One thing I learned quickly after moving to Mexico is Mexico’s mercados offer more than just shopping. Whether you are in Mexico as a tourist, snowbird or Residente Permanente, shopping at your local mercado is something you really want to do. Yes, you will find low prices and a big selection of local and in-season produce, meats, seafood and such, but it is also a rich cultural experience that never gets old, with a surprise around almost every corner.
While I have always loved farmers’ markets (and have worked as manager at several in California), a Mexican mercado is quite a different experience. It is a one-stop-shopping-mecca where locals go to get their essentials, and in most cases, have been going for generations. A traditional mercado is usually open daily, while a tianguis is more like a weekly or monthly flea market, with a much more widely varied selection of stuff for sale. In more touristy areas, you will also find weekly or monthly outdoor markets (often run by expats) that are more like craft fairs, with specialty products like kombucha and herbal tinctures, live reggae or rock bands, tie-dyed clothing, etc. I love them, but that is not what we are going to talk about here.
In Oaxaca, the markets have booths with big grinders of various sizes for making herb and vegetable mixtures for moles and salsas; in San Miguel de Allende, vendors buried behind pyramids of fresh-harvested asparagus and tubs of berries stand side-by-side with tables piled with used clothing; in La Penita, the town’s central plaza is filled every Saturday with a mélange of vendors selling artisan crafts, fresh seafood and an array of locally grown beans, vegetables and fruits. It is a scenario that is repeated in Lake Chapala and Guanajuato, Chiapas and Merida, in cities, towns and states all over the country. And while each mercado in each place will have its own vibe, the bottom line is that it is a great way to learn about your food, your community and often the farmers or producers too.
Unfettered by strict rules and regulations, Mexican markets are a wild cacophony of sound, visuals and smells. The crush of humanity—dominated by the proverbial “little old ladies” shopping for their families—is matched by the sensory overload of stuff for sale, everything from things to eat and drink, to clothing, souvenirs, fresh flowers, housewares, toys and who-knows-what-else.
Many expats prefer to do the bulk of their weekly grocery shopping at their local mercado, where prices are low, freshness is paramount and personalized service is a given. Depending on where you live, you will be able to find just about everything you need. Here in Mazatlán, if I cannot find it inside one of the big mercados, chances are good that one of the shops ringing the market will have whatever it is I need. And if not, I’ll have an adventure just looking!
As you wander through aisles jampacked with stalls full of everything from baskets of fresh turmeric root to pyramids of avocados to souvenir shot glasses, you may think it is just a chaotic mess. In reality, there is usually (hah) a method to the madness. It may seem bewildering at first, but try to go with the flow and take time to explore. Eventually it will start to make sense. Produce stands may be scattered throughout the market, but butchers and seafood vendors customarily have specific areas where they are clustered together, as do panaderías—stalls selling pan dulce and other baked goods.
That leads us to an easy Spanish lesson: When you add the suffix -ría to a word, it signifies that that is what is happening there. For example, at a lonchería, lunch happens, at a pescadería, fish happens, at a cremería, you will find dairy products, at a dulcería, candy, at a frutería, fruit. Now that you know this, you will see words with that ending everywhere, and know what they mean.
Cremerías offer fresh cheeses, yogurt, crema and other dairy products, eggs (often sold by weight, not by the dozen) fresh and packaged tortillas and bags of fresh prepared nopales cactus.
Stands serving tacos, tortas and other simple, regional foods will be everywhere, capitalizing on the abundance of fresh ingredients close at hand, as are the agua fresca vendors. Others sell bulk beans, spices, dried chiles and Jamaica, fresh ginger root and cones of sweet brown piloncillo. Abarrotes stands will have canned and packaged goods, brooms, mops and cleaning supplies, pet foods and other dry goods. Produce vendors often package up the basics needed for stock: half an onion, a stick of celery, a carrot or two, an ear of corn, a handful of cilantro. (So convenient!) You will also find small trays of cut-up fruit: watermelon, papaya, jicama.
Be forewarned, though. The meat section can be unsettling. We are not accustomed to seeing whole or cut-up carcasses of cows, pigs, lambs, goats and chickens. Best to learn the Spanish words for the cuts of meat you are looking for, as usually butchers will cut to order. Meats and poultry are often sold from open-top refrigerated counters or out of coolers. Some folks will feel more comfortable buying their meats from a more traditional grocery store where it is packaged, refrigerated and maintained at a standard of cleanliness that is more familiar. I will admit that I tend to avoid the meat section, as the “smiling” pig heads and piles of legs with hoofs still attached are a little much for me.
Besides all the food, a mercado is also where you go to find local specialty products. In Durango, I found jars of canned local peaches; in Oaxaca, it was lychee season, and sellers trundled wheelbarrows full of the spiny red fruits through the crowded paths of the daily outdoor market; in San Miguel de Allende, I was thrilled to find bottles of fragrant, locally grown, fresh-pressed olive oil.
A few tips: Do bring your own shopping bags—they will make it easier to carry your purchases and cut down on plastics. Bring small bills if you can; a $500-peso note can be difficult for a small vendor to change. If possible, go early in the morning, while produce is fresh and the sun has not started to heat up yet. I reuse egg cartons; some folks bring ice packs or insulated bags to keep chicken and meats fresh.
Finding and going to the local mercado is on my list of “must-dos” wherever I go. It is a sure-fire way to learn about the area and the locals, and to snap out of a funk and bring a smile to your face. Even if you think you are just looking for a few bananas, some tomatoes and a papaya, maybe today’s the day you step out of your comfort zone and try those delicious looking caramelized sweet potatoes or a hunk of smoked marlin. Maybe your favorite frutería offers you a strange-looking fruit and you decide to go for it. (Guanabana anyone?) There’s no time like the present, and life is for living, no?