Adentro el Mercado

The juice ladies aim to seduce you. They wave their hands, urging you closer. ¡Señorita, señorita! ¡Venga, venga! Their elevated stands with blenders and fruit piles dominate the first two rows of the central market. And they all offer the same menu: mango, passion fruit, carrot, coconut, orange, pineapple, papaya, strawberry, and batidos in every flavor.

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Peru’s mercados centrales are the cheapest place to get a meal: a soup, main course, and drink for five soles (that’s about $1.50). Cusco’s Mercado San Pedro is the most famous. Aisles are designated for produce, cheeses, meats, fish, chocolates, aritisan goods, and flowers. In the back, in the poorly lit half of the market, stands the restaurant section. At 2 p.m., the whole space is concurrido: every bench squished full of eaters. Pull up a stool to taste la sopa de casa or sopa de quinoa, with a segundo plato of arroz a la cubana, pollo, lomo saltado, trucha, or tortilla de verduras (a vegetable omelette). There’s also a section for ceviche vendors, and of course for desayunos: breakfast snacks including coffees; avocado, egg, or cheese sandwiches; and fruit salads.

Although contained under a roof, the vast market feels open. Pass through, and the smells from the freshly butchered carne and tables of fish merge with citrus and queso. The breathable air is a free-for-all, and can feel like too much to take in.

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Two Argentine men I met in Huaraz couldn’t stop talking about the Peruvian markets: how the animal parts stare at you, and organs pile up on the side of the counter. They eat everything, those Peruvians, they’d said. And they couldn’t understand how all of it sat there without refrigeration. But that’s just in the market, I suggested, where the thighs are chopped and hooves laid in a line– freshly prepared, and meant to be chilled at home. Sure, it’s not pretty, I agreed. I didn’t mention that meats arrived the same way, in unrefrigerated trucks in Barrio Chino in Buenos Aires, left in the open air of the morning before displayed in an air conditioned carniceria. But that’s meat. It can be a healthy dose of reality to confront food in the eye.

I’ve seen these pigs, cows, and sheep on long bus rides and hikes, outside of Cusco; in the mountains of Huaraz, and far into the pampas by the Colca Canyon. Most are free to roam, while pigs are sometimes on leashes so they don’t wander into the road. It’s a different life than what you’ll see for livestock in North America. On one hike, I laughed with another estadounidense about photographing cows, something we have tens of millions of in our own country. Yea, he’d agreed, but these are Andean cows. Being in a new space can make even the ordinary undeniably sublime.

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