Looking for cultural immersion to satisfy your appetite? Cuenca’s markets teem with produce, prepared food and adventure

Jul 10, 2016

By Deke Castleman and David Morrill

Where do Cuencanos and expats buy their food?

Although Supermaxi, Coral and other modern supermarkets sell their share of meat and produce, the city’s markets, or mercados, continue to be the city’s main food provider.

The market scene in Cuenca is lively, vibrant, and bountiful, with large bustling produce and meat markets scattered around town, clean and bright supermarkets, micro-mercados here and there, family tiendas on every block, vendors on bicycles, and squatters selling their produce on the street and even from wheelbarrows.

Produce at the Diez de Agosto mercado.

Produce at the Diez de Agosto mercado. .

A great place to dip into Cuenca’s fresh-produce culture is the 3 de Noviembre market on the corner of Coronel Talbot and Mariscal Lamar, a couple blocks north of Plaza San Sebastian at the west end of El Centro. Smaller, less bustling, and maybe a tad 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 what’s available, what it’s called, and how much it costs.

The two big produce markets in El Centro are 10 de Agosto, in the southwest at the west end of Calle Larga, and 9 de Octubre in the northeast at the corner of Sangurima and Hermano Miguel. The former is a sprawling two-story building, while the latter is a slightly more compact three-story affair. Both have dozens of vendors selling fruits and vegetables, meat, grains and beans, bread and pastries, and sundries; both have large food courts serving hot breakfasts, lunches, snacks and juices.

Fish for sale at Feria Libre.

Fish for sale at Feria Libre.

A good place to try prepared market food is at Comedor Marianita at 10 de Agosto. Marianita manages the comedores booth, while Mario serves the drinks and collects the money. Mario spent seven years working in New York, so he speaks pretty good English, is very friendly, and will introduce you to the pleasures of Marianata’s food. Here, a big plate of chicken, rice, and salad is $2.

The juice vendors on the west side of the second-floor food court at 10 de Agosto, serve up a wide variety of drinks to quench your thirst and to cure what ails you. Ever tried a smoothie with ostrich egg, malt beer and carrot juice? And then there’s there ever-popular liquid Viagra.

If you’re looking for spiritual sustenance, lady shamans set up shop two or three days a week (the schedule is changeable) under the 10 de Agosto escalator. For a couple bucks, they provide a spiritual and emotional cleansing as they swat you with medicinal plant leaves and blow cigarette smoke and liquor mist over your body.

Feria Libre, Cuenca’s largest market, is an enormous (about six acres) open-sided mercado on Avenida de las Americas near Avenida Remigio Crespo, on the western side of the city south of the river. It isn’t a cute little mercado; it’s a huge hard-core produce market that sells everything you can imagine, including live animals: chickens and chicks, pigs, guinea pigs, even goats.

Due to tram construction, Feria Libre is hard to get to these days by car or bus. If you want to visit, your best bet is to hoof it.

You’ll also see produce sellers squatting on sidewalks, especially outside and around the indoor markets, and on street corners. This is technically illegal, so from time to time the police force them to move. Some squatters make it easier on themselves by selling their produce from wheelbarrows. They’re sort of an upscale version of squatters: When it’s time to move along, they just roll their wares to the next corner.

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