Mercado Oriental: Central America’s Largest – and Scariest – Outdoor Market

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This afternoon we went to the Mercado Oriental, which is the largest outdoor market in Central America.  To prepare us for the trip, we were asked to leave watches, any jewelry, and not to bring our cameras.  We were told numerous stories about the market, all of which included the word “dangerous” (and one of them included the words “duct tape.”)  Someone looked up Lonely Planet’s description of it, and it referred to the Mercado as “the heart of darkness of Managua…to be avoided at all costs…only for those on reality suicide shows.”  Splendid.

We arrived at the Mercado through an unassuming street with no inviting fanfare.  The road was dusty and embedded with petrified garbage.  A fruit stand marked our entrance into the market, followed by 30 or 40 more.  It was crowded and the boundaries between venders, walkways, customers, product, and stands blurred endlessly.  I saw a girl slip on a banana peel. Really.

The produce section eventually gave way to the home appliances section, which gave way to the clothing section.  Some how in between we passed weight loss tonics and machetes of the usual sort.  This is Walmart before Walmart.  You can get literally everything imaginable at reduced prices in one space and it seemed to employ all of Nicaragua.

Some section we were in gave way to the meat section.  There were tables of cow parts laid out for display.  Children took naps on the tables adjacent to the meat.  Wait, let me be clearer.  Children took naps on the same tables as the meat, a few inches from flank steaks and mutton and underneath what looked like hanging bacon.  A table of cow eyes stared back at me in disbelief.  A woman stood behind her table, bent at the waist, head fully buried in what looked like cow shoulder, taking a nap.  I said hello to a man who was patiently removing the last remnants of flesh from a cow’s skull.

Mari walked up to me, eyes concentrated elsewhere, and whispered, “I think the guy in the white shirt is chasing us.  I’ll watch him.” Promptly, she walked off, eyes still fixed a couple of rows beyond us.  And with Mari electing herself security monitor and apparently offering her protection, I was able to feel completely safe in the Oriental Mercado and take in my surroundings.

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