A Peek Inside the Massive San Pedro Market in Peru
A good market is a magical thing. The colors, sounds and smells can make you fall in love with a place faster than the sappiest Meg Ryan rom-com makes you fall in love with Tom Hanks. And Mercado Central de San Pedro in Peru’s ancient Incan capital, Cusco, is the Sleepless in Seattle of markets.
Mercado Central is the beating heart of the city, packed with food stalls and vendors selling everything from fresh sugar cane to hand-made sausage, as the sounds of pan flute punctuate the murmur of busy streets. While you’re getting swept up in the marvels of Cusco’s market culture, at some point you may find yourself wondering something like: is that a bag of bile? And the answer is usually: yes. So, to help you break down San Pedro market’s overwhelming array of vendors, we’ve put together this handy visual guide to everything from salted and dried alpaca to herbs used in ancient shaman rituals. Don’t worry, we got you.
Cholona de Alpaca
These dehydrated slabs may look like salted cod, but they’re actually salted and dried alpaca. You’ll see vendors using a candle to individually dry each piece of the meat by hand. And, in case you’re wondering, yes, alpaca is delicious.
Queso de Chancho
If you’re a head cheese person, you’ve found yourself in the right place. This local style head cheese known as queso de chancho, which can be found at vendors throughout the market, is sliced to order, making all your head cheese dreams come true.
South America is home to some ridiculously good fruit. While you may be accustomed to the bright pink Pitahaya, or dragon fruit, the yellow variety (bottom right) found in Peru is a must try. We’re also loving the local cactus fruit (middle) know as tuna, which is often mixed with pisco.
Throughout the market you’ll find people selling Andean herbs, plants and powders used traditionally by shamans, like this one.
Coca Leaf Candy
Altitude sickness in Cusco is a very real struggle. To fight it, locals often chew on coca leaves. But if you don’t want to chew on a bitter-tasting, mouth-numbing leaf, there is an endless supply of coca leaf-laced candies that can help you overcome the whole oxygen is-too-thin-at-this-level-for-some-people thing.
At San Pedro market, everything from suckling pigs to chickens are sold whole and left out on the counter, so if you’re going to get squeamish about your food looking at you, prepare yourself emotionally.
Flor de Jamaica
You’ll spot lots of amazing dried items at San Pedro, but the candied hibiscus flowers with their tart-yet-sweet flavor are far and away the tastiest ones.
Frogs (and Frog Smoothies)
In Peru, frogs are believed to increase sex drive. Often they’ll be blended up into a frog smoothie, known as jugo de rana. We dare you to try it.
While these pretty, sprinkle-covered pastries may look like the Peruvian take on Pop Tarts, they don’t have any filling in them—just layers of leafy pastry. But we’re totally fine with that.
Sacks of Roe (and Lake Algae)
This fresh, bright orange roe is sold in little piles or hung in sacks, often alongside fresh soft cheese and lake algae.
It’s common to find moms bringing their kids to work at the market with them. When they’re very young, they’re often strapped to their mom’s back—just straight chilling like this dude.
Not to be confused with one of over 2,000 potato varieties found in Peru, these Andean tubers can be identified by their dark lines and bulbous, turmeric-like shape.
All of the Animal Parts
Cusco locals use literally every single part of the animal. Butchers here tend to be women, like this badass lady who knows exactly how to break down a giant cow like a pro, even with a baby strapped to her.
You’ll find this honeycomb-looking stuff in bowls throughout the meaty corners of the market. Here, cow stomach linings are used in a variety of soups, like the delicious, marvellously spicy cau cau stew.
Everything can be made into something delicious in Cusco, even these bull skulls, which are transformed into caldo de cabeza, otherwise known as “head soup.”
Pile o’ Snouts
No caption necessary.
This purple corn is the star in the classic Peruvian drink, chicha morada: a mixture of spices, sugar and purple corn.