One of the delights of budget travel for me is wandering a local market in a strange and unfamiliar place. The market in Cusco, Peru, is one of the most interesting I’ve ever enjoyed.
Local markets are a welcome assault on the senses. New mysterious smells (some pleasant, some not) mingle with brilliant colors, unidentified foods, and sounds that can betray some of the small mysteries of daily life for the locals. It is a thrill just to walk through the swirling vortex of market life.
In poor countries, the number one priority is to get something to eat followed closely by the desire to make money and trade. These two passions coming together in one place make for an exciting, frenetic energy that vibrates in the air as people buzz around making deals, pulling scams, and do their best to live life.
Unlike our shopping malls, which pretty much consist of one-way transactions, markets in developing countries are dynamic, nerve wracking, and obsessively addictive. Our closest equivalent might be the messy, semi-violent floor of a stock exchange (with a few random pig feet and unmentionable animal parts on display).
Cusco was once an Inca settlement known as the “Navel of the world” and if you look at old maps, it was designed intentionally in the shape of a crouching cougar. Today, it is a beautiful and prospering city (thanks to Machu Picchu tourism) that tests your lungs with air thinned by 3,300 meters (10,800ft) of elevation. Days are sunny and blue with no humidity while mountain nights will have you cursing the fact that you forgot your jacket before starting out from the hostel.
I didn’t feel the elevation at first, but it didn’t take long for a group of us newbies walking up one of the city’s steep hills back to the hostel to realize that if we spoke too much while walking we would soon be out of breath. As a 34-year-old backpacker, I decided that wheezing and choking noises wouldn’t do much for my reputation, so I usually kept my mouth shut as we walked around town.
Cusco is laid out in semi-clean brick streets and historic blocks of beautiful cathedrals and relaxing squares. It is also one of the few places on this trip where I felt that people didn’t want to stab me in the face if I smiled at them. You see older people walking in traditional Andes clothing that actually aren’t dressed that way to make tourists point cameras. What looks like gay pride flags fly around town in the chilly wind, but they are actually the local flag.
As expected, tourism has driven prices in shops and restaurants all the way to their US equivalents. Expect to pay US $9+ for a bad pizza. How can a starving vagabond thrive and actually stay healthy in such a place?
The indoor market — of course!
The massive market in Cusco is inside a warehouse-style building and is strangely organized and thought out — unusual indeed. The crowd consists of a local/gringo blend as well as tourists pointing SLR cameras and trying to get unconcerned, toothless old ladies to look up. The aromatic air smells like over-ripened fruit, frying oil, and mildewed cloth. There is a sullen murmur of business taking place, the growl of blenders making fruit smoothies, and flickering fluorescent lights are softened by daylight filtering in through high windows.
Even stranger than the tour groups in their socks and multi-strap sandals, the prices have remained unaffected by the presence of so many cash-throwing gringos. Unlike places like the floating market in Thailand, these people actually haven’t come together to gouge idiot tourists (yet). If you are wisely staying in a hostel with a kitchen, this is a very good thing. We took turns in the hostel preparing easy-but-super-healthy pasta and vegetable dishes which cost a grand total of $5 worth of ingredients to feed six or more people.
Interestingly (and to our benefit), the fresh vegetables are all pooled together for price! You are charged according to weight, but it doesn’t matter what goes into the bag. Fresh garlic costs the same as bean sprouts, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, snap peas…a stir-fry dream come true. I filled a shopping bag with veggies which even included a giant piece of fresh ginger, a bottle of soy sauce, spices, etc for US $6…awesome!
It can be a real feeling of accomplishment to stand steely-eyed with a bearded old woman, negotiate for a better price, and complete a successful transaction in the local language. You usually walk away from the table feeling like a stud, an educated traveler, a survivor, a non-tourist…meanwhile behind you she is counting her money and already running from table to table to let everyone know how she just sold you the worst specimen she had for five times the local price.
It’s a win-win for both parties!
I have no idea on the prices of meat, but I have a feeling it is equally as cheap. One walk down the aisle of heads, feet, testicles, and fly-covered intestines spread in a horrific gore on dirty tables will give you some idea of why we decided to cook vegetarian pasta. I resisted the urge to buy a random leg to have sticking out of my grocery bag when I walked through the hostel common area full of hungry and waiting people wondering what’s for dinner.
The obvious draw to this part of Peru is Machu Picchu, but what better place to meet up with some fellow trekkers and enjoy the thin-air than Cusco? If you find yourself in this part of South America, plan to hang out for a few days and don’t be surprised if you end up in the market several times a day for meals, deserts, and just people watching.
It can be more entertaining than you would expect to watch a woman negotiate passionately to an angry vendor for a better price on a handful of testicles.