Remember the age old riddle: what’s black and white and red all over?*
That’s what Quito’s Mercado San Francisco reminded me of, claiming to be both the oldest and the youngest covered food market in arguably the world’s highest capital city (we’re accepting La Paz as “not quite official” for this, largely because it’s rude to rile up your hosts.)
But away with the superlatives and definitions. The market itself has been trading away for more than 120 years – and it’s recently received a facelift. Beneath fluorescent lights and fragrant bunched herbs, it’s a keyhole through which to glimpse 21st century Quito and its intoxicating mix of old and new.
Women wrapped in shawls with flat hats and embroidered belts sit around fixed plastic tables having brunch with their children. Plucked chickens squat on their backs, claws akimbo in the air. Tumbling red onions, fat peppers and vegetables with no name wait behind hand written labels found in markets the world over.
And stacked up with bright food behind bright blenders, San Fran has its very own juice bar. In another corner, however, lurk things I can’t find at home.
Herbal remedies, healers, and bunches of nettles between silk stemmed roses, cardboard love potions and wilting thyme.
Recommended reading: 27 Ways Food and Travel Go Together (Not just for “Foodies”)
There’s an ominous small cubicle with a makeshift shower curtain door.
“You undress in there,” Giovanny, our guide, explains. “And Rosa, the healer, will beat you with nettles.”
“The swelling, the redness, it’s said to bring out the badness from your blood. It’s pretty common for children. My parents used to bring me here.”
Another pause.From me this time.
My eyes flit across the upturned horseshoe, the coloured beads and the cardboard boxes of Mills ‘n’ Boon passion pills that cram into this unlikely space.
Giovanny again. “Would you like to try it?”
There is no pause this time. “No, thank you.”
If there’s badness in my blood, I think it’s best to leave it be.
Just beyond San Francisco, there’s a criss cross of narrow alleys called Rocafuerte. In them, live traditional sweet makers, the artist who repairs a family’s precious baby Jesus, Mickey Mouse piñatas and a gentlemen who excels in making hats.
I also found this man, who on other days in other cities would entice me in with the scent and sight of pyramids of spice, with salt crystals spilling from slouching sacks.
Today, though, I’m cautious.
Today, I’m on the lookout for nettles.
*A newspaper. Just in case you were wondering ;-)
I found Quito’s oldest market through a small tour (for two of us) called Live Quito Like A Local organised by Ecuador Specialists Metropolitan Touring.
Disclosure – we paid a reduced price to travel to Ecuador from Cardiff with KLM and Metropolitan Touring. However, as ever, as always, I remain free to write whatever I like here on the lab. Otherwise there’s just no point.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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