Three Tips to Survive a Day at the Street Market (Without Getting Mugged)

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Buying flowers from a street vendor in Bolivia – Eva and Coco make friends quickly in the markets as everyone is fascinated by their gringo looks!

On our overland trip from Argentina to Montana, we stopped in Cochabamba, the gateway to the Bolivian Altiplano, and found out that the city hosted the largest open-air market in the Americas: “La Cancha.” This market was described to us as a crowded, chaotic, claustrophobic, and exhilarating place where you can find just about anything for sale.

The street market sprawls more than 25 hectares (61 acres) and it’s divided in sections (potatoes, fruits, costume rentals, electronics, clothing, etc) but there is no official guide on how to find what you want. The family hosting us advised not to go to the market because “9 out of 10 people there are thieves and crooks.” We did some online research and found bloggers that went to the market but didn’t post pictures because they were too afraid of bringing their cameras.  We love safety, we love our kids, but we also love to visit new places and meet new people. So, to visit the market successfully we decided that we would stick to our three rules of survival in crowded places:

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1. Before going, be aware of yourself: Dress as the locals and carry only what you really need (one ID, some cash and your phone or camera as needed) that means, leave your credit cards, passports and everything else before heading to an informal market. That way, if you get pick pocketed it will only be a funny travel tale.

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2. While there, be aware of the environment: If it’s a crowded place, it’s the perfect grounds for pick pocketers or snatchers. They will mostly try to attack in open spaces were escaping is easy, so even if you don’t like those narrow and crowded corridors and alleys, those are the safest spots for you. Open streets and corners are where you face the most risk.

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3. While there, be aware of the people: The best defense is the attack, so look at everybody around you at all times and scan for suspicious subjects. These would be people just looking at you and performing no other apparent activity.  If you find somebody is following or looking at you too much, look at them in the eye, and I mean stare at them. Most of the time a pick-pocketer will desist if he feels exposed.

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We went to the market and had an awesome time. The only way to find what you want in the massive market is by asking people for what you are looking for and walking through really narrow and crowded streets. In these places we found some of the most unique and helpful people we met in our trip so far.

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Perusing through the amazing colorful costumes for rent at the Cochabamba street fair. These are for important celebrations, and instead spending the money to buy them, the locals rent them to save money.

 

We ate bread, fresh fruit and fritters on the street; we drank natural juice from plastic bags (plastic bags are the “official” to-go container in both Bolivia and Peru); we met lots of people that fell in love with our kids, and we walked more than a mile in the market to get to the “polleras” section to get Evita a wonderful “cholita” (Bolivian lady from the countryside) skirt.

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Eva was so excited to get her very own Aymara skirt, which was custom-fit to her little frame.

We did see a Chola get her cell phone stolen right in front of us, but unfortunately could not do much about it as we had our two kids in our arms. After that, we really paid attention and noticed a sketchy guy was following us, but we stopped and looked at him for a little while and sure enough, away he went to find somebody else to bother. We were glad we didn’t let other people’s fearful stories stop us from going and experiencing the most lively and colorful street market we had ever seen!

9 comments to Three Tips to Survive a Day at the Street Market (Without Getting Mugged)

  • Lorraine  says:

    LOVE the picture of Eva and her new skirt, priceless~!!!!!

  • mervcolton  says:

    We loved that market too, and also had a few folks take interest in us. Many of the vendors keep an eye out for each other, and for the obvious tourist. As you say, give the dodgey ones a bit of a stare, and once they know they are copped, they move on.

    Nice photos!

    • Dylan  says:

      @mervcolton: Thanks, wasn’t it great! Endless rows of goodies, and you’re right, we felt very supported by the vendors :)

  • Nisa  says:

    We’re thinking of going to Equador for holiday. My husband’s from Peru–doesn’t like beaches.I like rainforests and waterfalls. Suggestions in that department? We’re a lot older than you all. Did you have a favorite place in Quito to stay? How was the safety in that area?I like going to the markets to shop and cooking. How did you all stay healthy? Did you buy water? Bring your own water purifier? Just saw your blog. May you be blessed and protected. Ciao, Nisa

    • Dylan  says:

      Hi Nisa! We absolutely loved Ecuador, it felt very safe compared to the rest of the countries we’ve been to in South America and is so beautiful. I recommend you do the loop Quito – Tena – Baños, which we did. You will go through the cloud forest and drop into the edge of the Amazon in Tena. There you can stay at Hotel La Casa Blanca which is a great hostal in Tena which is run by an Ecuadorian/American couple and has filtered water running through the pipes! They can help you book tours from there. In Baños we can recommend hostal Princesa Maria, a very nice hostal with a kitchen as well. In Baños you can do the “Ruta de Cascadas” (Route of the Waterfalls) tour and spend some time soaking in the hot spring pools. In Quito we stayed at the Traveller’s Inn, which has a kitchen, but you may want to look into hostels in the old town district with kitchens. Or try AirBnB.com which provides homestay or apartment rental opportunities for much cheaper than a hotel. We didn’t have any problems getting sick in Ecuador, the food was absolutely delicious and we ate street food everywhere. Just make sure to drink bottled water, you can buy it anywhere. Or if you want to bring a filter, I recommend this one from Sawyer because it’s lightweight: http://www.highwaterfilters.com/Sawyer-SP194-Complete-4L-Water-Purifier-System-p/sp194.htm … good luck and enjoy! Let us know if you have any more questions!

  • MoreTimeToTravel (@MoreTime2Travel)  says:

    Looks like a great market with great photos~! Sometimes taking photos makes us stick out. Any tips about that?

    • Dylan  says:

      Thanks, it was a great market! Aisles and aisles of amazing finds. When we go to places that we think are not the safest, we always bring our small point-and-shoot camera and wear it on a cord around the neck. If you wear layers such as a button-up shirt over a tank top, you can hide the camera really well. Then you just bring it out when you need it quickly. It also helps to go with a friend who can watch the crowd for you. Hope that helps!

  • KA  says:

    It amazes me that you would put your children at such risk for the sake of publicity and adventure. Fools.

    • Dylan  says:

      Thank you for your concern; our children are quite safe, arguably safer than they would be in the US with some the school, mall, and cinema shooting that have been happening recently. We do love adventure, and hope our children’s minds are expanded by the knowledge they are gaining and people they are meeting. We share our story not for publicity but because we love connecting with other like-minded people and doing our part to help others see that the world is an amazing place full of good people – and not just believe the fearful messages they hear on the news. We hope people will be inspired to follow their dreams, if they have ever dreamed of travel and living a life outside the box! If not, no need to read our blog. Fools? Maybe we are, but fools are also dreamers…

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