Mexico City markets are a vital part of life in Mexico’s capital. Like mini-ecosystems in their own right, the markets pique all of your senses: cinnamon and chili spice the air, colorful piñatas and rainbows of fresh produce fill the aisles, shouts from vendors calling, “Cutie, queen, my love, what can we get you?” ring out and the tastes of freshly cooked street foods keep you coming back for more.
While los mercados are integral to the city and are definitely a place that tourists will want to experience, they can also be intimidating to new visitors. Forbes Travel Guide caught up with food blogger and “culinary concierge” Anais Martínez, also known as The Curious Mexican, to get her top tips on exploring the markets.
“The first thing is to have a closed bag,” Martínez says. Making sure you wear your bag across your body with your possessions safe inside means that you can enjoy the market without thinking about them again. “If you really need to take out [your phone and wallet], just take them out, use them and then put them back in.”
It is also important to stay alert in the narrow aisles of the busy markets. “The people in the market have their own language, usually either yelling or whistling,” Martínez says. The sounds aren’t always loud. Workers are often passing through, carrying huge loads and making noises to alert people that they are coming through. “Even if they want to stop, sometimes they can’t, so try to move out of the way,” she says.
When you want to buy something, Martínez says to “try not to show too much interest when there aren’t any prices, and that way you will get a better price.” She doesn’t recommend haggling, though, as sellers will usually throw in a little extra to your purchase anyway.
When taking photos in the market, Martínez says that you must always ask first, “just as a courtesy, even if you are taking a photo of the produce.”
And don’t come in flip-flops, Martínez advises. The floors of the market are not always the cleanest, so closed-toed shoes are best.
Where to Start
There are more than 300 different markets in Mexico City, so where to begin? Martínez recommends stopping first at San Juan Market downtown, a small, easy-to-navigate mercado that she describes as “the Mexican Whole Foods.”
What was once known as an exotic meat market now offers tastings of Mexican cheeses, edible flowers and even insects, alongside some rather upscale market eateries.
When to Go
Most markets in the city are only open until about 4 or 5 p.m., so lunchtime is a good bet. However, if you want to shop later in the day, Martínez suggests checking out Mercado Jamaica (her favorite city market), a 24-hour venue with a vast selection of fresh flowers.
It’s also a great spot to visit during Day of the Dead, when families stop in to buy huge bundles of cempasúchil (marigolds) and bright red cockscomb to decorate the graves of their loved ones. The sweet and pungent smell of the blooms perfumes the breeze in those first days of November.
How to Handle the Language Barrier
If you don’t speak Spanish, Martínez recommends that you try to learn the basics like good morning (“buenos días”) and how much (“Cuánto cuesta?”)? “Usually people are really nice and will help you,” she says. Vendors also will try to assist by writing down the cost, so don’t worry if your Spanish numbers are a little rusty.
How to Pick the Best Place to Eat
Those on a food tour can rest assured that each stand has been tried and tested, and the guides have relationships with the merchants.
But when heading solo to the markets, Martínez has a great mantra for picking where to graze: “the bigger the pot, the better the place.” If the stand is popular, it will need bigger pots and a larger comal (hot plate) to produce enough food for the turnover. Translation: if it’s selling a lot, it must be good.
Her favorite market indulgence is tlacoyos (a bean-stuffed corn cake), but raspados (shaved ice), she says, are best avoided because you can’t always trust the freshness of the water used to make the ice.