Guinea Pig, anyone? A visit to Cuenca’s marketplace, Feria Libre

(Caution: Vegetarians may want to skip this post!) Where can you buy tomatoes, papayas, onions, a new pair of sneakers, a can of spray foam for Carnaval, and a live chicken all in one go? That would be Cuenca’s largest local marketplace, Feria Libre!

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On my first Saturday in Ecuador, I visited Otavalo’s famous market. In terms of edible items for sale, density of people, and sheer craziness (or ‘locura’ as they would say here), Feria Libre is hands down the winner. This is the place where locals come from all the surrounding villages every weekend to stock up on meat and produce. You won’t find too many Gringos casually strolling through the isles – and no one really ‘strolls.’ Rather, you bustle your way through crowds of people – not unlike leaving a stadium or concert arena back home.

On Saturday morning, my host, Charito, invited me to accompany her to a local organic farmers market, and then to Feria Libre, to do her weekly shopping. Coming from a Northern Hemisphere winter, I was impressed and drooling at the sight of so many fresh fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market. After Charito had filled her bag, we headed down the road to the Feria Libre.

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Charito negotiates the price of veggies with one of the vendors.

 

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Lots of super fresh veggies!

Feria Libre on a Saturday is a place I would feel really uncomfortable going alone. But I had Charito, my protectress, who grabbed my arm and hung on to me as we weaved in and out of the stalls, people, and animals. She cautioned me to watch out for ladrones (thieves) in the crowds, and with all the distractions, and the fact that there is no way I could blend into the crowd, I was glad not to have anything more with me than that and $5 in my pocket.

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Hordes of people at Feria Libre on a Saturday morning!

 

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Fresh foods every where you look. Some vendors move their goods through the crowds, selling as they go along.

The market goes on and on, and you could easily get lost and disoriented if you don’t know where you’re going. Apparently, it’s smaller on weekdays (not so much produce or livestock). As Charito guided me around while doing some shopping, I took as many discreet pictures as I could, at Charito’s urging. She was looking for a chicken to take to her parent’s house on Sunday.

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Charito assesses a chicken for her parents farm. This chicken is now happily roaming with several others among fruit trees and tall grass.

When she mentioned going to the chicken area of the market, this wasn’t quite what I expected.

Aisles and aisles of women, dressed in traditional clothing (colorful velvet skirts), presenting passers-by with bags – or sometimes baskets – full of live chickens. But if you weren’t in the mood for a chicken, there were plenty of guinea pigs too.

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Guinea pig, anyone? These guys were a little shy and keep trying to burrow under the grass. I guess I would too if I knew I was going to be served for lunch.

Guinea pigs (or cuy) are part of the comida tipica (traditional food) of Ecuador and Peru, and they are typically roasted on a spit alongside pigs and chickens.

After dropping our load of goodies off at the house (including the chicken), Charito’s friend, Ivan, took us on a long drive in his Jeep up into the mountains, for some fresh air and silence, to recover from the morning’s crazy shopping trip.

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Charito and me on a mountain (which they called ‘Pachamama’) north of Cuenca.

For lunch, we stopped at an open-air restaurant for comida tipica (below). And, if you’re wondering, I had the chicken soup.

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Guinea pigs and chicken on the spit at Mama Michi’s ‘comida tipica’ restaurant near Cuenca.

 

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10 thoughts on “Guinea Pig, anyone? A visit to Cuenca’s marketplace, Feria Libre

  1. The market itself looked extremely interesting. I loved seeing the faces of the people, the long braids and the hats. Veggies and fruit looked good, felt sorry for the guinea pigs, but I feel sorry for goats that get eaten too. Our former weekend worker brought us some “chivo” for lunch, it was actually very delicious; so if the locals eat guinea pigs, I’d say it mustn’t be too bad. Charito looks like a lovely lady; so glad you have her to take care of you. The sky looked a big dark and cloudy? Here (95023), it’s been quite cool in the early AM, but heating up to 74+ in the afternoons! Have fun, be happy, stay safe.
    Hugs from here.

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    • Thanks, Carol! There are always some clouds here, but it’s been dry and warm (upper 70’s) since I arrived in Cuenca. In the evenings, I’ve been fine with a light jacket, but the people I meet here will say it’s cold if it gets below about 60F. I’m pretty happy in these temperatures!

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  2. Honestly, I like them better than chicken. Looks way more humane than the markets I’m seeing in Vietnam, or perhaps you are sparing us from the really ugly side of developing-world markets? Monkeys on leashes, fish just barely alive, frogs tied together by the legs so they can’t get away, pig heads everywhere. I grew up in a dairy family, so seeing animals killed for food was common for me as a kid, but I even have a rough time with it. But, that’s what you and I are seeing in developing areas. I’m guessing you probably saw worse and didn’t want to post it. I’m still figuring out at just what level I want to share the market experience. Do I go with the nasty, or just the beautiful side of the markets. They really are spectacular, aren’t they?

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    • Steve, I don’t think the markets of the Andes have quite the variety that you’re seeing in Southeast Asia. After all, there aren’t that many insects here, and no crazy sea creatures. It is fascinating, though, to see how differently people treat food. Back home, everything comes wrapped in plastic and we’re always especially cautious with our meat products and eggs. Here, nobody seems to have a problem with selling stacks of guinea pig and chicken carcasses right out in the open air, next to the corn and lettuce – no refrigeration needed for freshly-killed stuff, I suppose (that’s the photo I didn’t post).

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  3. I am so enjoying your blog. It brings up so many memories of my past that are priceless. I was born in Quito and lived there until I was 13. My father worked the State Department and headed up the agricultural division. I can’t even tell you how great to see your pictures – so much is still the same! Open markets just as you described and the beautiful architecture of the country. The people are great and when you mentioned “humitas,” I was ready to fly out and share some humitas, their great ceviche, and all the other wonderful foods.
    I’m so glad Carol mentioned your trip and introduced me to your trip to Ecuador – which reminds me of an old song that still plays in my mind…”yo naci el Ecuador …junto con el Tico Tico todo es mas rico” I can’t remember all the words but the tune plays on and on. Thank you

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