Mexico’s Market Growth

Mexico City offers clients a taste of the unusual

By: Patricia Alisau

The Jacuzzi at the Hilton Los Cabos overlooks the ocean.
The Witch's Market offers the magical
and esoteric; as well as herbs and spices.
Street markets are as Mexican as tequila or chilaquiles, dating back to the Aztecs when Mexico City had the largest in the country. Whenever I want a taste of the simple life in Mexico away from all the high-rise hotels and sparkly malls, I head to the city’s markets. They’re entertaining, free and provide a nice opportunity to mix with the locals. The following are a few favorites in Mexico City.

The Witch’s Market
Traditional healers and practitioners of white and black magic draw people here to the Sonora Market, also known as the “Witch’s Market,” one of the oldest and most popular, located in the barrio of La Merced.

Dona Hortensia, squatting on the ground at the entrance, greeted me with a pleasant, “How can I serve you?” surrounded by bundles of flowers wrapped in old newspapers and a basket of eggs. A village woman of indeterminate age with gray braids said the eggs were for eating or for limpias (psychic cleansings) and the arnica flowers were good for aches and pains by drinking them in a tea. This was no spur-of-the-moment remedy, but a time-honored cure used by pre-Hispanic healers before modern drugs came into use. Sonora Market is famous for its herbalists, spread throughout one wing of the compound.

I smiled, thanked her and moved inside to a stall manned by Don Hugo, a wizened-looking Indian of 70, whose constant good humor has drawn customers to him for the past 40 years. Roots of prickly pear cactus crammed next to sacks of dried herbs doubled as his pharmacy as he dispensed them to his regulars. Most stalls carried strings of garlic, a sort of generic catch-all for anything that ails you.

Need a job? A fortune? Want to banish your enemy? Get rid of a hex? Deeper into the market, I came across Santeria, powders, salves, candles and tarot card readings for $10 a shot. This was the twilight zone of magic and the esoteric. Voodoo dolls sat next to strings of Christian rosaries and small images of a drug lord that people revere as a saint. Love potion No. 9? No problema.

Upscale on Saturdays
This Saks Fifth Avenue of Mexican markets is where actors Peter O’Toole, Liza Minnelli and Richard Nixon have shopped. Located in the upscale San Angel neighborhood, it’s only open on Saturdays. This is where artisans bring their one-of-a-kind pieces to sell in a lovely, two-story 17th-century house overlooking a park. Businessman Ignacio Romero founded the Bazar in 1960 as a protest against tacky Mexican souvenirs being sold in department stores.

“I wanted to show handicrafts that were in good taste,” he said.

He started with 12 artists, many unknown at the time, who have since climbed to fame. Many still come from the city’s prestigious art schools like San Carlos and Esmeralda.

When the market first opened, some of the neophyte ceramists were invited by Pablo Picasso, Romero’s uncle, to compete in France, and they walked off with first, second and third places. Besides ceramics, visitors can browse museum-quality popular art, jewelry made from amber, turquoise and other semi-precious stones, hand-tooled leather, hand-blown glass, shawls, miniatures, lamps, dolls and various hand-painted items. Fledging artists also spread their paintings along the park sidewalks every Saturday, hoping to attract buyers. Make sure to get there early, as the Bazar tends to get crowded by noon.

Silver and Gold
What once was a neighborhood hangout with fruit and vegetable stands has become a jewelry market where gold and silver is sold by the gram. A Pink Zone landmark for at least half a century, you won’t find the fine designs of Tane, Mexico’s most prestigious silver store, here, but, instead, a good selection of first-rate items from Zacatecas and Oaxaca.

Most, however, are mass-produced silver pieces from Taxco with the occasional original design by master silversmiths like the Castillo brothers. You can also shop for handicrafts like colorful wall hangings, embroidered dresses and blouses and miniature figures brought in from the states surrounding Mexico City.

This is the second Image
The Antiques Bazzar offers an
eclectic array of items.
Antiques Bazaar
If you happen to shop the Insurgentes Market on weekends, you can cross the street to browse antiques when dealers display their goods from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Spread on the floor and in hallways of a shops area, much of the merchandise looks like junk from auntie’s attic, but the discerning eye will be able to pick out the treasures.

One of the longtime collectors told me that the best guarantee of finding the genuine article was to know your antiques. Some of the most outstanding I discovered on my visit were decorative pieces from Mexico’s colonial era, Art Deco from France, dishware from occupied Japan, old cameras and various books on Mexican history.

With the exception of the Sonora, most sellers speak some English. Take a translator if you’re headed to the Witch’s Market.

And don’t forget to bargain at each of the markets. It’s expected of you and one of the oldest traditions in Mexico.

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