Buying food is a big part of my weekly agenda.  Since I don’t live near many stores and I have to carry everything home on the bus, I have to be strategic about when and where I pick up my produce to cook for myself or share with my family.  In today’s post, I wanted to share with you a slice of my life in the mercados, markets and trueques of Ecuador.   

I love mercados, the markets.  When I travel to a new city, it’s one of the first places I explore.  Here in Ibarra, I wander into our Amazonas Market at least once a week and always find a section that I’ve never seen before; of course there’s the fruits and vegetables, the clothing, the shoes.  But there’s also a section for knife sharpening, clothing alterations, potted plants, even potatoes.  Only potatoes.  Walking through the maze of aisles, I’m enveloped by the overpowering smells, the plethora of sounds and colors, and the energy calibrated to a constant and frenetic vibration.  I push past a cart of plastic whatnots, duck under some hanging dried fish, dart around a pile of freshly cut herbs falling into the walkway, past a TV blaring the mid-day soap opera, and through the constant prattle of the vendors, “Que quieres, mi hija?”, “A la orden.” 
From the outside, Amazonas Mercado doesn’t look like much.  It doesn’t look like much from the inside either.  It’s 65 years old and is made up of a main building with a lot of metal roofed stalls and leeky tents spanning out in all directions.  Enter at your own risk- it’s not for the
directionally challenged or the claustrophobes.
The main entrance takes you directly into the meat section which is adjacent to the lunch cafeteria. Empanadas, Chicken Soup, or Chicken and Rice are typical dishes served each afternoon. 
Then, there’s the local flowers and herbs.  Remember, Ecuador grows and exports the majority of the world’s flowers, so flowers and plants are a big part of this culture. 
Ecuadorians consume a huge amount of herbs each week for tea, medicines and culinary needs.  In this picture, I see manzanilla (an anti-inflammatory used to calm the stomach), mático (which helps to reduce bruising), romero / rosemary (used to flavor food, and to help strengthen hair and nails), marco (used externally to extract negative energies from your body), 
and cola de caballo / horsetail (known to help clean your kidneys). 
At every other stall, you can buy your rice, pastas, grains and spices in bulk.  In the high altitude Sierra Mountains where I live, there is a tremendous variety of different grains in whole or powdered form.  Varieties of root vegetables are also numerous and used daily in the mid-day soup. 
There’s also a section for Juice Bars offering a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to blend together.  Should I have pineapple, mango, papaya?  Or perhaps a carrot, celery, beet and ginger?  Only $1.00
This is one of my favorite vendors.  I don’t know why, I think it’s because I know how to find her. 
Interestingly enough, in this land fruit and vegetables, Ecuador does import 
a lot of their apples, pears, grapes and nectarines from Chile.
I was so excited when I discovered the garden section a few months ago.  
Admittedly, it took me a long time to find it again.
From the center of the Mercado, the clothing aisles span out likes spokes of a wheel.  Ecuador produces a lot of clothes in their mills – and they import a lot, too – which is good because Ecuadorians buy a lot of clothes.  It is in these aisles where I invariably get lost.  
I usually have to exit out a side door onto the street to orient myself again. 
There are more shoes in this Mercado than I’ve ever seen in my life.  Ecuador’s mills produce a lot of their own shoes as well, but I think the majority of shoes I see in this Mercado are from China. 
Just outside the Mercado on an adjacent street, is a row of these metal sheds.  They’re shoe shine houses.  The shoe shiners sit along the street all day waiting for their customers.  For $0.75, you can get your shoes polished.  Since they don’t even bother to clean the dust off your shoes first, the polish forms a good thick gritty paste to protect your shoes for a lifetime.  I swear, 
the layers of dirt and polish have helped my leather shoes hold up all year. 
Outside the Mercado, the streets are lined with all kinds of other vendors, including a whole section for toys and soccer balls.  It’s Ecuador… everyone needs more than a few soccer balls! 
From “the Mercado”, the shopping district sprawls out in all directions.  This is a typical shopping street in Ibarra.  There’s a great variety of stores, and always a lot to buy.  In this picture, there is a grocery store, a children’s clothing store, a phone accessory store, an appliance repair shop, a pharmacy and a bakery.  Street vendors also line the doorways and walk the streets 
selling anything from fruit, to toothbrushes, to women’s tights. 

It seems that every town has a large Mercado.  This is the Mercado in nearby Cotacachi.  It is much cleaner and brighter than the Mercado in Ibarra where I shop.  
I am including these pictures to give you the overwhelming impression that there is an overwhelming amount of fruits and vegetables in this country.  Knowing this, it is a wonder that the staple Andean diet is primarily meat and starch.  So, what happens to all the fruits and vegetables that don’t get eaten?  It’s given to their pigs, which turn it into a source of protein. 
On certain days of the week, we have another shopping option.  Farmers travel from far and wide to sell their products directly at a nearby Farmer’s market. 
Margarita likes shopping at the farmer’s market because she thinks the foods 
are more fresh and grown with less pesticides. 
Farmer’s Markets or ‘Small Producer Markets’ abound in this country.  This is a little Saturday Market in the town of Zuleta, about 30 minutes outside of Ibarra.  The ladies of Zuleta are famous for their beautiful embroidery.  At this market you can peruse their blouses, table cloths and all kinds of other home accessories.  In addition to their embroidery, other local artisans sell honey, homemade vinegars and liqueurs, a unique variety of grains, and soaps. 

In addition to Mercados and Markets, sometimes you can find a Trueque….


One week, Margarita was listening to the radio and became very excited over a commercial for an event at a nearby town called Pimampiro.  She immediately decided that we needed to go and made plans with Jose for the weekend.  I really didn’t understand where we were going until, on that Friday night, we arrived at a trueque, or barter fair.  At this type of market, no money is exchanged, only food.  We had a box of bread rolls and two large bottles of soda to bargain with – a bit strange since all the other participants were farmers with huge bags of fresh produce.  But, it ended up being just the ticket!  People were pushing their way in front of us to offer whatever they had in exchange for a portion of what we had.  
Margarita’s brother, Ivan, was visiting us for the weekend.  He had brought the bread from their father’s panaderia in Quito.  He stood by the box of bread packing up 8 rolls per bag and negotiating for avocados, potatoes, fruit, or whatever as people went by.
 Margarita and I took some bags of bread rolls and headed out into the market, constantly checking out what people were hawking.  I exchanged some bread for a bag of mandarin oranges.
Margarita exchanged her bag of bread for some sweet red bananas. She loved telling 
all the vendors that she had brought the Gringita to introduce me to the trueque.  
Margarita and I were so excited at every exchange…
“Toma un foto, Becky!”  “Take a photo, Becky, for your Blog!”

This lady was so intent on our bottles of soda.  She started negotiating with this sambo (squash) 
and then threw in some limas (mild lemons) too. 
Pablo, Margarita, Jose, Ivan and I left the trueque feeling very proud of our 
newly acquired stash of produce, especially since we hadn’t even paid for the bread!  
I can’t wait until we hear about another trueque!