You’re studying at the ICO, and you’ve taken one of our cooking classes. You’re pumped to try out your new-found knowledge. What’s next? Go shopping and immerse yourself in Oaxaca’s market culture.
Almost anything can be purchased at Oaxaca’s many markets, from furniture and handicrafts to fruits, vegetables and prepared food. Food, both raw and prepared, has a fixed price, but buying any sort of artisan good requires careful bargaining. (In shops, these goods also have fixed prices.) In general, the more expensive or more unique the item, the more you can bargain. For a pair of shoes, you might talk a price of 130 pesos down to 115, but you might get a 450-peso leather briefcase for less than 400. Always remember: the point of bargaining isn’t to win, or to get the best possible price. The point instead, is twofold: you want to reach a price that both buyer and seller find acceptable. Even more importantly, the point is to have a social interaction between buyer and seller, investing the transaction with human warmth (and giving you a chance to practice the Spanish that you are learning at the ICO).
Food: neighborhood markets
Most Oaxacans prefer not to buy most food in supermarkets, instead shopping multiple times a week – or even daily – in one of dozens of neighborhood markets. Even the smallest neighborhood market has stands selling fruit; vegetables; meat (chicken and beef are usually sold at different stands); cheese; bread; spices, seeds, and dried goods from beans to pet food; and a variety of miscelaneas that sell packaged goods like yogurt, milk, and crackers. Neighborhood markets also generally have at least one juice stand that sells freshly-made juices (try a jugo verde with celery and cucumber) and licuados, at least one comedor selling cheap, delicious food, and at least one or two vendors selling tamales from a basket or steamer. Many also sell chapulines (grasshoppers), dried shrimp and fish from the isthmus, and other local and regional specialties.
heirloom tomatoes in Sánchez Pascuas market
photo (c) Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, 2011
chapulines sold near the entrance of 20 de Noviembre
photo (c) Ron Gurantz, 2008
Crafts: Mercado de Artesanías, Plaza Labastida
Two of the best places to shop for crafts are at the Mercado de Artesanías (at the corner of Zaragoza and J.P. Garcia, 2 blocks west and 4 blocks south of the Zócalo) and at the outdoor market at Plaza Labastida, off Alcalá just south of Santo Domingo. Popular crafts include embroidered huipiles (blouses) and dresses (and pillows, purses, and anything else you can dream of) from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; alebrijes (wooden animals painted in intricate, bright designs) from San Martín Tilcajete; black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec; woven rugs from Teotitlán del Valle and Santa Ana del Valle; and many others.
The centrally located Mercado 20 de Noviembre also contains a lot of handicrafts, especially leather goods like briefcases, purses, and shoes.
Even better than shopping in markets is to travel to the artisan villages where the goods are made, if you are looking for something in particular, and to see the workshops and buy directly from the producers.
alebrijes (wooden animals) in Plaza Labastida
photo (c) Ron Gurantz, 2008
painted clay handicrafts (probably from Nahuatl-speaking regions of Guerrero state) at the Tlacolula market
photo (c) Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, 2008
Future posts will explore some of Oaxaca’s largest permanent markets as well as some of the weekly tianguis in and around the city.