How to master local markets in South America

Visiting a local market in any city of South America, is like peering into its soul. Sure, there’s always the Plaza de Armas or a national museum to explore. These well-established crowd-pleasers provide perspective, history and a whiff of local life. But to be immersed, to be truly woven into the fabric of a city, you must first experience a local market.

La Vega, Santiago, Chile
La Vega, Santiago, Chile

The local markets in South America are sassy; bright, brash and brimming with bargains. Those hardy enough will uncover treasures aplenty, but you need an open mind – and a strong stomach! From the long-standing big-city stalwarts, to fleeting weekend pop-ups, each one offers something a little different.

For those new to the gringo trail, these markets can be as treacherous as they are tempting. The stench of rotting fruit hanging in the air. Fish-heads littering the floor, ready to be slipped on. Over-enthusiastic market-traders shouting who-knows-what to god-knows-who in Spanish faster than the speed of light. It can all be a bit much.

Organised chaos outside La Vega, Santiago
Organised chaos outside La Vega, Santiago

We grew to love these rich, raw, raucous spaces but – as usual – we learned the hard way. Of course, many a backpacker before us mastered the markets with ease, slipping in unnoticed alongside the locals. Not us. For us, they provided as many pitfalls as they did pleasures. We stumbled, bumbled and fumbled our way through the numerous markets of South America. By the end of our seven glorious months, these colourful, crazy and chaotic scenes had become familiar. And while we are far from masters at anything when it comes to backpacking, we feel like we know a thing or two that might just help you master the markets of South America.

New kids on the block
Arriving in a new city is exciting. Navigating your way through unfamiliar streets among unknown sights is thrilling. Apart from when it is terrifying. Less than 24 hours into our year-long adventure, in the biggest country of South America, we decided to tackle São Paulo’s Mercado Municipal. Fresh off the plane, barely acclimatised, we were doomed for failure.
We attempted to walk to the market from the centre of the city, having already walked several miles under the unforgiving Brazilian sun. A terrible idea, not just because the sun makes Adam angry but because walking anywhere in São Paulo is not as easy as it looks. We’d ignored the advice of our fellow hostel-dwellers (don’t walk, take the metro, it’s further than you think) and decided that because we like walking it’d be okay. Turns out, they had all been right. By the time we arrived it was 3pm and we were in a right state. Upon exiting the Luz metro station, (we’d eventually succumbed) things got a whole lot worse. The street plunged dramatically downwards; it was like being stuck on the top end of a see-saw, helplessly peering at the world below. Feathers, whistles, balloons and creepy masks blurred our vision. We live in London so you’d think we’d be used to a bit of crazy, but this part of São Paulo was carnage. I felt particularly vulnerable as we were relying on (best app ever) to guide us. Clutching my iPhone with both hands, I desperately tried to style it out and not look like walking prey. It took about 15 minutes to weave our way through the alleys before we arrived at the market, by which time we were on high alert and feeling like total backpacking frauds. The market itself was pleasant enough; split over two levels with rustic eateries on the top and various fish, meat, fruit and veg stalls on the ground.

Colourful fruit stall on ground floor of Mercado Municipal
Colourful fruit stall on ground floor of Mercado Municipal

Unfortunately, we were too overwhelmed to really enjoy ourselves so our visit was short-lived. Better luck next time!
Master Move #1
Spend a bit of time getting to know your new surroundings before throwing yourself into the cultural melting pot that is the local market.

Go with the pros
Even if you are the best backpacker on the planet, (and we’ve met a few) you can’t compete with real local knowledge and know-how. From sniffing out the best produce, to landing freebies from a favourite cholita; local folk are the ultimate market masters.
To the untrained eye, and nose, the sights and smells of the markets in South America can be alarming. Unidentified foreign fruit is one thing, a whole roasted pig head in your face is another altogether. Even with an expert in tow, the latter is disturbing. Many of the stalls look the same, but the locals have their go-to-guys. The ones who give them the freshest fish, and perfectly ripe avocados. They’re the guys you need in your life.
We had a taste of local life when we visited the lesser-known Cascaparo market in Cusco with our homestay host. Kettlin, our host, helped us navigate the many, many types of potato on offer and bagged bargains galore as she shmoozed her way from stall to stall.

Kettlin bagging a bargain
Kettlin bagging a bargain

Cascaparo was cheaper than touristy San Pedro, and with Kettlin’s connections we were welcomed by the market traders as long-lost friends rather than lost-looking gringos.
Master Move #2
Stay with a local family or find a tour which includes a visit to the market to discover the best produce at the best prices.

Timing is everything
Despite our less than fruitful visit to the market in São Paulo, by the time we reached Peru we still hadn’t learned our lesson. San Pedro market on the outskirts of Cusco is, according to better backpackers, one of the best in South America. Having filled up on a hearty hostel breakfast of bread and jam, we spent our first day in Cusco taking in the beauty of the city. Cusco is totally charming with its colonial Spanish architecture and crumbling Incan ruins. For us, it was love at first sight. As a result, we had even higher hopes for San Pedro, the city’s most famous local market. Upon arrival, it was evident we’d made an error. It was 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, and we were greeted by tumbleweed. More than half the stalls were boarded up. Those that were open had seen better days. The traders were all half asleep, and hungry hoards of locals long-gone. To top it off, a pipe had burst nearby, resulting in the entire place smelling like something – all the things – had died. Dreams of fresh ceviche shattered, we scarpered pretty quickly in search of some dinner. Anything to avoid a bout of backpacker belly. Luckily, there were some smiling toothless ladies selling choclo con queso on the street corner – basically a corn on the cob sold with a slab of Peruvian cheese for less than £2. Oh, and Adam found a pizza too. Obvs.
*I can confirm we returned to San Pedro at a more sociable hour to experience it in full flow, and it did not disappoint*

San Pedro back in full swing
San Pedro back in full swing

Master Move #3
Go early, especially on a Saturday, for the freshest selection of goodies. Sunday afternoon is not your friend in South America – for anything!

Learn the lingo
The local markets in South America are an assault on your senses. Your eyes dart from one trader to the next, avoiding the beady eyes of freshly plucked chickens. You breathe deeply through your mouth – at all times – in an effort to dodge the inimitable stench of fresh (and not so fresh) fish. But it’s your ears that are in for a real treat. Market-traders are savvy salespeople. Some lure you in with charming broken English, ‘where you from?’, ‘what you like?’, ‘you want try?’, while thrusting their wares in your face. Others rely on cheap prices, and hardcore bargaining skills. With limited local language you’ll find yourself just saying ‘si, si’ and return hostelwards with a heavy bag of unidentified fruit and veg when all you really wanted was an apple and an avocado. Don’t be fooled into thinking you know it all either. We nearly missed out on delicious Queso Helado in Arequipa because we thought it was actual cheese ice cream.

Queso Helado - delicious and NOT made of cheese!
Queso Helado – delicious and NOT made of cheese!

Upon further investigation we discovered it was called Queso Helado because it was made in a similar way to cheese. It wasn’t actually cheese ice cream. But we have eaten that too!
Master Move #4
Brush up on your Spanish/Portuguese or have google translate at your fingertips to help out when the going gets tough and the traders get shouty.

Treat your tastebuds
While your eyes, ears and noses adapt to their new surroundings, spare a thought for your tastebuds too. Exotic fruits and unusual vegetables beckon. Among the unfamiliar, excitement lies. Each country in South America has its own selection of traditions and delicacies to indulge in. Some are more pleasant than others. Dehydrated Llama foetus in Bolivia (I shit you not). Plenty of potatoes in Peru. Magnificent mate rituals in Argentina. Whether you explore the markets with a local or go it alone, it’s impossible not to soak up the idiosyncrasies of a city among the chaos.

Portal de los dulces in Cartagena
Portal de los dulces in Cartagena

We were particularly impressed with the variety of fabulous fresh fruit in Colombia. Heavily influenced by Caribbean culture, Colombia is a fruit-lovers paradise. I can’t confess to being particularly adventurous when it comes to fruit, but I was keen to try some of the exciting new variations. We explored the markets of Medellin with our guide David (note master move #2 in action) who introduced us to all sorts of fancy fruit we’d never seen before. See what I thought of them here.
Master Move #5
Ask to try a couple of the local favourites, and be brave! You might not love them all, but you might end up finding a new favourite.

There are many local markets in South America but here’s four of our favourites:

Mastering the local markets in South America is easy if you follow our tips!
Mastering the local markets in South America is easy if you follow our tips!

What’s your advice for mastering local markets? Do you have a favourite local market to visit? We’d love to hear from you, drop your comments below.

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36 thoughts on “How to master local markets in South America

  1. Looks absolutely delish! And the idea of a fruit guide is inspired. South America is head of our wish list for 2018, so I’m delighted to have found this. Clearly time to start giving my Spanish a good dusting down.

  2. Although the markets in South America are such a wonderful experience, they can also be really overwhelming! I loved your guide and will be saved it as these tips really will help to make the most of the experience.

  3. We spent 4 months in South America and did all of our shopping at mercados. They’re totally overwhelming at first, but I LOVE THEM SO MUCH. When we discovered fresh discs of chocolate (3 for $1) in Northern Peru, we died of happiness. The food is amazing. The produce and meat are fresh and local (usually). You can find anything you want. And it’s all so affordable! I HATE supermarkets and can’t stand shopping here in the States anymore. Just take me back to a mercado!!

  4. Woah foooooooood 😀 *slobber, slobber* it just looks delicious! I like wandering markets especially when the offer is so rich! There is so much to explore! Food that I never tasted or smelled before. Absolute must do when close to markets!

  5. Loved this post and all of the master tips! I think most of your advice can be used in any market around the world. I have a soft spot for cooking in copper pots, so I loved the ones you shot in Argentina!

  6. I never thought local market pictures can be so good but I love the colorful fruit stall one. Local markets can sometimes be crowded and overwhelming, add in the unfamiliarity of the language, it will really be a test of patience. But it’d be a fun experience and a great way to see how local people live!

  7. This is great advice for markets in Southeast Asia too. I think I could get around ok with my Spanish but it would still be overwhelming. You really do have to take it slow and let it all sink in. The madness is part of the fun and it’s better when you don’t fight it and just become a part of it!

  8. Local markets are so much fun. They are in a way the sure shot way to get up close with any city’s culture. Club with that the million opportunities one gets for photography. For the same reason, I always love to explore the local markets of the places I visit.

  9. I could feel myself in one of those local markets…hearing the sounds of broken English, smelling the fragrances in the air, and seeing all the variety of foods on display. This is a wonderfully descriptive post! Makes me want to visit a local market soon.

  10. I love your photos. I wandered San Pedro in Cusco but I didn’t see it the way you did. The meat section was indeed, quite impressively stinky. Next time I am in South America, I will go to the markets with much more open eyes, not just nostrils.

  11. I love heading to local markets while I’m travelling to explore the local food and also witness the locals living their lives. But like you mentioned it sometimes gets a bit too much for us. The markets looks so vibrant and so full of life, would love to explore all of these!

  12. I was lucky enough to live in Peru for 14 months a few years ago and this post really brought on the nostalgia. My favorite thing to do when arriving in a new city is head to the market to see what local delicacies are on offer. Thanks for all the tips!

  13. I love local markets when I travel, but admit I often feel out of my element. Not knowing local prices, or even not knowing exactly what different items and foods were. Fascinating, but confusing! There’s great information here. Thanks!

  14. Ahhh local markets that I am used to is already hectic enough. Just reading thing and thinking about going to a major one in another country gives me anxiety.

    Sunday afternoon is not your friend .. lol I like that tip

  15. They say that one of the best ways to know about the place is to visit the local market. Kudos to you for braving the chaotic and colorful South American market, it must have been really scary at first especially when you do not understand anything they say.

  16. Wow! Really love this post! Im Chilean and see there 2 of our markets. I think the tips you give are really helpful. When travelers came to mi city I always take them to the market because is a great way to know a city.

  17. Oh wow, I’m from a smaller midwestern town in the USA, so I feel like I’d be super overwhelmed in that area of São Paulo! I think tip #3 can be used for so many things! You beat a lot of the packed crowds when going anywhere early.

  18. Mercado Lanza has been one of my favorites so far (in South America). I remember buying a really good fried chicken some ladies were making right on the zig-zagging ramp. Really nice tips, by the way!

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