Alpaca ponchos sit beside a bucketful of writhing frogs, vendors hawk their exotic fruits opposite potions promising to improve your love life, and llama snouts rest grimly in wicker baskets.
Welcome to the San Pedro Markets in Cusco, Peru.
Located west of Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s central market is a frantic hubbub of exotic sights, vibrant colors and curious smells and where locals have gathered to sell and buy items since the time of the Incas.
Vendors selling fruit and vegetables, bread, cheese, chocolate, spices, nuts and grains jostle for position with those selling gory displays of meat, mystical items meant as offerings for Pachamama (Mother Earth) and touristy wares like ponchos, jumpers and gloves.
The markets offer a fascinating peek into everyday life in Cusco and are a must-see during a visit to the Peruvian city, the capital of the Incan Empire.
Here are 9 reasons you can’t miss the San Pedro Markets.
1. The gory meats
If you’re squeamish, you might want to skip it but the gross-out factor is what makes this section so intriguing. Here you’ll find llama snouts in baskets, big bunches of hooves and trotters piled together, and fly-covered intestines, hearts and brains laid out on display. Hanging from hooks at some stalls are huge testicles which are hang-tied with human hair. Also make sure you don’t miss the giant pig heads splayed out across the tables.
2. Roasted and ready-to-eat guinea pigs
You may get flashbacks to your childhood pet, but in this part of the world cuy (pronounced ‘kwee’), or roasted guinea pig, is a delicacy. This furry little critter tastes like a cross between fatty chicken and pork and has been a staple in Peru's Andean diet for around 5,000 years. If you’re lucky you might spot a cuy with a pepper in its mouth (or sometimes its butt) for sale, usually on the perimeter of the market. Be adventurous and give it a go. (PS. You dig in with your hands).
3. Mystical potions and powders
Need something to pick up your love life? Do you want to make more money? You’ll find the solution at San Pedro. This section of the market sells potions in the form of herbs, perfumes, soaps, powders and incense which can allegedly cure an array of ills or solve almost any problem that might be bugging you. Packet labels include "Attract Clients Powder” and “Love Me, Love Me". You can also find goods sold for Andean rituals involving offerings to Pachamama. If you spot a dried llama foetus (look up, you will see them), that’s what it’s for. In Peru, as well as Bolivia, it is traditional to bury a llama foetus in the foundations of your new house for good luck.
4. The frog lady
Whether you’re looking for live frogs squirming in a bucket or frogs which have already been skinned, you’ll find a little old lady towards the back of the markets who has what you need. These frogs are waiting to be made into a soup - a delicacy in these parts, and this lady can prepare them on the spot for you to eat.
5. Amazing fruit and vegetables
Not only hugely colorful and outrageously Instagrammable, the sheer selection of fruit and vegetables in this market is impressive, particularly the types of potatoes on display. Peru has a staggering 3800 types of potatoes and you can find many here. You’ll also find more exotic fruits such as the sweet, fragrant and pulpy cherimoya, which is one of the most lip-smackingly delicious Andean tropical fruits. In fact, Mark Twain once called it “the most delicious fruit known to man”, and you can’t argue with famous dead literary icons. If you want to try something, simply smile and politely ask “Puedo probarlo?”
6. The food and drink
Pull up a stool and eat where the locals eat. You can purchase snacks, meals and drinks here incredibly cheaply such as a plate of ceviche with sweet potato and rice for a mere 5 soles (less than US$2). You’ll also find meats, soups, hamburgers, sandwiches and milkshakes. However, you will need to be a little discerning about where you eat. Use common sense and avoid a stall if hygiene standards don’t look up to par. At the juice stalls you can let your imagination run wild and make almost any concoction you can think up. Beetroot, banana, papaya, mint and watermelon smoothie? Why not!
7. Colorful artisanal stalls
An absolute riot of color, the artisanal stalls sell everything from souvenirs like dolls, oven mitts and pens to jumpers, scarves, beanies, gloves and ponchos made from alpaca and llama. This is one of the best and cheapest places to find some of the most beautiful handicrafts in Cusco. Make sure you barter here and shop around to get a good price. Like in many other tourist cities, prices are hiked up, so don’t be scared to ask for a discount.
8. The chocolate
Peru has some of the best chocolate in the world. At the markets you can buy a big block of dark stuff which you can grate into piping hot milk to make one of the best hot chocolates you’ve ever had in your life. The chocolates come in gorgeous vintage wrappers featuring drawings of exotic ladies which makes them even more tempting to buy. You can also try out incredible dark chocolate mixed with quinoa, one of the staples of Peruvian cuisine.
9. Wildly colored corn
Purple, yellow, white, orange, red with white specks, white with black specks… Peru is the king of corn (growing more than 55 varieties) and you’ll find almost every color and type here. The most striking is the dark purple corn known maiz morado. This fibrous purple corn is not eaten but used to make Peru’s famous non-alcoholic national drink, the Chicha Morada and a famous dessert, the Mazamorra Morada. You can find people selling Chicha Morada out the front of the markets.
How to get to San Pedro Markets: From Plaza de Armas, head a few blocks south-west to Plaza San Francisco. Walk through the stone arch and continue up Calle Santa Clara for a few minutes. It’s on your left.
Are you planning on visiting Cusco and the San Pedro Markets? Or have you already been? Tell us about your thoughts or experiences below. If you enjoyed this article, please spread the love via the share buttons!