect.
My husband is American and Captivating Cuenca has taught him a lot about what my great city has to offer, things that I had forgotten about myself! :)
Thank You both so much! I cannot wait to visit Cuenca!!