"I went to the supermarket today and burst into tears!", wrote my friend Dottie, having returned to Colorado after a year in Mexico. "Everything is wrapped in plastic. There are no smells of fruits or vegetables or flowers. The avocados are as hard as rocks. I miss the real thing!"
The 'real thing' she missed was el mercado, the traditional shopping venue for many Mexicans. In Mexico City neighborhoods, the tall red and green Mi Mercado sign is a familiar sight, and although statistics show that more and more suburban Mexicans are shopping in American style supermarkets, the traditional market thrives in the city.
The Mexican mercado has a long tradition. At the Museo de Antropología a diorama of a pre-Hispanic market looks remarkably like what you see today. In the Palacio Nacional, Diego Rivera’s panoramic mural shows an Aztec mercado with a butcher offering a human arm for sale—other than that, it’s still pretty much the same. Beans, squash, avocados, metates for grinding corn and molcajetes for grinding chilies, ceramic pots, baskets and woven mats are just a few of the things that connect today’s Mexican market to its Aztec predecessor.
Most market stalls are individual, family-run businesses, so there’s the intimate feel of a village in the mercado. You can still ask for 'un aguacate para hoy', a recommendation for the best melon, or get a free apple as a pilón (an extra gift). Vendors beseech you with '¿Que va a llevar?' or '¿Que le damos, marchanta?' and there's a chatty, bustling feel to the proceedings. A roaming guitar player is usually nearby to provide the soundtrack.
My favorite market in Mexico City is the Mercado Jamaica, located a few miles south of the Zócalo. It has all the variety of the much larger La Merced in the centro, slightly scaled down—but without the crowds. I take visitors here even if we’re not shopping for food—the exuberant colors and lively atmosphere make it a fascinating destination.
What makes the Jamaica market special is that, aside from the mountains of produce, it's also the city's wholesale flower market (they also sell retail at prices that will astound you.) You'll see bundles of fragrant nardos, piles of mutli-hued roses (whose petals can be bought by the kilo), armloads of gaudy gladiolas, exotic heliconias and lots more, on display.
There are formal arrangements for all occasions from baptisms to funerals. Some florists seem to have learned their craft at military school, with flowers standing at full attention. Others appear to take their clues from Frida Kahlo's surrealistic paintings, and might include apples, plastic baby dolls or even live goldfish.
Holidays are a great time to visit the Jamaica market. During Semana Santa, before Day of the Dead, Mothers’ Day or Valentine’s Day the sheer quantity of flowers is dazzling. And if you happen to need a bouquet at 4 in the morning, it’s the place to go—the market is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Wandering through the market you'll also find baskets, ceramics, tinware, fantastic costumes for children, and even an beauty parlor run by a pair of transvestites. There are great food stalls in the market as well. many of them specializing in huaraches, a corn-based antojito (snack) with a variety of toppings. And this market is one of the rare places where you can sample tepache, a traditional drink made of lightly fermented pineapple juice.
A visit to the Mercado Jamaica is much more than just a trip to the supermarket--it's time travel to a pre-industrial world, a microcosm of life in Mexico, exuberant, colorful...alive!
Getting there: The #9 metro line stops at ‘Jamaica’ and there’s a taxi sitio behind the flower market.