Going to a market is like seeing a country’s culture laid out in neat, purchasable bundles. Markets in Mexico are no exception, and Mexico has great ones. There are two main kinds: indoor mercados, which are usually open every day, and outdoor tianguis, which set up once or twice a week. Tianguis, as you might guess from the name, have been an important part of Mexican culture since Aztec times. Many Mexicans buy everything from their meat and vegetables to their appliances at markets, but you’ll also find plenty of items that might surprise you. Here are a few of them.
If you see a tiny yellow bird in a tiny wooden cage, it’s not there to test air quality, but to predict your future. Next to the cage you will see a small wooden case with dozens of slips of paper poking out of cubbies. Pay the bird’s owner 10-to-40 pesos and he or she will whistle to the canaria de la fortuna to come out of its cage, which is often brightly painted and designed like a castle. The bird will hop over to the box and pick a series of paper slips. The bird’s handler will read the slips to you and interpret their meaning. Expect to be told that you will soon have good luck, money, and relief from your health problems. Ridiculous, you say? Keep in mind that this is a venerable Mexican tradition and if you want accuracy try an astrologist/weatherman/hedge-fund manager.
Pirated media is a staple of Mexican street commerce. You’ll see it for sale everywhere you go. The stands you find in markets tend to specialize. Most will focus on new releases from Hollywood and big Mexican productions. But you can also find guys that sell only foreign films, only documentaries, only classics from the 1930s to 1960s, only “underground” and indie films, only concert films, and so on.The discs usually cost less than $4 and come in a soft plastic sleeve. The quality varies from professional grade to something somebody’s cousin recorded with an iPhone in a theater in Texas. I bought a copy of The Rum Diaries before it was even out in theaters in Mexico. During half the movie I was watching a black screen. In the subtitles for a copy of True Grit the name of Jeff Bridges’ character, Rooster, was spelled differently in every scene, from “Roger” to “Rolston” to “Rabbit.”
Your next pet
It’s fairly common in larger markets to find small caged birds for sale, or a guy with a litter of puppies. But one of the back sections of Mexico City’s massive, indoor Mercado Medellin is basically a small-animal zoo. You’ll probably notice the smell first, and then find rows of cages full of goats, rabbits, reptiles, puppies, and kittens in squirming piles. Most are cute, but some of them are intended to be taken home for purposes other than companionship.
Smart phones and laptops are everywhere in Mexico, but Mexicans — like Europeans — are much more attached to non-digital writing instruments than gringos are. Forms are always filled out by hand, on paper, and every bureaucratic process you go through seems to involve writing and mailing a physical letter to the appropriate office. So you’ll usually find one stand in each market selling everything you need to take notes, write letters, and fill out forms. Mexico doesn’t have as many all-purpose stores like CVS or Walgreens where you can buy this stuff — plus, why not stock up on pencils while you’re buying your avocados? You can get notepads, spiral-bounds notebooks, post-its, regular pencils, mechanical pencils, combination red and blue pencils, pens of every kind, Sharpies, envelopes, folders, and binders. Some stands sell only fancy roller-ball and fountain pens.
Supporting the idea that Mexican markets are like an open-air (and much more fun) version of a supermarket/convenience store, you can also find all your bathroom products here. There will be a stall that sells toilet paper in individual rolls, hair brushes, combs, bars of Ivory soap, toothbrushes, travel-size bottles of Head and Shoulders shampoo, nail clippers, compact foundation, and eyeliner pencils.
Goat-head tacos and roasted grasshoppers
Most markets have at least a few stands selling hot food. Tacos de cabeza are usually breakfast food, so get up early if you want some. Look for the taco stand with the steaming goat heads on the counter — horns may or may not be included. I always wanted to try them, but my stomach never seemed up to the challenge when I walked by the stand in my neighborhood at seven in the morning. By 11AM, when my brain and my gut were in better agreement, the skulls had been picked clean.
Chapulines — grasshoppers roasted with spices — are more of an any-time-of-day snack. You’ll find them at the stand that sells peanuts, tamarind, dried shrimp, spices, and other dried foods, all out of huge clear plastic bags. Order by the kilo. Chapulines are crunchy, nutty, and a little spicy. Mexicans have been enjoying grasshoppers since the days of the Aztecs, when the proliferous insects swarmed the hillsides around Mexico City and were revered as a symbol of water and fertility.
Mexico has an amazing herbal medicine culture that dates back to pre-Columbian times. Many markets have at least one stand selling medicinal plants and herbs, and a few markets are devoted entirely to herbolaria. The Mercado de Sonora in Mexico City’s historic center is the largest medicinal-plant market in Mexico. You can find plants from all over Mexico here, like zoapatle, which has been used since the time of the Aztecs to help with menstrual cramps and to induce abortions. (You may get shady looks if you ask for it without an explanation.) Calea zacatechichi is a plant from Sonora which people take either to relieve liver problems or to induce lucid dreaming. (In English it’s sometimes called the Dream Herb.) If you want to buy a particular medicinal herb, make sure you know what it looks like before you go to the market or you might not get what you ask for.