If travel is for fun and casual exploration is what you’re after, then a great way to save money when traveling is to restrict your visits to restaurants. Choose instead to visit local markets and grocery stores, purchasing fresh ingredients to create your own meals. If you’re traveling abroad, visiting local markets and grocery stores should be part of your explorations, anyway. They’re fascinating.
Traveling in Latin America and Asia, open markets (what we might call a farmers’ market in the States) are found in almost every community. This is the place where farmers and vendors sell their goods in open stalls with very little overhead.
Buy a few chunks of an unfamiliar cheese, maybe some locally prepared specialty item, and a bottle of regional wine or beer. Local baked goods are always different from what you’ll find back home, so grab some bread or rolls. Your choices in a grocery store or an open marketplace will be much greater than those found on any menu. Check out new and exotic fruits and toss in a few veggies. You can pull together some great meals and save at least half of what you’d likely spend in a restaurant. You can even take the leftovers back to your hotel.
One of my favorite markets is in the tiny fishing and farming community of San Vicente on Ecuador’s northern coast. The farmers and fishermen arrive early, before the sun. The potatoes, freshly dug, are still covered in dirt. The shrimp are the length of my hand and were caught the night before. Large chickens are displayed alongside recently butchered beef quarters. Bins filled with newly caught fish are tended by the very fishermen who pulled in the catch, each offering you to smell the freshness of their wares.
In Cancun, one of the local markets also has several small restaurants. Gina’s has become a favorite. Her family comes from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula where cochinita pibil is a common dish. Slow-simmered pork is cooked for hours with local spices. I like mine inside a warm corn tortilla topped with a slice of fresh avocado, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and a bit of spicy salsa. While some prefer a cold juice to wash it down, I prefer an icy-cold Mexican beer.
And don’t ignore street food vendors. They happen to be my personal favorite whenever and wherever I travel. The food is always good and cheap.
In Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, an old woman slowly roasts a large, seasoned pork loin each night while she sleeps. Her wood-fired oven both smokes and roasts this meat so that it is so tender, it falls apart with the touch of a fork. In the morning, her son places his mother into the front of his bicycle pedi-cart and stops at a local bakery for a large bag of fresh rolls before delivering her to her small sidewalk business. She opens for business at around 10 a.m., by which time a line has already formed. She slices and chops the pork loin, placing each generous serving onto a roll and garnishing with her own pickled onion and special sauce. She usually sells out before noon. The cost? $1. I was a regular customer.
So if you want to eat better while you’re traveling, experience a country’s food the way the locals do, and save money at the same time, make sure you visit the markets and the street vendors wherever you go.