The Mercado Central in Cuzco is in giant warehouse a few blocks away from the main plaza. Unofficially, it also stretches towards the railway tracks, becoming more gritty as it does. The warehouse houses a lot of food stalls, with large sections devoted solely to either fruit drinks, snacks and prepared meals.
With the chilly climate, soups are a common meal. Sopa a la Criolla and Sopa a la Minuta are two beef and noodle soups, the first with milk and egg and the second with potatoes. There are lots of variations of quinoa and vegetable soup.
If you’re there early enough, you can try a typical Cusqueña breakfast. It’s a portion of beef with potatoes and rice, all of which goes down surprisingly well for that time of day. Later on there are various types of ceviche, served in the local style, accompanied by toasted corn and yuca. Be warned, you’re eating raw fish marinated in lime juice!
Behind the rows of benches and the huge pots and pans, are small snack stalls. Milk curd is eaten spread on bread, and can be washed down with local hot chocolate, or chicha morada, juice from purple corn. You may see women wandering around the outskirts of the market with wheelbarrows of tuna, a local pink fruit that grows on a cactus. The fruit are often bought by locals as a snack, with 1 or 2 being peeled by the vendor and eaten on the spot.
There are also lesser known fruit such as pepino and lucuma, which can be purchased made in to fresh juice. Hidden inside the fruit section is a stall lined by San Pedro cacti, with Amazonian maracas and even a crocodile skull, selling cactus extracts and traditional medicine. Other exotic finds include whole dried llamas, to be buried in the earth when a new house is built as an offering to Pachamama. Coca leaves sold at the market by the weight, out of giant man sized bags. Coca is used to make it easier to breathe at the altitude, as Cusco is three kilometers up in the Andes mountains. The traditional way of using coca is to “chew” the leaves, placing 10 leaves between your gum and teeth and allowing the juices to slowly seep through, rotating them occasionally. Bicarbonate is sometimes added to help release chemicals. Another common way to consume coca is to make a tea out of the leaves, by letting the leaves infuse in boiling water. Or, for coca on the run, there are coca leaf lozenges in flavors such as mint.
Other finds include a row dedicated entire to chocolate products, ceramic bulls (Toritos de Pucará) to be placed on rooftops for good luck and replicas of Incan objects. There is a textile section at one end, including hats made from alpaca, woven by hand and colored with natural dyes.
It’s not unusual for locals who visit the market maintain their traditional clothes. Women wear bright colored skirts and ponchos. Babies are carried on their back, sometimes sideways, looking like they’re about to fall out, but they never do.
Mercado Central is open dawn to 5:30pm every day and is within walking distance from the Plaza de Armas.