Lima’s markets are a window to its stomach and soul. Easily accessible, a market visit is an instant deep dive the culture while getting schooled on Peru’s biodiversity and cuisine. A showcase for jaw dropping variety of seafood, corn, potatoes and chiles, it’s also a fun way to interact with locals. Topping the list is the grandaddy of fish markets – Villa Maria – which rivals Tokyo’s Tsukiji in size.
Terminal Pesquero de Villa Maria del Triunfo (Villa Maria Fish Market)
The place at 5 am is a frenzied war zone of glistening scales, writhing tentacles; shouting auctioneers, bidders from supermarket chains, chefs and home cooks; careening carts, sprinting delivery men in blue aprons wheeling boxes or piles of fish on metal barrows. Sigh….it’s thrilling.
The seafood terminal is the size of an aircraft hangar, with over a thousand workers selling, weighing, packing, transporting and filleting at over a hundred stalls. Be here by 5.30 am at the latest. Transactions are fast and furious, and it’s all over around 8 am. Only a half hour’s car ride north, it’s a must-see.
This Mecca of seafood showcases Peru’s cuisine, the giddy variety, quantity and quality, the growing industry and its workers. The scale of fish passing through is amazing not only because of rich yields brought by the Humboldt currents but also the demand for it.
Villa Maria is the largest fish distribution center in Peru, perhaps Latin America, with sales exceeding 120 tons and $780 million annually. The organized chaos starts at 4 am, when the trucks traveling overnight from coast and river docks arrive and sellers set up their displays, bidding stands, weighing stations and cashiers.
And Peruvian’s sense of fun is hilarious- the guys and girls whose job is only to butcher fish could repartee in mime as to whose knife was the longest therefore who was the most macho. In contrast, stall holders reasonably enough want you out of their face during peak hours.
However, Villa Maria is not set up for tourists, and workers won’t make way for you. Crowds will jostle and delivery men with heavy wheelbarrows will push past you unapologetically to meet shops’ and restaurants’ demands for speed. At the very least wear sturdy shoes and a light water resistant jacket to avoid soaking feet and fishy smelling clothes. If you relish the push-and-shove conditions, it’s an amazing showcase for most of Peru’s 200 commercial varieties of fresh and saltwater fish, some of them anthropological marvels.
The best quality fish I saw in April and May was the sweet-fleshed lenguado (a type of thick-bodied sole) and corvina, which are among the most popular for ceviche and tiradito. Other excellent and delicate fish included mero (a type of grouper), cachema (a kind of sea trout), bonito, and caballa (chub mackerel). There were even tuna and swordfish the size of small kayaks.
Some species you’ll see here have been fished since pre-historic times, including the truly ugly carachama with its sucker mouth and mud-colored, shell-like exoskeleton used for soups (photo below right), chita, used for deep frying, and the popular but overfished cojinova. There were fewer but still plenty of shellfish (scallops, mussels and oysters), octopus and squid. There was also a basketful of fat piranha, mouths bristling with razor sharp teeth.
While major chains and restaurants shop here, most stalls sell to individuals. If you’re lucky enough to have a kitchen or a friend with one in Lima, don’t miss buying some of the cheapest and freshest fish for ceviche. If you buy the whole fish, you could pay as little 60 soles, US$11, a kilo for a top-notch sole, or 35 soles, US$6 per kilo for garoupa. I saw some small scallops and mussels for as little as 16 soles/kilo, or US$5, and pre-cooked octopus for 20 soles/kilo.
After an hour’s poking around, José and I selected some clams and scallops and a two-pound cachema for our lunch. The gorgeous pink-fleshed trout passed the freshness test. Shiny skin, firm flesh, reddish pink gills, clear eyes and smelled fresh as an ocean breeze (when made into tiradito was silky, delicate and flavorsome). We took it to the massive filleting tent to get it cleaned and deboned for a measly 2 soles, about fifty US cents. This saved us tons of effort and time and was as fun to watch as a circus. The filleting ten, just next to the main entrance, was hugely entertaining.
Over 120 knife-wielding fishmongers labor at gutting and filleting mountains of fish at about 40 stainless steel stations. There was more flashing steel than in a three musketeers movie, the uniformed men and women working with the intense focus necessary to wield such sharp blades. These guys are FAST and furious. I timed one cleaning, skinning and filleting a two-and-a-half foot dorado in less than 34 seconds. And he didn’t even slow down at the end of a basket of about forty fish.
The rhythmic flaying, disemboweling, deboning and beheading is oddly graceful and hypnotic. They only pause to sharpen their knives, then it’s back to the grind. I must’ve been a pain, disrupting their work by sticking the camera right in their faces and they humored me with with eyebrow wagging charm. A hefty gentleman struck a comic pose, with his razor sharp knife, and female colleague mused aloud that he likened the size of his equipment to his manhood. The whole place burst into gales of laughter.
José and I wandered round for a bit more but by 7.30 am the market was winding down. As I took my last few photos, a vendor selling piles of seaweed and decorative shells grinned at me, suddenly picked up a large conch shell on display and trumpeted out a long forlorn note. It was a cool send off at one of the most awesome and memorable markets in Latin America.
Pescadores Artisenales de la Caleta Chorrillos (Chorillos Fishermen’s Market)
Visit for the amazing seabirds and for a cautionary tale of overfishing and climate change. Once a flourishing market, there’s a dreary and deserted feel to the place. I went twice over a period of a week, and the catch both times was exceedingly poor, and the fishermen looked as gloomy as the overcast skies.
The small-boat fishermen who bring their catch here and sell directly to locals are highly impacted as they fish close to the shore. There was only two small stalls open both times I visited and the fish were few and undersized.
“It’s El Niño,” a fisherman who sold us a small 1-1/2 pound sea bass said. This, 2015, is the first year of the new cycle, but even so the catch has been worse than expected. Anchovy numbers have suffered the most severe drop in Peru, devastated by rampant quota cheating, with a knock on effect on bigger fish and marine annimals that feed on them.
The irony is most of the catch goes overseas (rather than benefit this country, which suffers one of the highest rates of child malnutrition) to contribute to making 30% of the world’s ground salmon meal. The anchovy catch fell 70% in November 2014 from the prior year.
Here in Chorrillos, the numbers of tourists and local clientele have also fallen away, as they prefer to shop at the larger market at the port of Callao, about 45 minutes’ north. Gloomy fishermen sat at almost empty tables in deserted halls.
The only sign of frantic activity were the squabbling, mooching pelicans and fearless Incan terns (the species stays close to the Humboldt current, and has a lovely with dark grey body, white moustache and red-orange beak and feet, on left, with a stolen sardine).
The birds alone are worth the visit. The Pelicans are fearless professional moochers and it’s hilarious how the large creatures edge close to the catch, imagining they have an invisibility cloak, and dramatically swarm the cleaning stations to pick up fish entrails.
Surquillo Mercado Uno and Surquillo Mercado Dos
Surquillo Mercado Uno (Market 1) and Mercado Dos (Market 2) – two separate areas about five minutes apart by taxi, are easily accessible from any part of central Lima. The better of the two is Surquillo Mercado Dos. And one of its star attractions is the larger-than-life Rosita and her famous fish stall and cebecheria. A real pro with a great sense of fun, she’s the de facto Godmother of the community and threw her support behind market tour guide José when he began his business.
The beaming lady was a wealth of information on how to use the different fish, shellfish and octopus, having been in the fish and restaurant business for decades, and is the embodiment of generosity. I wanted to try the highly seasonal and hard to find delicacy – black clams. Not only did she give us a few freebies, she also tossed in a baggie of her secret mojo fish stock for our tacu tacu sauce.
Tickled by my googly eyes over the amazing freshness, variety and cheapness of the seafood at her stall, Rosita went to her freezer and pulled out a massive parrotfish to pose for my camera.
Also try out some local food stalls at Surquillo Mercado Dos. Scout out other cebicherias but note – they only open for lunch as the cardinal rule is freshness. Here, you’ll also find some dirt cheap Chifa and Criollo stalls serving pre-cooked home-style dishes good for a quick sample.
Surquillo Uno has a few decent fruit and veg stalls and is a convenient 15-20 minutes’ walking distance to Parque Kennedy. It’s good for a quick drop-in to scout local produce. Depending on the season, there’s some cheap and exotic stuff for sale – among them whole cocoa fruit, passionfruit and soursop.
There’s a variety for veg, and a wide array of the famed aji (chillies) in rainbow colors including the most popular amber colored aji amarillio and fire engine red (for a good reason – spicy!!!!) aji rocoto. Checkout the crazy colors and varieties of potatoes and corn.
Go crazy over the cheap quinoa and chia seeds. There are also some interesting cheese stores selling fresh queso and local olives. But I wouldn’t recommend buying the nuts, dried fruit or smoked meats as they didn’t seem of very good quality.