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The markets of Mexico City can be daunting if you’re not sure what to do or how to behave, and that goes double if you don’t speak Spanish! Huge, sprawling complexes that often have both indoor and outdoor elements, Mexico City’s markets can be both bewildering and fascinating, especially for the first-time visitor. With that in mind, here are the best tips and tricks for exploring Mexico City’s markets.
The use of small bills and loose change in Mexico is much more prevalent than many countries, this being especially true if you decide to visit one of its traditional markets. Basically, make sure you’ve broken your MXN$500 note before you try and purchase anything, or if you do want to spend one, use it only on large purchases of around MXN$250 and above. If not, you’ll either get flat out rejected or be on the receiving end of some pretty exasperated stares as the vendor rummages for change.
This is especially useful in markets that don’t cater to a foreign crowd, but even in more tourist-friendly markets, you should really attempt at least the basics, such as ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘how much does this cost?’. Let’s be honest, it’s just plain polite to learn the language before traveling to a foreign country, and having a minimal grasp on Spanish will also help you haggle, as well as prevent you from being ripped off by vendors who’ll happily exploit your lack of language skills. Bet you’re wishing you’d paid attention in Spanish class right about now…
Rare is the occasion when you can only find one stall selling a particular product, so browsing is your best friend when visiting a Mexican market. This will allow you to find out the different price points that the vendors offer you, as well as see the true range on offer. Like that blouse? There might well be a much nicer (and cheaper) one around the corner! This tip works equally as well in both food and souvenir markets, as vendors compete for your custom.
Somewhat tied into the previous point is the ‘take it slow’ approach to browsing these markets. For one, you’ll get to see the range of products on offer, and two, you get more time to find your bearings, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the experience of visiting a traditional Mexican market. Sure, if you shop regularly at Mexican markets, feel free to get in and out as soon as possible, but if you’re a first-time visitor, what’s the rush?
If possible, you should visit markets in Mexico with a local friend or acquaintance. The benefits to this are threefold; they likely know more than you do about the best food stalls to grab lunch at, they’ll probably have a more finely tuned idea about how much things should cost and they can help you with the language if your skills are lacking. (The latter two points are crucial if you want to avoid getting ripped off, too.) Also, while you can definitely visit a market alone, most things are more fun with a companion!
Markets can often be prime pickpocketing territory and so you should take some time to be aware of your surroundings. For example, Mexico City’s La Merced market connects to the infamous Tepito, so it’s easy to accidentally find yourself in somewhere you don’t want to be. However, being aware of your surroundings doesn’t just imply watching out for thieves, but also checking your own behavior too. Mexican markets are busy and crowded, so don’t just stop in the middle of the aisle and hold up everyone behind you!
This is related to the previous point, as carrying only what you need (money, phone, keys and water, for example) will help make you less of a target for pickpocketing. If you’re struggling around the place with a huge rucksack or handbag, it’s easier to mislay items and possibly not even notice immediately if they’re missing. Also, as previously mentioned, these places are crowded. Nobody will be overly pleased if you’re waddling around the place with everything you own on your back, taking up valuable space.
Markets are often beautiful, messy, imperfect and more than worthy of a photograph or three, but always be sure to ask before you take photos, especially if you want to include the vendor in your picture. Not only is it polite, but it ensures you won’t get an angry scowl or a request to delete the picture afterwards, either. If you want to really get the seller on your side, it’s also advisable to make a purchase before snapping that perfect pic. Keep an eye out for ‘no photography’ signs too, which are more common in tourist-heavy markets.
Haggling is a contentious topic and many warn against it, especially as the ten peso price difference you’re arguing over might not actually be that much to you, but quite a lot to the seller you’re buying from. However, that’s not to say that haggling cannot and should not be done, because if you never bargain you will inevitably get horribly ripped off at some point. Our advice is to only haggle on higher priced, souvenir-type products, rather than fresh food items. Plus, if a price seems high, simply walk away and the vendor will often give you a new, lower value.
Many – in fact, most – Mexican markets are all about the food and so you shouldn’t be afraid to dive head first into the world of market cuisine. While some people are afraid of eating street food or snacks from market stalls, the truth is that this will very rarely make you ill and there are some basic ‘checks’ you can run to assess whether or not to eat at a place; if there are plenty of people there, and they seem local, excellent! Furthermore, if the vendors are cooking to order and have a source of fresh, running water, you’re good to go.