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Perpetual motion machines of commerce, Cuenca’s mercados overwhelm the senses

By Deke Castleman and David Morrill

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The veggie section at the 10 de Agosto market.

The mercado scene in Cuenca is lively, vibrant, and bountiful, with large bustling indoor and indoor-outdoor produce and meat markets scattered  around town.

Shopping at, any of the city’s nine large mercados is a profoundly sensual and visceral experience.

Of the three mercados in the historic district, two are large and one is small.

The one most tourists visit and where many expats shop, is Diez de Agosto, at the west end of Calle Larga near the corner of Tarqui. The other big one, Nueve de Octubre, is nine blocks away, at the corner of Sangurima and Hermano Miguel.

Diez de Agosto is a sprawling two-story building, while Nueve de Octubre is a slightly more compact three-story affair with a parking garage underneath and a large plaza on the east side that’s used for artisans’ fairs and public performances.

Both Diez de Agosto and Nueve de Octubre are packed to the rafters with vendors, the typical small business you find all over Ecuador; statistics we’ve seen indicate that upwards of 50% of Ecuadorians work for themselves, many of them growing and selling food. The markets sell fruits and vegetables, meat, grains and beans, bread and pastries, household goods, clothes, and sundries; both markets have large food courts serving fresh fruit and vegetable juices, breakfast, almuerzos, and prepared snack foods.

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Shopping at Feria Libre.

The first time you visit, you’ll be overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells, and the vast number of vendors and choices of food and other things: big cuts of meat hanging from hooks; headless chickens in wooden crates, their feet sticking up, clawing at the heavens; sausages strung across countertops and hanging from rafters; whole fish (cut to size by request); shellfish, including live purple crabs in season; eggs of all kinds and colors; spices and herbal remedies; two dozen different varieties of potatoes; a half-dozen varieties of bananas and plantains; several mango types; starchy yuca and hairy coconuts; avocados by the ton; white and yellow pineapples; green juice oranges; mini-limes piled in a pyramid; plus fruit you’ll recognize, such as strawberries, blackberries (called moras), cherries (called cerezas), watermelons and cantaloupes; the fruit that you won’t recognize, like the exotic maracuyá (passion fruit), and babaco, pitajaya, guanábana, and cherimoya; along with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cucumbers, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, peas, radishes, celery, green beans, lettuce, chard, cabbage, ginger, garlic, parsley, cilantro, basil, cedrón, and on and on.

(Want to learn how to safely buy meat at the mercado? Click here.)

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The medicinal plant aisle at 10 de Agosto.

Then, there are the vendedores selling grains, dried beans, flour, pasta, flowers of all local kinds, large slabs of unsweetened chocolate, packaged goods that are bagged locally, though some are boxed and branded, plus household goods like oils, utensils, toilet paper, detergent, towels, and on and on.

At both Diez de Agosto and Nueve de Octubre, indigenous healers, most of them women, will beat and smoke the demons out of paying customers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Called cleansings, the healers lash the afflicted with a variety of vegetation, blow cigarette smoke at them and, for good measure, spit a spray of firewater in their faces. At Diez de Agosto, the ritual is a hit with foreign tourists.

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The daily catch for sale at Feria Libre.

Centro’s smaller mercado, Tres de Noviembre, is on the corner of Coronel Talbot and Mariscal Lamar, a couple blocks north of Plaza San Sebastian, at the west end of the historic district. Less bustling and perhaps a little friendlier than the larger operations, this market also features vendors who post signs with the names and prices of their produce, which provides a good introduction to availability and costs.

Even though it’s not in Centro, no review of Cuenca’s mercados would be complete without a discussion of Feria Libre.

This isn’t your cute little neighborhood mercado; it’s a sprawling hard-core mini-city of commerce, so vivid that even long-term expats feel like they’re walking through a movie set when they shop here. If Carl Sandburg were alive and living in Cuenca, he’d write a poem about it. You will see very few tourists there.

Known officially as El Arenal, Feria Libre this is an enormous (about seven acres in all) indoor-outdoor mercado, where farmers bring their crops to sell to the public.

Out front, the traffic is chaotic on Av. Las Americas, as construction proceeds on the tram and city and long-haul buses smoke by.

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Live cuy and ducks at Feria Libre.

Feria Libre not only sells all the fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, and dry goods of the smaller mercados, but also live chickens, pigs, cuy (guinea pigs), small birds, and a goat or two, along with puppies and kittens (for pets, we presume, although the new animal protection ordinance aims to provide more humane treatment).

There’s also an enormous interior maze of tightly packed little shops selling shoes, clothes, underwear, back packs, cell phones, pots and pans, electronics, haircuts, toys and dolls, perfume, curtains, cookware, plastic-ware, wood products, sunglasses, hats, and lots of stuff about which you have no clue.

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A fruit aisle at 10 de Agosto.

Although the market is open seven days a week, Wednesday is especially busy when the large plaza to the south is packed with clothing vendors and buyers. And it’s not just vendors under rain and sun tarps (while you’re walking around, watch that you don’t take out one of the guy ropes with your neck or nose). Produce sellers squat on the sidewalks and at street corners. This is technically illegal, so from time to time the police make them move.

Some squatters make it easier on themselves by selling from wheelbarrows. It’s upscale squatting: When it’s time to move, they just roll their wares to another location. Of course, cars, pickups, and delivery trucks are triple-parked.

By the way, the wheelbarrowers are also prominent in El Centro, within a few blocks of Parque Calderon. Their produce is usually fresher than what you can buy at the supermarkets, and cheaper.

No matter how many times you’ve been to Feria Libre on Wednesdays, you tend to walk around stunned at the size and scope of commerce going on.

You need to be beware of pickpockets at Feria Libre; rest assured that they are ever-alert to that dazed and confused gringo, as well as to careless Ecuadorians. And whatever you wear, don’t include jewelry in your attire; it will be ripped off, often painfully.

Although it is true of all of Cuenca’s mercados, Feria Libre is especially no place for the faint of heart.

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Reposted from August 2014

About the Author

A California native who spent most of his life in north Florida, David
Morrill has been a newspaper and magazine editor, columnist, and book
and art reviewer. He was also a public relations agency owner and
university administrator. He has lived in Cuenca since 2004.

  • Not to be a drizzle on an informative article you might add that the number 1 non traumatic illness in all Ecuador is stomach disorders. I can see a correlation. The number one traumatic incident is related to vehicular accidents. The correlation between vehicular right of way and similar factors also show a correlation. Great way to thin the herd I suppose.

  • Pixelvt

    Fierra Libra is a gem, not really difficult to get a hand on, but yes, bring your common sense and leave you valuables at home. They have a couple juice bars that are outstanding too. Haircuts are inexpensive and fun. I do shy away from the meats and seafood however, in Cuenca in general, just not that good unless you really know what you are doing.

  • Brian Buckner

    Edie and I have shopped at El Arenal before and enjoyed the experience. We split our business between Diez de Agosto and Nueve de Octubre. We buy lots of meat and seafood, mostly from the Octubre market. It’s great too. I buy all kinds of things and do a little light butchering myself. Often we buy whole beef tenderloins that I cut into filet mignons using the narrower ends cut smaller for stir fry.

    Soon enough, I’ll be headed into El Arenal with some camera gear for a fun shoot. I’ve shot in many crazy places so I’m not too worried about rip-offs but I’ll be working with Edie and have my antenna up at all times. It’s far more dangerous for a tourist to be waving their stuff around in Arenal than an experienced resident. I dress WAY DOWN and keep my gear attached to me. So far, so good. But, that doesn’t mean that a photojournalist can’t be ripped off too. We can but thieves usually don’t try. Grabbing John or Mary Tourist’s iPhone while they hold it up high in the air getting those colorful produce snap shots is easier. Or grabbing their jewelry they shouldn’t have worn out in the first place. I’ve seen some torn ears when a pierced earring didn’t let go of someones flesh quite fast enough. We don’t see it every afternoon we shop but we have seen necklaces, watches and earrings parted from their owners in the seven months we have been here. Use preventive techniques and keep your head UP

    We love to both shop and photograph in the mercados and get great deals and photographs at the same time! Common sense will pay you well in these exciting purchasing venues plump with good things for the picking and for photographing.