A Country of Markets

| March 31, 2011

Jorge Luis Borges wrote that the best way to know Mexico was through its markets. Although this can be said for most countries, in the case of Mexico, this is especially true.  Markets in Mexico remain essentially unchanged since pre-Hispanic times. A good example of this is the tianguis. Tianguis (from the word tianquiztli in Nahuatl, which means marketplace or harvest) are open air markets that are set up in cities, towns and neighborhoods all over Mexico. In pre-Hispanic times these markets were the most important form of commerce. Producers and merchants exchanged goods and services in these centers that were set up certain days of the week in predetermined places.

Some of these centers became so important that towns were established around them. That’s the case of Santiago Tianguistenco (at the edge of the market in Nahuatl) where one of the most important markets of the Toluca valley was established.


The most important market of the Great Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was Tlatelolco. This market served to one fifth of the 400,000 inhabitants of the city. This market was set up and taken down every day of the week and it became so important and large that it had its own governing body that included a panel of judges that resolved local disputes.

After the Spanish conquista, the system of markets remained largely untouched. Street markets were set up in different towns and neighborhoods on certain days where the population obtained goods and provisions from merchants and producers. This system is still in use today all over Mexico.


Mexico City with a population of roughly 8 million people has countless tianguis that are set up in every neighborhood on different days of the week. Tuesdays and Saturdays are the most popular tianguis days. Some of the largest tianguis take over important avenues that are closed to car traffic during that market day. Some can be as long as 1 or 2 kilometers and every single one of them attracts big crowds.

But this type of market is not the only one in Mexico. The most important markets are the established ones that are now regulated by local authorities. In Mexico City these markets are called Mi Mercado (my market) and each one of the 16 boroughs has several of them.

Mi Mercado

Mi Mercado markets still are some of the most important commerce centers at the local level in many neighborhoods in Mexico City. Housewives, local small restaurants and food stands get their products at these established markets. Personally, these are my favorite markets.

Mercado San Juan in downtown Mexico is one of the oldest established markets of the city. It has all kinds of specialized and rare ingredients from all over the world. There are a couple of vendors that sell artisan Mexican cheese and wine. Last time I was there I had a cheese tasting that left me speechless.


However, my favorite market so far has been Xochimilco market. Xochimilco is a southern borough of the city, but it’s a world of amazement all by itself. It was (and still is) such an important place that it deserves not only one, but a series of articles (I would even dare to say a series of books).  Xochimilco market is not one, but two markets with several rows of street vendors in between.

You can find all kinds of pre-Hispanic ingredients like nopales, quelites, corn of different colors and flavors, amaranth, peppers, beans, etc. The array of prepared food goes from the typical (chicken soup) to the bizarre (pork snout, ear, cheek and eye tacos). Dried chiles and peppers, moles of all colors and flavors and seasonal fruit fill every row making this market a photographer’s and foodie’s paradise. Words cannot describe the experience of walking through the aisles of this market.

Tlaoyos and Pork Tacos

Even though the market in Xochimilco is big, that is not the biggest one of the city. Markets like La Merced, Jamaica and Central de Abasto are behemoths in comparison.

The most important market in Mexico is Central de Abasto, one of the largest wholesale markets in the world. The numbers for this market are breathtaking starting with its size, 328 hectares. 25,000 tons of fresh produce is traded daily. It has an average of 300,000 visitors and 55,000 delivery vehicles a day. It employs 70,000 people and the annual turnover is 9 billion USD.

Central de Abasto

This market is the backbone of food distribution of the country. Most merchants from smaller markets and tianguis get their produce here. So do most convenience stores and restaurants of the city and metropolitan area. 80% of all the products sold at Central de Abasto are destined to this area of the country.

Markets in Mexico involved much more than food. A friend of mine from Ohio who lived in Mexico for over a year says that there’s a market for everything. From clothes markets to technology and computer plazas, there’s a market for all your needs. When Christmas time comes around a long market sets up in downtown where you can find all kinds of Christmas decorations and toys. And on Epiphany’s eve, January 5th, big toy markets set up all around the city where parents can buy toys for their kids’ lists written to the Three Magi.

Wood Toys

These are only some of the markets in Mexico City. Every state has its own version of tianguis and markets. Some of them are dedicated solely to selling and specific product, leather shoes and coats, wood furniture and toys, specialized foods, ice cream, bread, local produce, etc.

Borges was right, if you want to know this magic country, you have to do it through its markets.

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Category: Featured Articles: Travel & Culture, Mexico, Lat & South America, Travel & Culture

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  1. A Country of Markets | Lloyd Real Estate Puerto Vallarta | October 15, 2012
  1. Sommer says:

    These sort of markets are a feast for the senses! Love the color of those grapes!

  2. I love going to markets, there’s so much to see!

  3. Christine says:

    These markets are so beautiful with the bright and vivid colors of the produce. I’d love to make my way to Mexico City sometime to check out these markets myself.

  4. sweetlife says:

    I love the mexico markets, very fond memeories of spending weekends with my grandmother there browsing, thanks for sharing!!


  5. Great shots of these markets, thanks for sharing this!

  6. Devaki says:

    I LOVE the similarities between the old world markets world over! They all have that exciting and sense maddening quality that makes them so very special….this one reminds me of so many places. Love it!

    chow! Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

  7. Some really wonderful market pictures. I love those wood toys.

  8. Simply Life says:

    oh what fun pictures!

  9. Amanda says:

    Beautiful post, Ben. You had me at the red grapes photo! x

  10. rebecca says:

    great market love markets and often visit them when traveling

  11. Belinda says:

    STUNNING photos, but what I love is how you share the history of these markets. Thanks for sharing such fascinating information – you really bring these markets to life.

  12. Patty says:

    Hi Ben! Welcome to Zomppa! I wanted to let you know that I truly enjoyed this piece of yours – I found it extremely informative and very well written. Your photos are gorgeous and beautifully illustrate Mexico’s rich food heritage and culture.

  13. Tsering says:

    ZomppaBen…exquisite photos! Your photos captured the vibrance and feel of the market…thank you for sharing…I look forward to your writing and learning more about Mexican cuisines!

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