Pablo Neruda was spot on when he said that “Mexico is in its markets”, and just like Neruda, I could go from market to market for years, hence the length of this introduction. If you’re short on time, scroll down to the section where I review three out of Mexico’s myriad of fascinating markets.
Markets are where the metropolis of Mexico City becomes a small village. They are where you’ll hear locals and vendors throwing the kind of playful jibes that denote years of familiarity. Competitors help each other out and willingly direct you towards a neighbouring stand when they don’t have what you are looking for. It reminds me of how it was back home when I was growing up, when popping down to the local shop was a social event, a chance to catch up and hear the neighbourhood news.
It’s in my local market that I feel part of a community in this gargantuan city. It’s where the darling old couple at the deli counter tell me about their holiday and the fall that had them in the emergency room on their first day back, where the fruit and vegetable sellers ask me how my own container garden is coming along and explain how to cook and eat the things I don’t recognise; I am so grateful for these conversations that allow me to feel that I belong, here in this neighbourhood so far away from home.
Friends and family don’t get it when I try to explain the concept of markets in Mexico City. Back home we head to the centres of our towns and cities when we need to go shopping. Everything is centralised now that the smaller shops have disappeared in the wake of large chain domination. When something breaks, we throw it out and buy a new one. It’s been years since the fishmonger passed by in his van, or the weekly market set up on a Tuesday in my town and I couldn’t tell you where you would go nowadays to if you wanted to sharpen knives or mend a food processor.
Mexico’s markets in contrast, are where you’ll find the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. You’ll also find the miller, the mender, the sorcerer, the sharpener, the exorcist, the florist, the seamstress, and the carpenter.
You’ll find crafts, industrial kitchens, hummingbird feeders, piñatas, ice cream, incense, smoothies, art, clothes, music, antiques, indigenous jewellery, Star Wars figures, Polaroid cameras, spells, glassware, water features, polystyrene heads…
I am not exaggerating. Whatever you need, and most definitely do not need, you will find it in a Mexican market. There are various different types of markets in Mexico City.
A tianguis, from the Nahuatl word “”tianquiztli” with means “day market” or “harvest”, is a kind of open air, itinerant market that pops up on streets or in squares in neighbourhoods all over the city on given days of the week. This tradition has its roots in the pre-Hispanic period when these markets were the most important form of commerce. Today there are more than 1,000 tianguis in Mexico City and shopping at the one in my neighbourhood with its bright pink tarps flapping above a hive of activity, is way more fun than going to the supermarket.
Traditional “fixed markets” were created as a way of regulating the tianguis and Mexico City now has over 300 fixed markets, 80 of which are specialty markets dedicated to a diverse range of products such as gourmet food, plants, cut flowers, candy, witchcraft and more.
As such, it would be impossible for me to review all of the markets I love in Mexico City, so I have chosen three very different markets that are sure to delight any tourist.
No foodie should dream of coming to Mexico City without sampling some of the exotic produce on offer at the fascinating Mercado San Juan Ernesto Pugibet (Mercado San Juan for short). Located in the downtown Historic Centre, this gastronomic paradise started off as a pre-Hispanic tianguis. Over the centuries circumstances meant that the market changed location a number of times before settling at its present location in 1955.
Since then, the market has become the premium market for Mexico City’s top chefs and foodies alike and it’s no surprise. As well as gourmet products of the finest quality, you will also find exotic ingredients that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
As I wandered around, I was mesmerised and at times slightly nauseated at the sight of freshly slaughtered suckling pigs, plump geese and ducks, Hidalgo lambs, unskinned goats and rabbits with their socks on.
I couldn’t believe the variety of fish and shellfish on offer including percebes for a fraction of the price you would pay in Spain! I passed glistening king prawns, octopus, shark, crab, oysters, clams and countless fish I didn’t recognise before I gave into temptation and stopped off at “Puerta de Veracruz” for one of the best ceviches and tuna tartares I have ever had! They friendly fishmongers explained that the fish is brought in daily from the Gulf of Mexico, just a 5 hour drive away.
I am eternally grateful that I devoured my lunch before visiting the stands specialising in exotic products. I dubiously eyed up an array of beasties as stand owners tried to convince me of their nutritional benefits; an orgy of wriggling grubs, maguey worms, ant eggs, grasshoppers and huge chicatana flying ants from Oaxaca broken down into heads, bodies, wings and leggies like a macabre pick ‘n’ mix. Being the sort to try anything once, and owing to the fact they cost around $250 USD a kilo, I enthusiastically accepted the vendors offer of a free nibble and was pleasantly surprised by their earthiness and creaminess (I know!), with just a hint of chocolatey bitterness.
Next it was on to the exotic meat stand “El Gran Cazador” where those with strong stomachs and cold hearts (:P) can pick up lion, armadillo, crocodile and iguana meat along with their pork, chicken and beef.
If the idea of a crocodile sandwich has your mouth watering but your accommodation is without cooking facilities, do not despair! Further down the market you’ll find offshoot “La Parilla del Cazador” where you can try most of the meats and insects on sale at El Gran Cazador in a hamburger, taco or mixiote.
By now I was hungry again, and decided to play it safe by heading to “La Jersey”, a stand that has been serving the finest of national and imported cheeses and cold cut meats for over 85 years. Their European-style baguettes mix delectable cheeses with fruity jams and come with a complimentary tapa dessert of a little slice of bread with mascarpone cheese and honey.
Elsewhere in the market you’ll find an assortment of fruits and vegetables arranged in the most eye-catching displays, edible flowers and hard to find items such as fennel, okra, parsnips, Japanese garlic etc. as well as a variety of wild mushrooms at prices so accessible, they will break a foreign chef’s heart.
To try many of the same things on offer at Mercado San Juan at prices that will make your eyes water, head to Mexico City’s newest and most painfully hip market, Mercado Roma.
Opened in June 2014, Mercado Roma has quickly become the Roma neighbourhood’s top spot for people watching and being seen, as well as sampling some of Mexico’s finest gourmet products in uber trendy surroundings.
Although many of the vendors I spoke to were sick and tired of the hipster label the market is quickly acquiring, it’s hard not to notice the number of bearded, hatted and tattooed cool cats that frequent the market on weekends. But let’s focus on the products since that’s what markets are all about, isn’t it?
It’s much easier to swallow a grasshopper when it is bathed in award-winning chocolate by Que Bo!
You’ll find Japanese kobe beef, Spanish hams and tapas, French cheeses and breads, English teas and New York-style bagels alongside locally grown vegetables, fresh seafood and ethnic spices.
I stopped off at José Guadalupe for a delicious and hearty bowl of pozole, a traditional soup-dish that was once made from the meat of fallen warriors! Nowadays it’s typically made with pork and a pigs head is usually boiled in the process, adding an extra special meatiness to the broth. I’m told its one of the best hangover cures available, a claim that is attested by the number of weary revellers on a Saturday morning.
You’ll find an open-air beer garden on the top floor and I have to admit I am a big fan of the green wall and container garden you’ll find outside on the ground floor. To be honest though, I’m more of a fan of the city’s traditional markets however, it is interesting to see how the concept has been modernised and trendified in the city’s most hip neighbourhood. Visit during the week if you want to avoid the crowds!
Easily one of my favourite markets in the whole world, a visit to the Mercado de Jamaica wholesale flower market is like falling into a Monet painting (if Monet had painted a rat or two into his backdrops), and as such I’ll let the pictures do the talking in this post.
Over 1,150 stands sell over 5,000 types of flowers and plants, including a number of native Mexican species, at the most unbelievably economic prices.
In Mercado de Jamaica, 6 dozen roses will set you back less than $5 USD! You could strew your hotel room with rose petals then fill your bathtub with them for that price!
You’ll find the wackiest of arrangements, from surreal floral cartoon figures to live goldfish embellishments.
As well as wedding flowers, funeral flowers, cut flowers etc., you’ll also find a traditional market at the back where over 300 stalls sell fruit, vegetables, meat, balloons and piñatas, and dotted throughout the market you’ll find food vendors selling traditional snacks such as some of the best esquites I’ve tried so far (with a choice of spice-levels) and finger-lickin’ roast corn on the cob.
I rave about Mercado de Jamaica to every tourist I meet, since not many seem to have read about it in their guidebooks and I genuinely think it’s too surreal a sight to miss. Although fresh flowers aren’t a typical tourist purchase, the market is well worth a visit for the visual and olfactory feast that awaits you.
For anyone renting a place in Mexico City, I promise you that the temptation to fill your lodgings with flowers will be difficult to resist at these prices. I bought everything you see below for under $15 USD!
As I said in my introduction, it would be impossible for me to review every market in Mexico City. Markets play such an intrinsic part in daily life here, that no matter which ones you chose to visit during your trip, you are guaranteed to receive a unique insight into the culture of the city and the lives of its residents. The only downside is that shopping will never be quite the same again once you get home.