Ecuador is a paradise for the palette. It’s, literally, a foodie’s delight—and at prices even the most cash-strapped ex-pat will appreciate.
There are a number of approaches one could take to this tasty topic, offering advice about the best restaurants in our town of Cuenca, being one among many. Today, however, I’m writing specifically about grocery shopping, especially in the many indigenous “mercados” around the city. (For mercado names and locations click here.)
Admittedly, many expats shop exclusively at SuperMaxi—the North American style mega market, the Kroger of Cuenca, if you will. Others, like us, frequent more affordable places, like one of the many Corals around town—more like the Walmart of Ecuador. This is where we purchase items like milk, butter, paper products, and toiletries.
However, we try to do the bulk of our shopping at the mercados.
Granted, we’re still perfecting our approach to grocery shopping here in Cuenca. Being relative newbies in town, we’re fine tuning our skills, learning what to buy where and what prices we should pay.
However, there are several primary differences between going to the market here in Ecuador and doing the same back in North America—especially if shopping at the mercados.
1. Food at the mercados is fresher.
Clearly, the vegetables have been recently picked. Notice that soil still clings to the potatoes—that the peas are still being shucked–that bananas arrive, still attached to the branch.
2. It’s organic and locally grown.
Although, here in Cuenca, apples are imported, almost everything else is grown in the region. Even the sea food has been brought in overnight from the coast, only three hours away.
3. It’s abundant.
If you’re a food lover, you will be amazed at the staggering variety of fruits and vegetables available. The entire market if visually remarkable—a feast for the eyes, if not for the stomach.
4. It’s incredibly colorful.
If you’ve visited a farmer’s market, especially one in a tropical country, you may be aware that the produce is not only artfully displayed, but it’s also strikingly vibrant—rich in hue and intensity of tone. And the people, as well, are dressed in brilliant reds, blues, and yellows, everyday outfits for the indigenous of Ecuador.
5. It’s more affordable.
But, perhaps, most striking of all are the prices. This past Friday Sara and I bought nearly a week’s worth of groceries for around $30.
This included 2 pounds of sea bass ($2.50 per pound) and 2 of shrimp ($2.50 per pound). We also purchased eggs (10 for $1).
We additionally got 13 tomatoes for $1, 15 red onions for $1, as well as 10 tangerines for 50 cents. Oranges are generally 40 for $1.
Remember, that generally fresh fruits and vegetables, especially organic ones, cost more in the US than canned or frozen foods. Here we literally pay a fraction of what we would for less healthy foods in North America. (And in Ecuador, genetically modified crops and seeds are illegal, according to the 2008 constitution.)
How affordable is the food where you live? Do you pay more for produce, especially the organic kind, than you do for the frozen version of the same? Is grocery shopping an adventure or a chore for you and your family?