By David Morrill and Deke Castleman
Where do Cuencanos and expats buy their food?
Although Supermaxi, Coral, Super Aki and other modern supermarkets sell their share of fresh produce, meat and fish, the city’s markets, or mercados, continue to be the Cuenca’s main food provider. A recent survey by University of Azuay students showed that the 62% of Cuencanos purchase most of their food at city markets.
The market scene 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 almost every block, vendors on bicycles and squatters selling their produce on the street and from wheelbarrows.
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 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, and both have large food courts serving hot breakfasts, lunches, snacks and juices.
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 $3.
If your preference is pork, vendors on the south side of the food court offer heaping piles of pig served with a salad and beans. To entice potential diners, sellers hand out chunks of meat cut from the hog carcass proudly displayed at the front of their stalls.
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.
You’ll also find cleansing ceremonies,ususally on Wednesdays, at the Rotary Market, a block east of 9 de Octubre.
Feria Libre El Arenal, or Feria Libre for short, Cuenca’s largest market, is an enormous (about six acres) mercado made up of three large buildings and an outdoor sales plaza on Av. de Las Americas, near the Avenida Remigio Crespo redondel. It isn’t a cute little mercado; it’s rough-and-tumble and hard-core, selling everything you can imagine, including live chickens and chicks, pigs, guinea pigs, even goats.
It’s also known for its pick-pockets and drunks so hold on tight to your stuff and be prepared to step over the sleeping “campañadoras” (campaigners), the term used for men on a bender.
You’ll also see produce sellers squatting on sidewalks, especially outside and around the indoor markets, as well as on El Centro streets. This is technically illegal so from time to time the police conduct sweeps but the vendors are back the next day.