Visitors can often meet the artists at their studios. // © 2017 Mark Rogers
Feature image (above): Local shops specialize in handmade items, such as these burro pots. // © 2017 Mark Rogers
Years ago, before airlines began charging fees for extra baggage, it was common to hear the advice, “Buy a cheap suitcase during your trip, so you can fill it with all the stuff you buy.”
Well, it’s time to revive that line of thinking if heading anywhere near the crafts town of Tonala, Mexico. It’s in Tonala where much of the crafts are created that go on sale throughout the country, from Cancun to Los Cabos. Basically, think of Tonala as a town that embodies the phrase, “I can get it for you wholesale.”
The easiest way to visit Tonala is to make Guadalajara your base. Tonala lies about 10 miles south of the city, and a one-way taxi ride to Tonala costs only about $7. Travelers who may be hesitant to strike out on their own can join a range of organized bus tours to Tonala departing from Guadalajara.
There are options to overnight in Tonala — and perhaps the most dedicated shoppers would jump at the chance — but most travelers will be more comfortable in Guadalajara. If clients have their heart set on accommodations in Tonala, however, Hotel Hacienda del Sol has a good reputation, reasonable rates and a location in the heart of the retail action.
If your clients have flexibility in their schedule, they should visit Tonala on either a Thursday or Sunday. This is when the craftspeople set up stalls in the town’s zocalo (city square) and surrounding streets, and clients can browse the stalls and buy directly from the artisans. Not only will visitors get the best price available, they’ll have the added pleasure of meeting the people who create the wide range of crafts and curios on display. These include works in clay, glass and steel; weavings; paintings; metalwork; ceramics; and practically anything else that can be imagined.
While some pieces are bulky, it’s also possible to buy crafts that will fit in your suitcase. For example, on a recent visit I bought some tin pieces and woven place mats that were beautiful and easy to pack. Prices were about half of what I would pay in stores throughout Mexico, and 20 percent of what I’d pay in the U.S. for similar items.
I toured Tonala on a Friday, so I missed the town’s street fair. Even so, after a full day exploring the local shops, I felt as though I had only scratched the surface. In most cases, sellers would take me from their shops into their actual workshops, where I could observe workers packing up shipments or putting the finishing touches on a creation. These workshops were also great places to find interesting pieces that weren’t displayed on the store’s shelves. Without exception, the sellers were friendly, and none of them gave me the hard sell.
Probably the easiest way to explore Tonala is to use the zocalo as your center, then go a few blocks in all directions to explore the surrounding stores. The zocalo also has a slew of low-priced, open-air eateries where travelers can dine on traditional fare such as birria, tamales and roasted corn, in an atmosphere rich with local color.