Oaxaca is known for its both its artisans and local foods. Its brilliantly colored wood carvings are much sought after by visitors. These carvings can really range in quality and in price. A general rule of shopping when you have many choices in similar items is not to purchase the first one that you see just because you like it. With so many of the similar items available, competition is high for your peso. Shop around.
Perhaps you will return to the original item but chances are your interest will be perked by something else if you continue looking. Oaxaca is also known for black pottery. As with any craft it usually is quite a bit cheaper in its town of origin and the markets in Oaxaca are excellent places to shop for this type of pottery.
The black pottery is both beautiful and inexpensive. I purchased a large black pot for only $10 American. However, in my other travels in other cities in Mexico the prices for this pottery were marked up over 20 times the price I paid for it in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is also known for its its colorful and intricately designed rugs.
There are many many markets located in the central part of town but the largest and most diverse in products is the Mercado de Abastos located about 8 or 9 blocks southwest of the main zocalo. This may sound like quite a ways but if you are in reasonable physical shape you should be able to walk this distance within 15 or 20 minutes. If you walk fast you can make it in 10 minutes. One hint about getting from one place to the other in Oaxaca; if you are in a hurry walk on the side of the streets. Many of the streets are one way and you can avoid the dense ever present crowds on the sidewalks.
This market is located near an extremely busy intersection near the Ayotac river (which is an ecological disaster – more about that later!). This crowded intersection is also needless to say, quite polluted. You are constantly hit by heavy fumes which are always in the air from the incessant traffic. At first glance the market appears to be in a state of chaos. People are running around wheeling vegetables and other goods, loaded buses are spewing gasoline fumes everywhere, and there is a general state of excitement.
Once you actually walk into the market things begin to calm down a little. Goods are arranged in different stalls. The vegetable and fruit sections seem to stretch for miles. You could easily spend half a day in this area, but I only recommend this if you really like produce. Some of the more exotic selections in this part of the market are Cherimoyas, Chepote, Guanabana (soursop), passion fruit, pineapple and many other exotic fruits that. One item of note is that the pineapples were the best that I have ever eaten anywhere. They were 10 times more sweet then the sweetest pineapple that I ever had in the States. Certain stalls would have several hundred pineapples for sale and you could smell their pungent odor from several hundred feet away.
Besides fruit, there are many other sections to this market. I never found a really fancy section in this market like I did just north of the zocalo. There are not any sections devoted entirely to selling expensive crafts, pottery, or jewelry. However, there are sections that specifically sell clothes, pinadas, electrical appliances, small crafts and various other household items.
As far as I can tell I was the only American tourist in the market. Once you get away from the main zocalo area I noticed that there were very very few tourists. One note for photographers interested in photographing the people in Oaxaca; most of the people that live here will not let you take their picture for free. Most of the Indian tribes believe that if you take a picture of them, you will capture their spirit and they will never be free. There are ways around this. Some will accept a small fee for their picture. Some cameras have lens that you can hold at a right angle to the person but in actuality are pointing directly at the person. Lastly, I found that I was successful in getting pictures by holding the camera at my waist and then walking up to the person and snapping their picture. It was always quite noisy in the markets when I did this that they never even heard the faint click of the camera’s shutter.
You MUST bargain in these markets if you want to pay lower prices. I was even bargaining for fruit. I remember paying only 10 pesos or about 70 American cents for a large pineapple after the price started at 25 pesos.
One cute story happened to a friend of mine in the Mercado de Abastos. She was walking along minding her business when all of the sudden a large live turkey being carried by a local got its feet tangled in her sweater. She didn’t notice right away and kept walking. However, she soon noticed when her sweater was being pulled one way and she was walking the other way. Bystanders soon rushed in to help remove the birds feet from her sweater. Eventually they were successful but only after leaving a good portion of her sweater stuck on the birds feet. This is a classic example of the randomness of a market like this one!
Another market worth visiting is the Benito Juaraz Market . This much smaller market is located about one block south of the zocalo. This market is composed of a large covered area which covers many small stalls selling everything from tequilas, black pottery, leather, and produce. There are also many other crafts and stores of interest located near this market.
One of the local foods synonymous with Oaxaca are the chapulines, otherwise known as fried grasshoppers. The best place in town to purchase chapulines is outside of the Benito Juaraz Market. Chapulines are a Oaxacan specialty; you can order them at many of the restaurants. You can buy these in a number of sizes: very small, medium or extra large. Usually when you buy these you will not only be purchasing grasshoppers. Upon closer inspection you will probably see cockroaches and perhaps a termite or two. Its all protein so these extra insects don’t matter except possibly to further repulse you from the idea of eating insects. Actually the grasshoppers are quite tasty, and are best in a flour tortilla with frijoles (beans), guacamole and a splash of lime.
Near the above market is the Mercado de Artesanias , a market famous for its rugs and sarapes. These rugs seemed to be average or just a bit above average quality. I visited a town that produced exceptional rugs later in my trip but more about that in a bit. Mercado de Artesanias not only sells rugs but also the famous Oaxacan carved and colored wood statues.
If you like to completely immerse yourself in another culture Oaxacan markets are for you. Tourists are just about nonexistent and you will get a real feel for these people’s daily life.
The village market days are as follows. These are when people from surrounding villages come to sell their goods and you have a wide variety of arts, crafts and food.