El Mercado: The Black Witchy Fishy Fruit ‘n’ Veggie Meat Market, Ole!

Grocery shopping in the United States perfectly exemplifies the best and worst parts about our home country.

On the one hand, there’s not just one, but often three or more well-stocked, organized, squeaky clean, and enticing grocery stores within a ten mile radius, carrying a multitude of brands and an impossible variety of items, all promising to precisely define me, my tastes, and my socio-economic status.

And, sadly, my heart goes pitter-patter whilst sinking in expectant financial slaughter every time I walk through those automatic sliding doors.

I heart ‘n’ hate you Whole Foods!!!!

But it’s not just the inflated costs that rile me up.  It’s the factory farming.  It’s the fact that we transport our food at a criminally high carbon footprint,  that we have more GMO produced food in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world and do not even require disclosure, that we feed our cows corn causing them to grow E.coli and then pump them full of steroids and antibiotics.

It’s the fact that corporations control and taint our food supply (and our government by lobbying) in the U.S., and even most recently, the organic elite has signed onto the evil ways of Monsanto.  If you don’t know about this topic, check out these links and movies to start:

Great movie illustrating how corporatized our food supply has become: 


A History of Monsanto: 


The Organic Elite Surrenders to Monsanto: 



But this post isn’t about that.  

This post is about shopping in the mercados of latin America.  And why I love them.

For one, they’re disorienting, a tad dangerous, colorful, frenetic, kind of smelly, messy, and always require active participation if I want to obtain what I’m looking for.  There’s no aimlessly walking down the aisles plopping food into my basket.

No,  shopping at the mercado is more like playing a sport. I have to be on-guard, aggressive, have a strong defense, and always keep my eye on the potato.

In other words, they are decidedly un-American.  They lack all of our expected and efficient virtues, and, therefore, they are far more fun.

Check out the scary and excitingly primal meat aisle.  Refrigeration… optional.

I love latin american markets because I buy my fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, grains, legumes, and oddities straight from the people that produced them.

No corporate behemoths here.

I buy a kilo of gorgeous fresh-caught Toyo for $5.  (That’s 2.2 pounds, for my fellow Americans….again, why the #$%! are we not on the metric system?!)

Fun fact: Did you know that the potato originated in Peru and that there are about five-thousand potato varieties worldwide. Three thousand of them are found in the Andes alone, mainly in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia.

Do the math folks, that means there could be five-thousand varieties of french fries.

Not-so-fun fact: Genetically modified species are wiping out heirloom varietals, threatening to leave us with only a fraction of corporate branded, chemically twisted franken-foods.

And then there are these freaky  little eggs.  Not sure what to make of them, but one time Tree drank one in his beer (Watch Video).

Here comes my FAVORITE part about the mercados.  Enter the Witch’s Market!!

What ails you? Heartburn, diarrhea, back pain, constipation, cancer, malaria, frigidity, dengue, depression, halitosis, or anxiety?

The Mercado de Brujo has your remedy.

Got worms crawling out of your mouth?  How about some Parasithol?

Joking aside, I actually went to the Mercado de Brujo in search of Sangre de Drago (meaning, Blood of the Dragon, sometimes called Sangre de Grado, as well). Our friends Julio and Lauren gifted us a vial of it back in Cajamarca, and Tree used the whole thing on his nose after the fan attack, (remember that incident here).  It worked wonders!!! I can’t speak for all of the witchy potions of Peru, but I empirically support Sangre de Grado–a sap that comes out of some Andean tree–that acts as a 100% natural anti-bactertial salve for flesh wounds.  (Kiki used it after her mole removal, and Mongo used it on his butt…. both had positive results.)

I have to say, these men make terrible Brujos.  I expected to see a coven of old ladies wearing pointy shoes and funny hats, not a bunch of dudes wearing sneakers and fanny-packs.

Do you need  a widget, speakers, a keyboard, weapons, or the left sneaker of a Nike set…come to the black market.

This animal section of the mercado breaks my heart wide open.  Poor babies. I wish I could set them all free.

Just outside of Huanchaco, we have a fancy grocery store, too, fully equipped with florescent lighting, cellophane, and refrigeration. We shop at both this fancy store, called Tottus, and the local mercados.  I prefer the mercados, where no corporate marketing campaign or design strategy attempts to steer my choices, but there are some things–like gin and wine–that I just can’t find there.

And, besides that, sometimes the American in me needs to putter down the aisles with my big tin cart ready to be filled, eyes glazed over in manufactured affinity for packages with smiling faces on the front.  It’s like a little piece of apple-pie. I pick up three different brands of toilet paper, and I ask myself, what kind of a toilet paper shopper am I? Do I buy generic Tottus 24-packs, or, do I fork over a few extra soles for the Elite Suave, the Peruvian equivalent of Charmin?  Back in the States, I knew exactly what kind of shopper I was, and what the things I bought said about me.

But, here in Peru, the packages seem to have lost their meaning.  And it feels good. 




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  1. Well done Stevie. You and Tree certainly keep us informed!
    Information in this crazy world can be daunting to the spirit, so I’m glad you also keep doing those daily (and lovely) “small” practices that will keep you sane and happy: surfing, sharing, kindness, puppy-saving, yoga, friendship, celebrations, loving, exploring. . . . all those blessings which provide balance, and laughter, and joy in life. Thank you for sharing both. Your examples are inspiring.

  2. Rob Wilson says:

    Another excellent post by the awesome Stevie. You should take up travel writing, girl…but you’d have to lose some of the political commentary 🙂

    Don’t get me wrong, I am an opponent of GMO food. Love the pics and the stories. Thanks for lightening up my day.


    • Thank you kindly, Rob! I’m not sure I’m capable of losing some of the political commentary though. It seems to come out of me no matter what. This was supposed to be a simple ‘photo post’ with some ‘catchy captions’ about the mercado, and next thing I know I’m on a rant about the evils of GMOs and posting links for ‘further reading.’ Poor Tree, can you imagine what my sweet husband must endure?

      Also, I’m glad we’re on the same page with this issue. I always appreciate intelligent argument, but every now and then it sure feels good to just agree. Thanks again for commenting 🙂

  3. Nice post… I love nothing more than visiting the markets, and even small local grocery stores when we travel. It’s where I really feel the pulse of a country. And, Food Inc is one of the best documentaries ever!
    Hope you’re well and the earthquake didn’t shake you much…very sad!
    Cheers and take care,

    • Hi Rhonda! Thank you for commenting. It’s always nice to hear from you. We didn’t actually feel the earthquake, fortunately. Too far north I think. Anyhow, I agree. The markets are definitely where I “feel the pulse of a country” as well (nice phrasing!). And it’s always a great starting ground for me to meet people, make friends, and ask questions about the town. Plus I love supporting the local people as much as possible.

  4. Joyce Carlson says:

    Hi there Stevie,
    We continue to read and enjoy your marvelous posts. And I must say that Tree does a fine job too. You two are amazing. Several of us returning to the San Miguel Campground were remembering you two just the other happy hour. But I do want to mention that I read a study (maybe by some profs from Cornell or some such university), that said that their study showed that only 4% of the carbon footprint of food, from field to fork, was due to actual transportation. Most of the carbon came from production and application of oil based fertilizers, processing and other things I don’t remember. It also pointed out that huge semis and airplanes carry humongous amounts of tomatoes, etc. much more efficiently than say the little farmer in the valley bringing his small amount of produce up the hill 10 mi to our little farmers market. It’s also much more efficient to raise these veggies in places where it rains than in little fields where the water has to be pumped from aquifers. It’s so hard for me to weigh all the factors, but local does not always equal best.
    Like I said, there is so much to consider on these issues. One little book that has been vilified, but still has some valid points from “the other side” is called “Just Food” by James McWilliams of the U of Texas or whichever one is in Austin.
    Cuidate and a Kiki, Mongo, y Tree,

  5. Tom frm Colorado says:

    I love this post becasue I LOVE FOOD. Please write more about FOOD!

    Nicely done Stevie.

    ps. you should make tree go grocery shopping with you.

  6. Jodi Dailey Tolzmann says:

    Love this post!

  7. Alexander Roberts says:

    Can I get an order of flies with that ?

  8. Anonymous says:

    great photos!

  9. Great read and photos as always!

  10. And, omg, the food from the mercado just seems so much tastier! I still crave mexican onions (I’m a little weird about onions, but still).

    • I 100% agree. And I too LOVE onions. There’s nothing weird about that! My friend Lauren just taught me this recipe where she lightly coats fish in flour and then presses chopped green onions into the filets with some garlic, salt, and pepper, and then panfries them in some light olive oil. Yum!!!

  11. mamatuyas says:

    Oh, how I miss our little jaunts to the Mercado! Oh, how I miss your fish tacos! . . .
    (although I’m afraid to eat fish since Tree’s “Trash” blog).

    • I miss YOU!!!! I went to the BIG mercado, recently, called La Mayorista. That’s where the witch’s market and the black market are, along with all the regular market stuff, just much, much more of it. It was definitely more thrilling, but I appreciate the charming, easy-to-navigate, less smelly Huanchaco mercado a little more. As for the fish tacos, I wonder how they would taste with spiced tofu or with white beans in the same sauce with the same toppings? I bet you could find a good substitute for you and miss Nica. (Remember when Uncle Tree told Nica that we were going to have Happy Feet tacos for dinner and Nica cried. Sweet sensitive soul she is). Anyhow, if you wanna give them a try, I’ll send you the recipe. I love you!

  12. yep. I love shopping at Latin Mercados! a big part of travelling! good job!

    • And the best part about shopping at the mercados is then getting to go back and cook up the amazing food!! Glad to hear that you are enjoying yourself!

  13. Thanks for writing this. I agree with you on nearly every point 🙂 I dislike what’s happened with the industrilization of food. I love and hate the ‘nice,’ clean stores, here and in the States. I love and hate the messy, local, real life markets. I think I’ll be sharing a similar post on my site soon. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Hey Rachel. Thanks so much for commenting. You guys are awesome!! I love your site, your insights, and your attitudes. Tree and I want to add a member to our tribe sometime soon, so you guys are an inspiration to us. Hopefully our paths cross sometime on our Pan-American journeys. I’d love to meet The Dennings in person 🙂

  14. Great post about shopping for groceries abroad, one of my favorite sports. I really enjoy your blog!

  15. I soooooo share your passion of going shopping or just spending time on El Mercado:
    -> with a reading recommendation 🙂
    Muchos abrazos! Tanja

  16. Great spin on the shopping differences Stevie. I am both comfortably numb about my US shopping habits, and a tiny bit fearful of my future shopping lifestyle change requirements ahead for me and yet exhilarated at the prospect of it all. And I’ve seen all those movies ( Food Inc and the like) and they scare the crap out of me.

  17. I love your next-to-last-line (in pink, no less) and the last line (which I guess is actually 2 sentences). Well said! I love the sentiment. 🙂

  18. Bien dicho stevieeeee, bien dicho, as usual…. chicos espero que esten bien…

  19. Those little eggs are huevos de codornis, just boil them as regular eggs…., those are great with curry sause, pruebalos

  20. I love those markets too, great description! Crazy, smelly, exciting and watch out of the crazy guy that yells something about gringas. Good thing J decided not to punch him, right?! Either way, I still loved it!

    • I love them, too, but I definitely think the Mayorista was more stressful for J! I have a habit of simply ignoring the attention we get for standing out as gringas in the market, but I think it was a little harder for J to let the guy who was actually screaming at us go ‘unnoticed.’ Oh well, nothing a shot of rum won’t fix 🙂 All’s well that ends well 🙂

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