Mexican markets never cease to amaze me, you really can find just about anything under the sun in one of them. They're a wonderful mix of colorful displays, noise, delicious aromas one minute and gut-wrenching stench the next. The Valle de Oaxaca is home to any number of local markets catering to both city and rural populations. There are 3 primary markets in the city of Oaxaca and an indigenous market nearly every day of the week in some area of the valley. I recently had the opportunity to visit 4 of the local markets, below are my impressions
TLACOLULA (Sunday Market)
Tlacolula is located about 35-40 minutes south east of Oaxaca and can be reached by taxi or bus. This is an indigenous market and Anglo faces are few and far between. Leave valuables in your hotel room, car or tour bus. Slash and dash happens with some regularity here, so don't make yourself a target. And ask before taking pictures.
The market spills out from the main cathedral over several plazas and streets. Heaps of freshly baked breads and rolls anchor one end of the market and the aroma permeates the surrounding area. The bread makes a tasty snack while strolling through the rest of the market. The usual suspects are all there - butchers displaying every piece of a recently slaughtered animal, just picked vegetables neatly displayed, chiles in every size shape and color, cocoa and coffee beans in various stages of ripeness and roast, furniture, clothing and the CD vendors with 1 copy each of 2,000+ latin singing sensations. The central part of the market is devoted to the fondas, small stalls selling food. Most of the fondas were well patronized, and small children could be seen darting in and out balancing trays delivering orders to vendors in other areas of the market. Santiation in the fondas ranged from dismal to marginally okay, but are probably not a good choice for a non-local.
Zapotec ladies selling chapulines and tejate are everywhere. Chapulines are dried grasshoppers and kind of a crispy treat. Once you get past the American revulsion to eating dried bugs, they aren't half bad. Tejate is a chocolate/maize based drink that is beaten and frothed by hand, poured back and forth from gourd to gourd, but not usually made with purified water. Tasty, though a drink is probably at your own risk.
OCOTLAN (Friday Market)
Ocotlan is located about 35-40 minutes southwest from Oaxaca City. It is a larger market than Tlacolula and covers more ground. Like Tlacolula it is mostly indigenous, tho' you will most likely see more Mestizo and Anglo faces. The selection of fruits and vegetables was considerably larger and the quality better, although the quality at Tlacolula was very good. And because it was the week before Dia de los Muertos, there were flowers. Flowers of every color size and shape dominated one end of the market as families were beginning preparations for the holiday. There were large displays of dishware (plastic or metal), plastics of every kind, leatherwork, briddles and saddles, lacquered gourds. Food stands were scattered through out the market and offered everything from chapulines to fried fish.
Once again, it is best to leave valuables in a safe place, this market is also close quarters and pickpocketing not uncommon. Ask before taking pictures. Many vendors wanted anywhere from 20 pesos (about $1.75) to 100 pesos (nearly $10) for a picture. A few were willing to be photographed in exchange for getting a copy of the photo. Several said we could photograph their wares (such as flowers) but not them. Interestingly enough, the vendors in the enclosed part of the market wanted nothing for a picture. The enclosed market is where the daily/established vendors set up, and they are extremely proud of their products. The fondas in this part of the market are very clean and probably a safer bet for a quick taco or two.
There are murals in a few of the municipal buildings fronting the plaza that the market surrounds that really are worth taking a quick peek at. The style is more primitive than Diego Rivera but depicts life in Ocotlan.
Of the 2 indigenous markets, I preferred Octolan only because it was less claustrophobic and I felt less like an outsider.
20 DE NOVIEMBRE
The 20 de Noviembre market is located in Oaxaca a couple of blocks off the main Zocalo. It covers 2 city blocks. The first building is devoted to fruits, vegetables, glassware, cookware, plastics, etc. Also located in this building is the Chaquita neive stand. Made with purified water and in an assortment of exotic flavors, Chaquita offers a refreshing opprotunity for a break while shopping. The 2nd building houses most of the fondas. Sip a hot chocolate and nibble on a pan de yema at La Abuelita and get the morning off to a great start. While breaking no new ground, I have always found the vendors here helpful and friendly. If they think you have money they won't bargain too much. The atmosphere is relaxed and less hectic. Small street stands surround the market adding to the choices.
MERCADO DE ABASTOS
Located on the southwest part of the city, Abastos is huge and sells just about everything imaginable. I'd always been here on off days, but this trip I had the chance to visit Abastos on the Saturday before Dia de los Muertos. I'm convinced that everyone in the city of Oaxaca also had the same idea. This market was jammed packed with kids, parents, grandparents, dogs, vendors, tourists, bikes, bums and cops.
There were spectacular adobe earthenware pots, green glazed and some of them lead free, on the outer edges of the market. The food vendors, located in the central part of the market and around the parimeter, were doing brisk business. This is a good place to buy chiles, especially the smoked Pasilla Oaxaqueno. The price will not be cheap, about $200 pesos for 1 kilo, but the quality is good. Chile vendors are located about midway in the market in 2 aisles that are devoted primarily to chiles. There is also a pretty good canela vendor in this area too.
Need your hair cut or styled? You can find a tiny beauty shop (no more than 8'x8') tucked in behind the Mayor Domo chocolate stand and one selling colorful woven baskets. It isn't what Abastos has to offer so much........it's got more of everything, lots more. It's the energy/synergy of the market that really sets it apart. The pace is fast, the selection vast with pretty much everything in your face demanding attention, and it all feeds on itself generating an eclectic and electric atmosphere. There is too much to see, too much to taste and too much to smell in one trip. It is possible to OD and suffer sensory overload in the Abastos. For the person with a connection to food, more than 1 day may be needed to do it justice.
For those of us old enough to remember, there was a lyric from Alice's Restaurant that went something like this - You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant. That's kind of the way it is at the mercados in Oaxaca.