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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!