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The market stalls in Feria Libre
Feria Libre, the largest public market in Cuenca, Ecuador

Before spending time in any new place, it always pays to do a little research. This holds especially true if you’re going to be staying or living in said new place for a stretch. We left for Ecuador having a decent idea about what to expect when it came to stocking our kitchen, but you can never over-prepare when it comes to living in a foreign country. For those of you dreaming of living abroad within your means, here are some things we have learned thus far.

A typical store near one of the markets near the city center
A typical store next to one of the markets near the city center

Expect Vast Price Differences

We already knew to expect some items to be significantly cheaper, and we knew that certain things we take for granted in the States simply wouldn’t be available. In general, that’s just fine with us, as we’re both skilled in the kitchen. Our expectations of how cheap supplying our kitchen would be were largely exceeded, however. For about $20 USD a week, we’re eating fresh and healthy home-cooked meals with fruit and bread for snacks.

We’re not strictly vegan (we eat so many eggs, so many, and almost everything is better with butter), but focusing mainly on natural rather than animal protein definitely helps keep the food budget down. If anything, the cost paradigms of a US shopping trip are flipped. A can of peas is more than three times the cost of a bag of freshly shelled peas from the market, and buying sliced bread at the supermarket is ludicrous when you consider what the same money will get you at the local bakery.

Bread From Panaderia
Hard not to indulge when all of this, fresh from the panaderia, runs about the same as a loaf of sliced bread from the grocery store.

Market Trips Are A Frequent And Regular Occurrence

Most people walk where we live, and within the three-block radius of our apartment, we have Feria Libre, a major open-air market, a half-dozen bakeries, a few coffee shops, a handful of fruit stalls, dozens of bodegas, and a pair of hamburger (hamburguesas) and pizza joints. Every other day or so we step out for a walk and a short trip for whatever we need. It’s never more than a half hour out of the day, and there’s always something to see with our foreign eyes.

There are no Costcos or Walmarts, so there’s no stocking up for the month. A robust mail delivery system is not one of Ecuador’s notable traits, which can scare someone like me, who ordered kitty litter through Amazon Prime. Don’t judge. In any case, the weekly shopping trip that is so commonplace in the United States is not really something that happens elsewhere. Here people purchase everything fresh. A trip to the panaderia every other day is both an imperative and a reward.

Food Is Always Bought Fresh (We Don’t Use Our Freezer)

The biggest market in town is just down the street, and while it took some time, we’ve got a decent handle on which are our favorite stalls and who doesn’t rip off the gringos. We still stick out like sore thumbs because we’re 4 inches above the average height, but we’re getting better at being confident and nondescript. All the same, we do get rolled from time to time. A dollar for 3 pears? Fuck you, Abuelita, I don’t give a shit if yours are the best in the market.

Even when we do get ripped off, it’s only to the tune of a quarter or two, but to be fair, fifty cents can go a long way. A few of our favorite stalls recognize us now and kick us some extra produce. Our usual haul is around $12, and we struggle to finish it before it starts to go off. We haven’t used our freezer, and the microwave our AirBnB provided has been untouched. The best part is that all the produce is grown right up the road. We run our own personal farm-to-table restaurant. 5 stars on yelp.

Manage Your Expectations, Especially For Liquor and Beer

One of the minor heartbreaks of moving here was surrendering to the knowledge we probably wouldn’t have any American whiskey, or the bounty of craft beer we’re accustomed to for a good while. We spirited a few, uh, spirits in, but we have appetites we will not apologize for. Even the humble Mellow Corn became treasured, even if Y denies it. In any case, while people in this town know how to have a fun time and the guy at the local bodega is always clearly hammered (mucho boracho), it’s not with any of the boutique nonsense our previous careers spoiled us with.

We’ve managed to keep ourselves happy with a rotating cast of infusions and some rough and ready home cocktails, but I am craving a proper Sazerac. In the end, it’s barely a blip on the radar, and encouragement to make travel around South America a priority. Pisco country is basically next door, and there’s so much wine to be had in the New World. If there’s anything worth getting on a plane for, it’s booze.

Gringo Comfort Food Is Available – For A Price

We’re both adaptable, and as former service industry workers, we’re generally beyond thrilled to be able to sit down and have a proper meal, let alone have food at all. Eating when hungry? A luxury. We’ve enthusiastically gone to the market, planned meals and done more cooking in the last month than we had in a single year of working in restaurants, and never ordered a single pizza.

That’s not to say the lazy comforts of the modern world can’t be had in Ecuador or anywhere else. It just may cost you a bit. There is a supermarket, and it does have everything you would expect a supermarket to have, including cooking demos. Most everything there is generally expensive, and the produce there can barely hold a candle to the bounty of Feria Libre down the street. If Doritos, Pringles and Frosted Flakes are things you truly must have to live, you can likely find them wherever you are.

The magic of globalization is that the singular experience of a given place gets slowly worn away by these magical brands of junk food that unify the planet. There’s a Pizza Hut and a Papa John’s in Cuenca, somewhere, and a few places that specifically bill themselves as Tex-Mex. If you want to feel at home with your palette, that’s a manageable option, but definitely not the most frugal. Traveling to a new place is about getting outside of your comfort zone, and a passionate concern for Oreos or McDonald’s really just defeats the purpose.

Fresh Produce from Feria Libre
Our weekly market haul from Feria Libre

8 thoughts on “SHOPPING IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY Leave a comment

  1. Malaysia is becoming like US where locals like us are grocery-shopping in the supermarket nowadays. I know, it’s sad because produce is not exactly 100% fresh and things sold in supermarkets are generally more expensive than the markets. But markets are gradually replaced by supermarkets which are springing up everywhere. I enjoyed reading your post for the experience is very different in Ecuador – I like the idea of walking to the markets (great exercise) and produce is always fresh, and most importantly CHEAP! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were excited to leave the US for that very reason. It just feels like we have a lot more control. Rather than one stop, shopping is a series of errands, and we love going for walks. Thank you for sharing, and for stopping by!


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