Feria Libre is the largest mercado (market) here in Cuenca. It’s similar to a giant farmer’s market, and the amount of fun I have shopping here has caught me totally by surprise. Now, I’m not exactly what you’d call a vegetable guy, but when the produce is all fresh and organic, it’s too hard to resist.
The dollar is the basic unit of currency, and so everything seems to cost a dollar. A pineapple? One dollar. A 1.5 lb bag of strawberries? One dollar. A four lb bucket of giant carrots? One dollar. Avocadoes are 4/$1. Mangoes can be as cheap as 6/$1. A head of broccoli or cauliflower is 50 cents. A bunch of fresh cilantro is only a quarter. It’s enough to make any veggie-phile’s head spin (I’m looking at you, Rebecca). At these prices, Stephanie has to keep me from buying everything in sight. Of course, since I can also get her a bouquet of flowers for a dollar, she doesn’t complain *too* much.
We have also learned that when you start going back to the same people, they start to recognize you, and they give you better prices. Sometimes they’ll throw in “yapas” which are little extras. So after you’ve negotiated for your bucket of potatoes, they’ll throw in a few more just as a thank you. We have a few people we go back to regularly. There’s the “flour lady” where we get dried goods like flour, rice and pasta. (Her name is actually Teresa, and we’re on fairly good terms with her.) The celery lady, the banana lady, the leek lady, and the strawberry guy all recognize us and give us good deals when they see us. The egg guy gives us a flat of 30 eggs for about $3.30.
Peanut butter is the subject of hot debate here in Ecuador. The supermarkets do carry Jif imported from the U.S., but a small jar will run you about $7. The stuff they sell in the mercados is called “pasta de maní” – peanut paste – and is just that. It is much like the all-natural peanut butter we used to eat in the States with no added sugar or hydrogenated vegetable oil. At $2 a pound, the peanut butter lady scoops it into a bag (along with a little extra) and ties it shut for us.
A typical haul for us looks something like this:
Celery – $.50
Pasta – $.60
Peppers – $1
Bananas – 12/$1
Green apples (imported) 4/$1
Popcorn – $.60/1 lb
Cauliflower – $.25
Beets – $1
Local apples – 8/$1
Pineapple – 2 small or 1 large for $1
Butter – $1/lb
Peanut butter – $2/lb
Onions – $1
Tomatoes – 6/$1
Whole chicken – $6.50
Carrots – $1
Grand total: Right around $20
Of course, this photo is a few months old, so now for the same prices, we often get double the amount of beets, tomatoes and apples, triple the amount of carrots, and at least 16 bananas. And all of this is made extra fun by the uphill climb back to our house with a full backpack or two. (My record is about 40 pounds of stuff on my back.)
But back to Feria Libre… the butchers here have good prices too. When you want a pound of ground beef ($1.80), they will slice off a hunk of meat, trim off the fat, and grind it in front of you while you wait. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are VERY pricy, so we buy an entire chicken at a time, and I take it off the bone myself. (I’m down to 25 minutes to completely debone a chicken – legs, wings, everything.) Of course, when you buy a whole chicken at Feria Libre, you buy a *whole* chicken. I have learned to ask for it without the head, but I still have to remove the neck, liver and heart myself. They’ll usually throw in the feet too which make for some good soup.
On Wednesdays, the Feria Libre grows to about double its size and the spacious parking lot is filled with temporary stalls. Here you can find household goods, clothes, shoes, linens, pots and pans, DVDs, electronics – pretty much anything you can think of. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of covered corridors, but I’m finding my way around. I regularly guide some friends of ours around the market now, and Stephanie still swears she’d be totally lost without me.
This morning, at Feria Libre, we showed Stephanie’s dad, Barry, and his wife, Ann, around for their first time. We also did something new; we stopped for lunch at a little stall where a woman was cooking up some great-smelling ceviche and fried chicken. We all chose the fried chicken, which came with rice, beans and a beet salad; it was an awesome choice!
In two days we’ll be back again and I’ll do my best not to buy one of absolutely everything, but it will take some definite discipline!