November 16, 2015

Shopping at Mercados Is Not Necessarily a Panacea for Going Local in Cuenca Ecuador

You want to save money on your grocery shopping.  That's a good goal.  Surprisingly or not, fruits and vegetables in the regular grocery stores of Cuenca, whether its Supermaxi or Coral Hypermercado are inexpensive when purchased in season.  Often times it’s simply not worth the trip or the effort of traipsing through Feria Libre or any other outdoor Mercado to save a literal buck.
 

I know, I know, this coming from Frank and Angie, but we’ve written about this before on our blog.  In our Cuenca Ecuador Landing Guide as far back as 2012, we mention prices for many things being better priced at the regular grocery stores than at the local Mercados.
 
Quote from the DIY Cuenca Landing Guide

For example we haven’t been to Feria Libre in almost two months and our grocery bill is the same. We wrote an article a couple years ago about how we stopped going to Feria Libre as often because many of the fruits and vegetables, especially the vegetables that we use for cooking are just as, or almost as cheap at Coral Centro as they are at Feria Libre when in season!

You have to understand that this is because we’re the gringo and they just up the price on us, no amount of negotiating is going to make the price cheaper than what they think the gringo should have it for…but at the grocery store THE PRICES ARE ALREADY FIXED! Do you understand what we’re saying here?

Quoted taken from DIY Cuenca Landing Guide

Well that was then, nowadays, we just understand what’s in season and buy that at fixed prices.  We rarely go to Feria Libre outdoor Mercado anymore; it’s just not worth it.  Why?  We’ve noticed prices steadily going up (for the gringo) at Feria Libre, which by the way, is supposed to be the cheapest Mercado in Cuenca, and so we have (almost) stopped shopping at Feria Libre.
 

How long that will last remains to be seen but let us just say that it’s a consequence of living in touristville“Touristville” is the latest word we’ve coined, besides “getting gringoed”.  Tourists are great for local business people but they are a scourge for those that are local residents, whether nationals or foreigners.
 

We need to rethink our strategies folks.  Up north we’re used to buying whatever is at the store at any time of year.  Because the food there is trucked all the way across the country from California or Florida, and imported from Mexico, etc. There is a little bit of seasonality but mostly things are available year round. Well here too except that we need to get used to the seasons being upside down so we need to pay attention.
 

For example when onions are not in season the price doubles at Coral Centro but at Feria Libre outdoor Mercado they triple. Our response?  We buy very few onions if any when they’re not in season. We concentrate on garlic instead, as it seems to keep its price, which is fixed at the stores. 

You know for years now we’ve been bringing you the lowdown on the real skinny of what it’s like on the ground "living like a local", not a year round tourist in a make believe place like touristville Cuenca Ecuador, which the locals refer to the entire city as “gringolandia”.  And part of that has been to shop at outdoor Mercados like the locals do. 

Back to prices at the Mercado:  Just in case some of these vendors think they can start charging the locals these kind of ridiculous prices then it’s simply not good for the local market if prices continue to get more and more expensive for them. Now you know.

Back to the touristville and gringolandias of the world being a scourge on the local residents, whether nationals or foreigners:  here’s something we noticed in Panama city, which we’ve referred to previously as a destination that is well matured in its touristvillness, and gringolandianess.
 

This might shock some people eh?  The local Panamanians on the street don’t smile.  They seem stressed and unhappy.  And this was confirmed with a conversation with a teller that divulged to us that previously to 2002, (keep this date in mind) it was easy for her to live well on her standard salary per month, but after that year its been getting steadily harder and more difficult to live on her $600 a month wages.  But…–her words—“Thanks to God the creator he’s watching over my family” and they are surviving".
 

Central Americans are normally a gregarious people and Panamanians in particular are much more so than Ecuadorians.  Most Panamanian taxi drivers easily engage with me in interesting conversations that we both enjoy. But generally speaking you can see the stress in the Panama City people and many will just come out and tell you that “life is hard”.  Meaning they can barely make ends meet.  Unsurprisingly life is not as hard for those that cater to foreigners in their businesses.
 

Source: DIY Cuenca Ecuador Landing Guide
 

More Ways to Save Money Grocery Shopping
in Cuenca Ecuador

We practice every one of these five things to save on grocery shopping and as you can see from our cost of living budget for five adult people, our grocery bill is not that high!

1. Buy fruits and vegetables in Season
.  There are always a variety of produce that is in season at certain times of the year. You’ll know some of what is in season by the price. For example prices of Ecuador potatoes come down considerably during harvest time as well as other hot weather vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, avocados, etc. In Cuenca this time of year is coming up soon or is here now. Remember, summer here is wintertime in North America.

A quick note: if you don’t think it is worth noting the seasonal price changes then how are you going to think it is worth haggling and rejecting gringo prices on a regular basis at outdoor mercados?
 

2.  Buy the “whole food” rather than the canned or boxed version. Your grocery bill will go down by 75% by doing this. Prepared, frozen and packaged foods not only cost up to 75% more but are unhealthy! Examples: whole potatoes instead of boxed potato flakes; whole apples instead of canned applesauce; whole mushrooms instead of canned mushrooms, etc.
 

3. Buy local brands instead of imported. Local brands (usually) are grown and manufactured and packaged somewhere in the Ecuador, and the prices reflect that.  Again, you can save as much as 50% on your grocery bill by buying the local Ecuadorian brands. You’re helping out the small Ecuadorian farmer by buying their Quinoa instead of Quinoa from let’s say, Peru, where it costs twice much.


TIP: Bring your reading glasses because some of those food labels have really small print. 

Local brands are usually healthier than the imports because they have less chemicals and preservatives. We used to buy the local peanut butter at Coral but they started adding some other ingredients to it other than peanuts, so now we just make our own PB. Making your own peanut butter is really easy and only takes two ingredients, the peanuts, which are grown in Ecuador, and oil. 

Raw peanuts before roasting - grown and bought in Cuenca
4. Buy Meat at the Grocery Store:  We have never bought our meat or cheese at Feria Libre or any outdoor Mercado in Cuenca. You've probably noticed when walking through the meat aisles it smells, there’s flies, and the food is just sitting out all day long. Now, from what I've learned growing up, meat cannot sit outside of the refrigerator for more than an hour or so, especially chicken. That means they are putting preservatives on the meat to keep it from rotting. Yuck!
 

Mercados standards are just not acceptable, especially from a health standpoint. We’re not telling anyone what to do, just giving you our two cents. Even though we buy many food items at Supermaxi and Coral Hypermercado, our grocery bill is still low because we save in all the other areas we talk about in this article and pay attention to seasonal price fluctuations, meaning we notice when the item is not in seasons and the price is higher, and well, we don’t buy it.
 

FYI: Frugality is not always about buying the cheapest; most people know this concept. We’re frugal, yes, but we also care about our health; it’s worth more to us than saving a few bucks at Feria Libre.
 

Amazingly, we have found the best meat prices at Supermaxi.  They have the best prices on ground meat and some of the chicken in all of Cuenca!! And, it doesn’t smell, it’s not sitting out collecting flies; it is packaged real nice and refrigerated! We’re not big meat eaters anyway, but when we buy meat, Supermaxi is where we buy it.
 

5.  On Wednesdays Supermaxi takes 15 to 20% off all produce and on Fridays they discount 15% to 20% off all meats; so taking advantage of these two days can save even more on your grocery bill each month!  

There are now four Supermaxi stores located throughout the city of Cuenca and the recently built one is off of Don Bosco.
 

Until we write again…
 

If you liked this article, we’re sure you’ll like these ones too.
We're an Expat Family of Five, Living Frugal, Healthy and Happy Abroad. We live in Cuenca, Ecuador and travel the Ecuador coast whenever we get a chance. We just adventured throughout the country of Panama for five weeks! Come along and enjoy some of our experiences with us!

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