Chilean poet Pablo Neruda famously wrote in his memoirs that he “went from market to market for years, because Mexico is in its markets.” The country’s capital boasts more than 300 markets, of which the Mercado de la Merced is one of the most well known and popular. Located east of the historic center of Mexico City, La Merced is still the largest traditional retail market in the city, and is also one of the oldest.
The neighborhood of La Merced and its market have long formed a commercial hub for the city. During the early colonial period, traders would travel from far and wide to do business in the area. In the 1860s, a permanent market was built on the grounds of the monastery that had once dominated the area. By the 20th century, the market was the largest wholesaler in the country, providing goods to shopkeepers and market vendors throughout Mexico City. In the 1960s, the Central de Abastos took its place as the major wholesaler, but La Merced remains the largest traditional market in the city.
Today, the market is split into seven different zones, each offering different products or foods. The largest building is dedicated to fruits and vegetables, and you’ll find white onions stacked high next to mountains of avocados. The rest of the market is like a rummage sale that has gotten out of hand. Here you’ll find an infinity of goods, from birthday decorations to juicers to neon-lit statues of the Virgin Mary.
Outside of the market building you’ll find a tianguis, or market, that continues up the narrow streets leading to the main plaza. Here you’ll find off-brand clothing, watches, and toys, among other products.
La Merced is also renowned for its street antojitos, or snacks. Here, you’ll find almost every kind of Mexican food imaginable, from tortas to tostadas, elote, and enchiladas.
The principle of “the more packed the booth, the better the food” works as a general rule when you are picking where to eat. The caldo de gallina, or hen stew, is a particular specialty, as are the tacos, which are sometimes topped with French fries.
More adventurous eaters will be keen to know that vendors also sell fried insects, including grasshoppers, ants, and worms.
La Merced can be difficult to navigate and tour guides have started offering trips through the market. Eat Mexico offer a market tour that last four hours and includes sampling some of the best fresh tacos and antojitos at the market. The tour is a good option for travelers who want to learn more about Mexican culinary culture or feel intimidated by tackling the bustling market by themselves. Its layout can be very confusing and for travelers without fluent Spanish, a local guide can be really helpful.