My host mom walks in before me speeding past dozens of food stands straight to the one she knows. They all seem to look the same and sell the same items for the same prices, but she uses the same sellers each time for fresh produce or a ceviche snack, excellently priced at our local market in Jesus Maria.
The markets of Peru aren’t just for buying cheap local produce, but for finding the cheapest lunch menú and best street food, wandering dozens of clothing, jewelry and shoe shops or socializing over fresh fruit juice.
Along with chifa restaurants and churches, markets are everywhere in Peru. There are two within walking distance of my house, but I often choose the Mercado de Magdalena mostly for its size.
Like my host mother, I return to the same vendors for my favorite snacks: almonds, peanuts, habas and potato chips, but I’m not a complete loyalist. In this market, the selection is overwhelming, with many shopping-filled blocks from chicken butcheries to art galleries.
It’s not strange to ask to taste the product before buying. I enjoy filling up on samples without actually purchasing, which is where the dozens of vendors come in handy. When I do purchase, I’m always impressed with how cheap everything is compared to the supermarkets and especially when I do the soles to dollars conversions.
Then there is the street food sold on each corner. A bowl to-go of arroz con leche costs about S/. 2, and a pitcher of juice is about S/. 4, and more than enough to share. For more lunch-like items, the streets are dotted with empanada and sandwich stands with swirling meats handing in the windows.
The markets make cooking in Peru easy as well. The fresh produce makes everything taste better, and the sellers cut fresh meat to the buyers’ liking. No more touching nasty-smelling raw meat.
In general, the markets seem more like malls or commercial centers with salons and spas, tailors, flower shops and anything else imaginable lining the streets. This also is the best and cheapest place to find clothing, jewelry and shoes. The hard part is finding the right store to walk into in an endless maze of choices. I have yet to buy anything material in the market because the items do seem to lack quality, but if the price is all that matters, this is a good place to find cheap, American-looking items.
Outside of Lima, markets are my favorite place to eat while traveling. On the tourist circuit, they are the only locations that aren’t crowded with out-of-towners, yet still serve quality and delicious food, which tends to be better than what my tour book-recommended restaurants produce. After hiking up the mountain to Machu Picchu, a market meal of arroz a la cubaña outdid the local restaurantes turisticos.
What Peru lacks for in the service industry, they make up for in the markets with helpful, chatty vendors who want to keep their customers coming back. It’s also one of the best locations I’ve found for practicing my Spanish with an endless list of new words to be learned and topics to discuss.
I’m not at my host mom’s level yet. She remembers details about the vendor’s life, asks about their dream to open a ceviche restaurant and scoffs when local politics come up. For her, buying fish for lunch turns into a social time, sharing her country’s culture with a gringa while speaking too fast for me to keep up.
But she doesn’t have to slow down for me to understand why she returns to the same vendors. The high pitched conversation, smiles and obvious friendship are easy to see and make me feel better about what I’m eating for lunch.
Kay Kemmet is an international student at Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru studying Spanish, Latin American history and journalism. She’s from Bismarck, North Dakota and studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Peru’s markets are great places to find food, clothes, a haircut or an impromptu Spanish lesson.