If you are heading to Peru on a backpackers budget, make sure you plan ahead for the expense of a Machu Picchu trip. This is on pretty much everyone’s Peru travel list but it can definitely blow your travel budget. If you don’t plan ahead, not to worry; you can still find a great, free cultural experience at the local market.
South American Markets
Forget the Wal-Mart; in most of South America the local market is where you buy everything and anything. Every big city and small town has a market. Wandering around the bigger markets in the cities can easily take up half a day.
Be sure you ask a local, and not just your hostel front desk, where the market is. More than once I was directed to the “tourist” market filled with tourist junk instead of an actual market that locals use too. Fair warning though, the local market might be located in a bad part of town. Even if not, pay attention to your surroundings. You will stick out more than usual and if you are carrying an expensive, be careful.
In the bigger cities, the markets can sometimes be broken up – an electronics market, a meat market, a vegetable market, etc. I personally think the smaller markets with everything all squished together are a bit more fun. One minute you’re browsing local spices, the next you’re gagging on the smell of hundreds of just slaughtered cows, pigs, and chickens. Hopefully you’ll stumble on the fresh cut flower section next.
I’d suggest checking out some markets in a few different South American countries. It’s really interesting seeing how the items change to fit the local cuisine and culture. Some of the more interesting items you might find in a Peruvian Market:
Guinea Pigs – Do you want yours dead, skinned, and gutted or still alive, cute, and fluffy? You’ll find them both in most markets.
Lots of Potatoes & Corn – This is the center of the potato world. You’ll probably be shocked by all the different types you can find, from big purple ones to small hard-as-a-rock white ones. There are over 4000 types of potatoes grown in Peru and close to that many different types of corn. See how many you can find.
Potions and Spells – The majority of people in Peru follow the Catholic faith but there is still plenty of evidence of older Inca and native religious traditions. If you’re looking for a potion or spell, the Bolivian Witch Market is your best bet but if you’re not heading to Bolivia, you can usually find what you’re looking for by asking around a local market in Peru.
Mystery Item – Every market has one, something you are sure you’ve never seen. Peru has plenty of them. Weird fruit, a rock potato thing, mystery meat… llama burgers anyone?
Couple Travel Tips
- Speaking of mystery items, don’t be a chicken, buy something different and unusual. You can even make it a game with your partner. See who can come back with the weirdest item.
- Ask before taking any pictures, especially of the people working at the market. How would you feel if someone wandered into your work place and started taking your picture?
- Don’t just walk around the market. Explore the side streets around the market as well to find even more interesting things. For example, in Cuzco, across the street from the market and down a small alley, you will find a lady selling hundreds of live guinea pigs.