The attraction for many gringos, of traveling and living in a foreign country, is the thrill of traditional open markets.
When we first arrived here, we heard everything from: “everything is so cheap” and “its such nice / fresh / beautiful / unique products here” to “don’t go there – you’ll get robbed or mugged” and “I heard somewhere from someone that once someone got into some type of problem at a market in South America”.
That makes it just about as dangerous as everywhere else in the world.
The fact is that the majority of markets are very safe – both in terms of crime and product quality.
While this might not be true for the gringo couple dressed in Armani, with a dSLR camera around their neck and money falling out of their gold-encrusted hands as they climb out of their BMW rental car on their way into an open market – most sensible travelers will have no problems whatsoever.
10 Tips for Open Market Shopping in Ecuador
If you follow this basic advice, you’ll be fine, and have a great time.
1. Carry Small Bills
$1’s, $5’s and coins at food markets and nothing over a $10 bill at a craft market. Not only will you draw less attention, the vendors simply don’t have change for large bills. And yes, a $20 is a large bill here.
If you are planning on a larger purchase, keep your $20’s in a separate (front) pocket. There is no need to let everyone know that you have $100 or more on you, in cash. If you pull out a hand full of coins and $1 bills, no one will give you a second look.
2. Learn some basic Spanish phrasing
Here are a few basics, with phonetic pronunciations:
● Please – Por favor (por-fa-BOR)
● Thank you – Gracias (GRAH-see-us)
● Thanks very much – Muchas gracias (Moo-chuss GRA-see-us)
● Hello – Hola (OH-la)
● Good morning – Buenos Dias (BWAY-nos DEE-us)
● Good afternoon – Buenas Tardes (BWAY-nos TAR-dase)
● You’re very kind – Muy amable (Moo-ee ah-MAH-blay)
● See you later – Hasta luego (OSS-ta Loo-AY-go)
● What is that? – ¿Qué es eso? (kay ess AY-so?
● How much is it? ¿Cuánto es? (KWAHN-toh ess?)
● I like this one. – Me gusta éste. (may GOOSS-tah ESS-tay)
● 0 cero (say-ro)
● 1 uno (oo-no)
● 2 dos (dose)
● 3 tres (trace)
● 4 cuatro (kwat-ro)
● 5 cinco (sink-o)
● 6 seis (saze)
● 7 siete (see-yet-eh)
● 8 ocho (och-o)
● 9 nueve (new-eh-veh)
● 10 diez (dee-ace)
● 11 once (ohn-say)
● 12 doce (dos-say)
● 13 trece (treh-seh)
● 14 catorce (ca-TOR-say)
● 15 quince (KEEN-say)
● 16 diez y seis (dee-ace-EE-sayss)
● 17 diez y siete (dee-ace-ee-SYAY-tay )
● 18 diez y ocho (dee-ace-ee-O-cho)
● 19 diez y nueve (dee-ace-ee-NWAY-vay)
● 20 veinte (Veh-een-tee)
● 30 treinta (treh-een-tah)
● 40 cuarenta (kwar-EN-tah)
● 50 cincuenta (sink-KWEN-tah)
● 60 sesenta (seh-SEHN-tah)
● 70 setenta (seh-TEHN-tah)
● 80 ochenta (och-EHN-tah)
● 90 noventa (no-VEHN-tah)
● 100 cien (see-EHN)
Tip: The emphasis is usually on the second last syllable, unless noted by an accent mark.
3. Bring a bag
To carry all your treasures, you’ll need a sturdy bag. The locals use a multicolor woven (polyester – I think) bag.
Vendors sell them at the markets for around $0.50 ea. It’ll make you look like you do this every week – at least more than if you troll the booths with your large piece of roller luggage.
4. Learn to Negotiate
First rule of negotiating: Be Patient.
Especially in craft markets, you’ll find that simply by not responding right away, the price of that hand woven alpaca wall hanging will decrease from $12 to $10 to $8 and finally to $6 right before your eyes. Often you won’t even need to say anything. Depending on the level of interest you show, you can often negotiate silently.
Also, if you prefer not to barter the price down, you can often still make a deal. Last week we were at a leather shop – all beautiful handmade goods. The price sticker on the bag said $25 – which is an amazing price.
Knowing that the prices all have room to move – it's simply how business is done – we offered $25 (simply: “los dos por $25”) for both the bag and a small leather change purse (the price tag said $2) for our daughter. We got a little something, but didn’t beat up the vendor either.
A word to the wise: don’t bargain too much or you’ll risk insulting the vendor, who often times is also the maker of the goods in his booth.
5. A final point of advice
When shopping at food markets, everything needs to be washed. This should go without saying, but it's the manner of washing that’s important.
Unless you want to risk getting sick, everything needs to be soaked in Grapefruit Seed Extract (Spanish: extracto de toronja). The local brand is “Kilol” and is sold at both Coral and Supermaxi supermarkets.
It is a natural concentrate product that will kill anything alive on the outside of your fruits and vegetables. The cost is just $2.19 per bottle. It takes just a 15 minute soak to make it safe. Really is a must for all foreigners.
6. Dress Down
If you dress like you have money, people will think you do, and probably feel that you won’t miss what you’ve got all that much.
So try to blend in by not wearing flashy colors, or having brand names all over your clothes.
Keep this in mind as you look at your child before heading out too. Children tend to draw attention, especially if they are blond with light eyes. People stare at them because they are so “preciosos” (precious).
If your child is dressed in visible brand names, again “you obviously will not miss whatever money is in your pockets or purse because there’s much more at home, if you can afford to dress your child like that.”
7. Keep Jewelry to a Minimum
Jewelry draws attention, especially gold.
People know the value of jewelry so you make yourself a potential target by wearing the bling.
Silver is better than gold, and beads/non-precious gems or metals are even better.
8. Don’t “Pull a Tourist”
It would be hard to do something to stand out more than doing this: Stand in the middle of the city with a guidebook in your hands.
If you need to consult your guidebook or map, it’s much better to find a bench, or better yet duck into a cafe and regroup there.
9. Leave Your Big Purse at Home
If you need to carry a bag, pick one that doesn't stand out, and one with a long shoulder strap that you can wear across your body.
Better yet, don’t carry a bag. Wear a light jacket with zip pockets, and pants with zip or snap pockets. Leave the credit cards at home or in the hotel.
10. Don’t Flash Cash
Carry cash in small bills individually folded.
When your cash is folded individually you only have to pull out two little fives, not a big wad that requires searching through, right there out in the open in front of everyone. This can also save you money because if what you want costs $6, but you pull out your folded $5 and say “is $5 OK” they usually just say yes, they don’t know you have more folded up in your pocket. It works for me.
It’s better to have a small wallet in a zipped pocket, and small bills in another zipped pocket so you don’t have to take out your wallet at all. If you need what’s in your wallet chances are you’re in a restaurant or something anyway, and not that much of a spectacle, otherwise, try to keep it hidden.
Please keep in mind that we’ve never seen a purse snatching or anything like that. Our daughter did have something taken out of her purse (which was unzipped) but she didn’t even know until a half-hour later.
If you’ve picked up some of your own tricks along your travels please share by commenting on this blog.
Open markets are a great way to experience the local culture and to save money at the same time.
Follow these few suggestions and you’ll enjoy life like a local.
Here are a few of the locally made products to watch for in Ecuador.
Visiting Cuenca's Casa de la Mujer: Ecuador Souvenirs
Cuenca Ecuador is rich in culture. From the style of clothing to the delicious food, you can see cultural influences almost everywhere you go.
When people come for a visit they usually want to know where they can find some souvenirs to bring a little bit of culture back with them.
We always like to take family and friends to Casa de la Mujer (house of the woman). It's an indoor market with a lot of different booths. They sell such a wide variety of souvenirs that there is usually something to fit everyone's taste.
Note: in guidebooks and some signage, it may be noted as CEMUART or Centro Municipal Artesanal.
There is an open inner courtyard and the booths are all under the roof so it makes for nice shopping even on rainy days.
They sell everything from panama hats to leather products, from silver and gold jewelry to ceramics.
It's really nice to chat with the artisans working in their booths. They always welcome us in to watch them work and have a look around.
Casa de la Mujer is great because of the variety of cultural souvenirs under one roof. If you don't have a lot of time for shopping, you could save time by checking out Casa de la Mujer. It could save you from walking all over the city.
Where is Casa de la Mujer in Cuenca?
Another nice thing about Casa de la Mujer is where it's located. You can find it just a couple of blocks from the center of the city.
It's located on General Torres between Presidente Córdova and Mariscal Sucre. just past the flower market and behind the San Francisco market (if you are coming from the direction of Parque Calderon).
Giving Your Taxi Driver Directions
Be careful when giving your taxi driver directions.
When my mother-in-law was visiting I wanted to take her to do a little shopping at Casa de la Mujer but I didn't say it clearly and we ended up in front of the jail for women– cárcel de las mujeres. We clarified where we wanted to be and ended up in the right place. It was really funny, but if you were unfamiliar with the city you could get a little lost.
We have gotten many things for family and friends at Casa de la Mujer. We've also gotten some things for ourselves like scarves, woven wall hangings, decorative jewelry boxes, leather bags and panama hats.
Have you visited Casa de la Mujer? What souvenirs did you find? Please share your comments with us.
Young Ecuadorian Woman Selling Clothes in Cuenca Ecuador
This beautiful young Ecuadorian woman was selling clothing at a market near Casa de la Mujer in Cuenca.
She was dressed in modern clothes with traditional beads around her neck. I like the way this photo captures the modern mixed with the traditional.
Interested to photograph some of these areas on your trip? Here's how to choose Best Camera for Travel.
6 Must-Haves for the Mom Abroad
After we arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador I quickly learned to add a few important items to what I normally carry in my bag/backpack.
When traveling in South America there are a few things we moms need in our bags that may be somewhat different then we are used to carrying.
Here is a shortlist of must-haves:
- Toilet Paper. Many of the things here in Ecuador and much of South America are less expensive than in North America, but toilet paper is not one of them. Because of this, more often than not, when you need the bathroom, there is no toilet paper available. So to avoid being stranded, always have some in your bag. I carry mine in a sandwich-sized Ziploc bag so it’s easy to pass to my daughter when she needs some too.
- Hand Sanitizer. This may not seem different, you may carry it around now, but here it’s a must. Just as there often is no toilet paper in the bathroom, soap is often nonexistent as well.
- Umbrella. The weather changes very quickly here, when we leave the house it can be really sunny and hot, then an hour later we can be in the middle of a downpour. An umbrella is good for the rain and the strong Equatorial sun. Here are a few of my favorites.
- Map, Directions & Phone numbers. When you are new to an area, especially if you don’t speak the language, a map of where you’re staying with directions in the locally spoken language is very important. Taxi drivers really appreciate it when you can just hand them your little map and they can get you on your way. It’s also good to ask before you head out for the number of a trusted Taxi driver or company; it’s always safer than just hailing a cab on the street. It would also be helpful to have the number of the hotel you’re staying at, and any contacts you have in the area that speak the language you’re fluent in.
- Antibiotic Ointment. We moms usually have some bandages and a few alcohol swabs with us, but the germs where you’re going to be traveling are different and may need something a little stronger. My daughter scraped her knee not long after we arrived and I thought washing it and applying alcohol would be enough, it always was back home. But it got infected, and what I was used to doing didn’t work. Her immune system was not used to these germs. I was telling a fellow expat mom about the problem and she gave me some of her antibiotic ointment to try. It did the trick.
- A dummy wallet. This is a little wallet with some money (a few small bills all folded up) and a few business cards in it. I carry this in case I’m ever asked to hand over my money, this way I’ll still have my real wallet, and will not be stranded.
These are just a few of the things I carry that I didn’t before. I would also recommend sunblock, sunglasses and a sun hat, a bottle of water, lip protection, and a cell phone.
The purse or bag itself should be one that does not grab attention and should have a long enough strap so that it can be carried across your body.
Have a tip to share? Or maybe a question about shopping at an open market? Join us in the comments!
Hi, I'm Bryan Haines. And I'm a co-founder of this site. I'm a traveler and photographer. I also blog about photography with a focus on GoPro and action cameras.