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 as 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.
5 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)
3. Bring a bag
To carry all your treasures, you’ll need a sturdy bag. The locals use a multicolour 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.
5. A final point of advice
When shopping at food markets, everything needs to be washed. This should go without saying, but its 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.
Open markets are a great way 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.
Have a tip to share? Or maybe a question about shopping at an open market? Join us in the comments!