I step inside, taking a reprieve from the hot mid-day sun, joining a sea of local women donned in colorful dresses, their hair braided with vibrantly colored ribbons reaching down to their waist. I hear vendors call out “pan! Aguacate! Barbacoa! Tlacoya!” and I can’t help but smile to myself. The wafting aroma of freshly toasted cacao fills the air as I turn a corner and immediately smell something different…this time it’s fresh chilis. Is it pasilla or ancho? I’m mesmerized by the elder women who appear to be in their 90’s, sitting on the cement floor kneading a giant cauldron of fresh dough with bare hands, which will turn into the delicious vessel of food that we lovingly know as tortillas. I walk slowly, taking it all in, feeling energized and excited, and am suddenly snapped from my trance when I turn a corner and am nearly run over by a cart filled with live fluffy yellow chirping chicks. I am in a traditional market in Oaxaca, and it is divine.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling, is visit markets, as it’s one of the most interesting glimpses into the local culture. Markets are a huge part of daily life in Oaxaca, and there are a plethora to choose from in this amazing foodie city and state! By the way, Oaxaca is both a city and a state.
If you’ll be visiting Oaxaca, be sure to also check out my other blog posts:
A few things to keep in mind when visiting the markets:
- Because many of the markets are crowded, it is recommended to wear your purse or backpack on your front
- Always ask before taking photos
- All prices are negotiable
- Carry small change and coins, as some vendors may not be able to break a 500 peso bill ($25 USD) – this is considered a large bill in Mexico
1. CENTRAL ABASTOS MARKET
This is the largest market in the entire state, located an 18-minute walk just outside of the city center, selling everything from clothing to local produce and food stalls. The video below will give you an idea of what to expect when walking through the narrow stalls of this giant maze of a market. I found it to be quite a sensory overload!
2. RAYON POCHOTE ORGANIC MARKET
This is not so much a market, rather a place to eat food from a variety of three different food stalls on site. You’ll sit at a table and a mesero / mesera (server) will come take your order. You can select from a large menu, which has all items from all three restaurants on site.
3. MERCADO BENITO JUAREZ (city center)
4. MERCADO 20 DE NOVIEMBRE (city center)
5. TLACOLULA SUNDAY MARKET
What a fascinating experience this was! Even through our cubrebocas (face masks), we could smell all the delightful aromas. This market runs every day, but quadruples its size on Sundays from 7AM – 7PM where locals come from around the area to sell their wares. We did not see a single other tourist, as all were local from the region. This small village is located about 50 minutes Southeast of Oaxaca city center, so I recommend pairing this with a visit to Teotitlan del Valle and Don Agave for the mezcal tasting tour, as they’re all located in the same area.
While there are a few craft stalls, this is mostly a local’s food market because there is no large central grocery store in this village. You’ll see baby chicks and live chickens, along with turkeys, bound by their legs (this was a sad sight for me to see, but that’s because I wasn’t raised on a farm where selling live animals like this is common.) I appreciate that this is part of their culture and how they feed themselves.
While there is a mixture of both men and women shopping at this market, you’ll see mostly women picking up the food for the week, nearly all dressed in colorful traditional garb.
If you’re a vegan or have a weak stomach, this market may not be for you, because in addition to live animals being bound by their legs and sold on the street, you’ll also see raw meats hanging from ropes strung across stalls.
As you walk by the open rounded clay ovens, feel the heat from the open fire as you smell the mouthwatering barbacoa. Be sure to try traditional street food such as Tlacoya, an open-faced tortilla smothered in beans with quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), prepared over a large heated caldera.
Tejate is a frothy, chalky-looking beverage made from ground maiz (corn) and cacao, and looks a bit like plaster of Paris. 😂
You’ll also see stands after stands of various chilis, fresh produce, and chapulines (grasshoppers)!!
Cacao is also native to this region, which is the delicious fruit from which chocolate is made! Another popular item is chicharrón (fried pork rinds) and chorizo.
And of course, barbacoa (barbecue) is the main smell, usually consisting of puerco (pork meat) or carne de res (beef).
6. TEOTITLAN DEL VALLE
This is a traditional rug weaving village, filled with shops selling wool rugs, purses and other crafts along a dirt road, mostly frequented by donkeys and motorcycle buggies.
I highly recommend visiting this village, whether you’re looking to purchase something or not, because you’ll learn all about the traditional process of making a wool rug.
**FUN FACT**: Prior to the Spaniards arriving with sheep, rugs used to be made from the fibers of the agave plant, from which mezcal is made!
In this video you can see a Zapotec woman in the process of making a rug. Rugs can take anywhere from one week to 5 months to complete, depending on the size, colors used, and complexity of the design. This made me appreciate traditional woven rugs so much more!
Sasha and I have been looking for a wool rug for our home for about a year now, so we had fun hopping from store to store checking out all the different designs. (Because these rugs are not made in factories; they’re all by hand, each store sells different rugs and designs, and each one is unique.) After about 12 stores, we finally found the one we were looking for!
The dyes they use are all natural and derived from plants. They do not use any chemicals in the dying process.
It’s quite the laborious process, which makes sense why they are so expensive (rugs range from $100 – $4,000 + USD depending on the size). Their fingers have to be so dextrous!
So there you have it! Six incredible markets to visit whilst in Oaxaca to soak up all the unique culture, regional food, and people.
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