A significant feature of Peruvian culture is its markets, and those in Cusco are no exception. If you’ve never visited any of Cusco’s markets (or any in South America for that matter), then you won’t know quite what the assault on the senses they can be.
In places such as the famous San Pedro market in Cusco, expect rows upon rows of stalls and tiny shops filled with everything from fruit and vegetables to special potions for any possible ailment. Against this fury of sights and smells, there’s the constant backdrop of roaring sellers keen to shout you over so that you’ll buy their wars. Many markets also expand to a whole outside shopping centre where you can purchase various items, have breakfast or lunch, or shop for typical souvenirs.
The markets in Cusco and across Peru are where the local Peruvians go shopping for their everyday needs. They’re also the best places for finding cheap food and doing some all-important souvenir shopping in Cusco.
Cusco markets you can’t miss
Most travellers to Peru enjoy a trip to the market for its truly unique representation of daily life. Even if you don’t plan on buying anything, they’re an incredible place for people-watching!
In Cusco, there are several important markets, each of which offer a slightly different experience to visitors.
San Pedro market or Mercado Central de San Pedro
The huge San Pedro market in Cusco has already reached the status of a tourist attraction, mainly because it offers an extensive selection of alpaca clothing and other souvenirs, in addition to its rows of stalls selling fruit, vegetables, juices, cheese and meat.
Don’t miss the very back of this massive hall where some of the city’s cheapest lunches are on offer – although an important tip is to always visit the kitchen with the most customers to avoid the prospect of getting ill.
Location of the San Pedro market: close to Plaza San Francisco, passing through the arch next to Iglesia Santa Clara.
San Blas market
This is a much smaller market situated in San Blas’s pretty neighbourhood, northeast of the Plaza de Armas. It’s a far less touristy location and only sells staples such as fruit, vegetables, cheese and meat. However, it still makes for an interesting introduction to Cusco’s markets if you’re in the area.
The San Blas square around the corner also hosts an artisan’s market at weekends with great Peruvian souvenirs to check out.
Location of the San Blas market: close to Calle Lucrepata and Plaza San Blas.
Another market better known by the locals is the Wanchaq market in Cusco. Again, it’s one of the city’s bigger markets and specializes in the standard fruits, vegetables, cheese, and meat, but also clothing, kitchen supplies and – we’re 90% sure – probably everything else you could ever need.
Location of the Wanchaq market: close to Avenida Tullumayo (Parallel Street to Avenida del Sol)
If you’re looking for souvenirs, the best place to go in Cusco is the Artisan’s market, which is quite literally packed to the rafters with alpaca jumpers, jewelry, traditional pottery, etc anything else you could hope to buy. It’s less full of tourists than the San Pedro market and you can haggle prices down here too.
Location of the Artisan’s market: Avenida El Sol
Practical tips for visiting Cusco’s markets
Before you head out to spend your pesos in Cusco’s different markets, there are things to keep in mind.
Tip 1: Don’t buy the first thing you see!
Especially in the markets, you will be confronted with an overwhelming number of products. In many cases, you will even find the same item in stands that are right next to each other!
Whether it’s an Andean wool sweater, fruit or cooking pans, there will never just be one stall that offers the article you desire. Take a look around the whole market before you buy, and if you don’t find anything nicer or for a lower price, return to the first place.
Bear in mind that most vendors will initially give you a high price when you ask them. This is not meant to be unfriendly – it is common in Peru to negotiate. Lay the article back down, make an unimpressed face and move on; see what the vendor in the next stand tells you.
Vendors will usually lower the price when they see you leaving the stand, or they will do so when you return, so just go for the lowest price you have heard and make the deal!
Tip 2: Watch your belongings
Due to its growing reputation as a tourist attraction in Cusco, San Pedro market, in particular, can be a very crowded place, and it’s essential to watch out for pickpockets.
It is easy to get excited about the many different and new things you will see, so you will probably want to take pictures and take in the ambience. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of this unawareness and target tourists for theft.
Keep an eye on your valuables, such as your cameras, cell phones, and briefcases. It’s easiest to carry your camera on the front of your body where you can see it, and it’s also a good idea to have a money belt or jacket with inside pockets for your money and cell phone.
Don’t take your original passport around with you, but always carry a paper copy and leave the original in your room or a safety deposit box.
Tip 3: Spend a good time browsing to see what you can find
You will be pleasantly surprised by the fact that you can practically get anything at the local markets in Cusco.
Depending on their size, the different markets will offer you a wide variety of items: San Pedro market is the biggest in the centre and has a large selection of clothes, souvenirs, kitchen and cooking supplies in addition to groceries.
San Blas market is a smaller but very charming marketplace, where you will find fruit, vegetables, and other groceries.
Wanchaq, on the other hand, is the perfect place to take a look around and mix with the locals. It offers a similar variety to San Pedro but is less touristy.
You will be surprised by all the things you can find in and around the markets that you didn’t see at first. If you are looking for something, whether it’s shoelaces, USB drives, birthday candles, Tupperware or nail polish, this is the place to be.
Tip 4: Consider hygiene when buying in the market
A little heads up: the marketplace is where the locals buy their groceries. For many travelers, visiting the local markets can be a rather surprising experience, as the various things you can buy also include raw meat.
For many locals in Cusco, it is not common to go to a supermarket and buy meat in neat, plastic wrapped boxes, but it is cut up and sold right in the market. This is not the most hygienic way to sell meat, but it is a very practical one. Don’t get too grossed out by the raw meat lying around, but we also advise extreme caution upon buying or consuming it.
This also applies to eating in the markets, where good hygiene isn’t also assured. Get tips from your accommodation or tour guide as to which stands are least likely to leave you with Delhi (or Peruvian) belly or stick to the kitchens with the busiest crowds and fastest turn over of food so you know that it’s not been sat around all day.
Tip 5: Take a bag with you
It is quite common for the locals to bring their own (reused) plastic bags. Once you have bought something in Peru, you will have your own bag to start with (although it’s fairly good practice to travel with a little bag that you can pack down anyway).
By taking you own bag along to the market, you can help keep the amount of plastic you use during your stay in Peru to a minimum.
Tip 6: Baby alpaca wool isn’t quite what you think
Most travelers in Peru want to buy one of the soft alpaca sweaters in the nice Andean design. If a merchant is offering you “baby alpaca” wool, you don’t have to imagine a poor baby alpaca shivering in the Andean cold because it has recently been sheared.
No, baby alpaca wool actually refers to the first sheer of the animal or the seasonally new hairs from the area around the neck of the animal, thought to be one of the softest spots.