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April 19, 2022

The Oldest Market in Quito and the Stinging Nettle Surprise

Quito's markets shine a spotlight onto her traditions, customs and the kaleidoscope of daily life. But the Mercado San Francisco near the Old Town has a secret of its own...

Ecuador - Quito - buying a traditional souvenirs in Ecuador

A guide to the markets of Quito and what to buy in Ecuador

The Markets of Quito

You'll find a market for every occasion in the high altitude city of Quito. Here, we talk about the different Quito markets as well as what to buy in Ecuador. Let's go.

Ecuador - Quito - Mercado San Francisco Shoppers

Shopping in the oldest market in Quito

The Oldest Market in Quito

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.

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 mix of old and new.

Ecuador - Quito - Old Town - Mercado San Francisco Family dining area

Tradition & Innovation

Women sit around fixed plastic tables having brunch with their children, wrapped in shawls, with embroidered belts and characteristic flat hats. Plucked chickens squat on their backs, claws in the air. Tumbling red onions, fat peppers and vegetables with no name wait behind hand written labels found in markets the world over.

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.

Ecuador - Quito - Old Town - Mercado San Francisco Medicina Ancestral

Traditional medicines in Quito's San Francisco Market

Healing remedies in Quito's Markets


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.”

“Stinging nettles?”

“Yes.”

Pause.

“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.”

My eyes flit across the upturned horseshoe, the coloured beads and the passion pills that cram into this unlikely space.

Giovanny asks 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.

Ecuador - Quito - Old Town - shopping on the streets

Shopping in Quito: a social occasion

THE ALLEYS OF ROCAFUERTE

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.

Ecuador - Quito - Old Town - plates of fruit and vegetables for sale

More Quito Markets and recommended places to shop

You don't have to limit yourself to Quito's oldest market. Here are some other great places to shop in Quito.

  • Mariscal Artisanal Market - a great place for handicrafts and souvenir hunting.
  • Tianguez - a craft shop museum in Plaza de San Francisco, part of the Sinchi Sacha not-for-profit foundation.
  • Parque El Ejido Market - the third largest park in the city also hosts craft markets for the first three Wednesdays of every month.
  • Otavalo market - one of the largest indigenous markets in South America, it's actually outside Quito but worth a day trip.
  • Mitad del Mundo shops - also not in Quito, but many tours stop by the Mitad del Mundo monument to the equator. 
  • Iñaquito Market - a bustling, real fresh food, dairy and poultry market. One of the best markets in Quito to visit.
  • Calle de la Ronda - boutique shops aimed at foreign visitors in the heart of the Old Town. Full of colour and joy.
Ecuador - Quito - buying a traditional souvenirs in Ecuador - a mask

Shop for handmade artisanal gifts in Quito, Ecuador

What to buy in Ecuador

When it comes to shopping in Ecuador, you can find a wealth of beautiful and fun souvenirs. Here are the top recommendations for Ecuador souvenirs:

Ecuador - Quito - spinning tops Ecuador souvenirs

Spinning tops: popular souvenirs from Ecuador

Spinning Tops

Relive that childhood sense of joy with the colourful painted spinning tops found across Ecuador. Hand-crafted from wood, they're a good, old fashioned treat for the kids at home.

Chocolate

Rumoured to be the best chocolate producers in the world, it would be a crime not to at least the theory out. You will find chocolate, well, everywhere but look out for the Pacari Chocolate brand from Quito.

  • To-ak chocolate bars have been sold at 260 dollars per piece. Now that is some goooood chocolate!

Coffee

Colombia may be the first word on people's lips when they think about coffee, but Ecuador shouldn't be far behind. The country grows and exports both Arabica and Robusta beans, from diverse regions across the country. 

Ecuador - Quito - Old Town - Collaciones sweets to buy in Ecuador

Collaciones - making sweets in the Old Town in Quito

Collaciones

A favourite on Simon Bolivar street in Quito, collaciones or collations are handmade sweets made with peanuts or almonds. They blend sugar, lemon essence and a secret ingredient to make a moreish sweet treat. Originally made for Christmas, you can now munch on these sweets all year round.

Ecuador - Quito - Old Town - Mercado San Francisco Medicinal Herbs

Plenty of medicinal herbs to choose from...

Traditional Healing Remedies

Hm. Well, I leave this up to you! Suffice to say, you will find a wide, wide range of alternative medicine and herbal treatments when shopping in Ecuador. 

Ponchos

For a traditional souvenir from Ecuador, shop for a poncho in Otavalo market You need to be a little organised, the market is only open on Saturdays, but if you go, you will also find a range of other traditional products like hats, espadrilles, jewellery and clay handicrafts. 

Ecuador - Quito - buying a traditional hat as a souvenir

Hats. A big deal in Ecuador...

Traditional hats

Hats are big business in Ecuador and the people who make them are considered to be skilled craftsmen. The traditional flat hat that you see people wear in the streets is made from toquilla straw. Look out for more colourful ribboned hats as well, made for special occasions. 

Rondadores

These reed-based musical instruments are often also called pan pipes or zampoña and they make for a wonderful, soothing souvenir from Ecuador.

Fabric dolls

Made in bright and brilliant colours, these sweet fabric dolls make for wonderful gifts for people back home when you find yourself wondering what to buy in Ecuador.

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. 

Ecuador - Quito - Old Town - shopping on the street sacks of spices and bark for sale

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About the author

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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  1. Very good depiction of your experiences there! And what experiences indeed! I think I might have tried the stinging nettle thing, mostly out of pure curiosity and it would make a great story. I sure would be nervous though. :)

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