CITY GUIDE: Oaxaca’s vibrant markets

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Travel around Mexico long enough and you’ll find that big, vibrant markets are one of the country’s calling cards. 

Markets, here, are part of daily life, operating as shopping destinations, social hangouts and community support systems. Walk through a given market and you’re likely to see families eating, watching sports on TV, playing cards, caring for their children, cooking and sewing.

But in Oaxaca de Juárez, especially, this wealth is elevated to another level, thanks to its enormous bounty of wares. 

The city, a quaint, walkable town with just 300,000 residents, is known for its craftsmanship — wood and leather goods, pottery and textiles among them — and its art. It is the Mecca of mezcal. And the food that originates here, from sweet black mole to tlayudas to fried grasshoppers, is unique, varied and flavorful.

As a result, sprawling markets seemingly wait around every corner, particularly in the south end of town. And all of them are just a little bit different. 

Here are 7 markets to know before you go:

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Mercado Benito Juárez: 

Occupying a full city block, this market is an excellent place to have lunch, pick up a special culinary treat — such as a bottle of mezcal or an elaborate dulce — or simply marvel at the gorgeous produce and spices. Looks for various moles, here, including the sweet, black mole Oaxaqueño that is particular to area, and Oaxacan cheese, a slightly acidic string cheese. When you’ve shopped to your heart’s content, consider finishing the trip with a stop at one of the ice cream stalls near the center, boasting flavors such as tuna (prickly pear), mezcal and rose petal.

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Check out Mercado Benito Juarez here.

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Mercado 20 de Noviembre: 

The gem of this market, named for Revolution Day, a national holiday in Mexico, is its pasillo de las carnes asadas — or hall of grilled meat stands. To enjoy the goods, you’ll have to endure the smoke; imagine a dozen stalls in a mostly enclosed building, each grilling meat over open flame. It’s hot and hazy in there. But the rewards are well worth the sacrifice. Pick a stall and find a place to sit, then prepare to acquire a small collection of tabs. You’ll pay for the meat (pick a type or get the mixed plate which comes with a couple cuts of beef and sausages) and beer with one party. Separately, someone will come to your table to sell you tortillas from a basket. And lastly, another vendor will come by to sell you accompaniments — salsas, grilled onions and peppers,  avocado, pico de gallo, cilantro and more. You can consume a feast’s worth of food — a mixed plate of meat, four tortillas, an avalanche of sides and one beer for about $9 USD. If you’ve saved room, check out the vendors selling Oaxacan chocolate near the front of the market when you leave.

 

Check out Mercado 20 de Noviembre here.

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Central de Abastos:

You might consider taking a taxi to this market, the king of Oaxaca’s mercados, as its on the edge of city limits and also requires going through some slightly seedy areas (seeing prostitutes during the day isn’t unusual) to get there. Once you’ve arrived prepare to be overwhelmed. Descend into the maze of flea stalls through one of the market’s many entry points and browse for, well, whatever you want: gleaming produce, fragrant chilies, huge bowls of chapulines (fried grasshoppers tossed in salt, spices and lime), woven baskets, tasseled blankets, kitchenware, rows and rows of fresh bread. If its sold in Oaxaca, it can be found here, probably for the best price, too. Of all the markets, this one feels the most local; you aren’t likely to see other gringos or gringas here, and you may get some stares because of that fact. Also be aware that unlike the other markets, this one has a bit of a reputation for petty theft, so it’s a good idea to keep your belongings in front of you and avoid flashing your cell phone. (If you have it out at all, some of the vendors may kindly instruct you to put it away.) Plenty of stalls for cheap prepared foods here, too. `

Check out Central de Abastos here.

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Mercado de Artesanías:

If you’re looking for a gift or an artful souvenir to bring home, Mercado de Artsanías — just down the block from Benito Juárez, is ideal. Similar to some of the pricier art studios around town, these vendors sell the likes of handbags, clothing, rugs, pillowcases, leather belts and wallets, Oaxaca’s signature barro negro black pottery and much more, usually for more reasonable prices. Haggling is acceptable and expected. 

Check out Mercado de Artesanías here.

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La Merced:

This market, tucked away on the slower north side of the center, has all sorts of stalls, including butcher and fish market stands, but much of the activity revolves around the food court. Be advised that the vendors are aggressive here — when you enter, they’ll come at you with open menus, attempting to persuade you to sit in their space right away. Don’t give in! Walk the full perimeter to judge your options and consider a stand with the most people hovering nearby. Expect to find dishes like tacos, tamales, soups, stews, and tlayudas — one of the area’s trademark dishes, a crispy tortilla topped with beans, cabbage, cheese, vegetables and your choice of meat. 

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Check out La Merced here.

Tianguis de Zocolo:

Zocolo, the name given to the center square in most Mexican cities and towns, is one of the liveliest locales in Oaxaca. There aren’t real food stalls here, but carts touting snacks and raspas — Mexico’s version of snow cones — are aplenty, as well as wandering vendors selling everything from paintings to pristine wooden goods — beautifully carved spoons, knives, mortars and pestles and bowls.

Check out Zocolo here.

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Al Hondiga Reforma Mercadito Gourmet:

The fancy option in town, this gourmet market offers organic produce, a selection of wines, craft beers and mezcal and some international cuisines, such as tapas, Thai rolled ice cream, deep dish pizzas, sushi, chicken wings and gelato. Have a seat, order a drink, and taste a little of everything! 

Check out Al Hondiga Reforma here.

Also notable, from Oaxaca…

My favorite street: Calle Murguía, from about Calle de Los Insurgentes to Calle Manual García Vigil, is filled with artist studios, mezcalarias, taquerias and charming bars, blending a beautiful range of high and low, elegant, tiled establishments sitting next to hole-in-the wall kitchens. It has a wonderful vibe. Don’t miss Tastavins, a cozy wine bar offering complimentary tapas with every drink ordered, and Expendio Tradición, a gorgeous choice for a fancy cocktail. The bartenders are very skilled, and will make something up on the spot if you wish.

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My favorite taco truck: El Lechoncito de Oro, which only emerges around 8 p.m. or later, is churning out some serious tacos, and all the locals know it. Guess what, it’s located on Calle Murguía! The speciality here is lechon with chicharróns — meat that melts in your mouth with the perfect amount of crunch from the lechons and an addictive avocado-chili sauce slathered throughout. Don’t be naive to think you can eat only one. 

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My favorite hole-in-the-wall taqueria: Tacos y Retacos Roy has the goods: from steak and chorizo tacos to more adventurous versions such as the cabeza (head) and surtida (mixed parts) tacos. Expect your order to arrive with a small caddy of salsas, pico de gallo and pickled vegetables, and a bowl of limes. Muy tasty. There’s beer, too! 

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My favorite park: Parque Labastida, a small, narrow, stone platform with a sprinkling of trees, a tranquil fountain and a backdrop of colorful buildings is one of the most peaceful places in the city. Sometimes, artist come to display and sell their work there. It’s a park that is dwarfed by the other public spaces in town, but boasts a far more peaceful atmosphere.

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My favorite bar: In Situ mezcalaria is a tiny, laid-back bar with colorful glass cups for the wide selection of mezcals, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. Downstairs mostly has room only for bar stools, but there’s a small balcony with a handful of tables.

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My favorite for seafood: Mesón Jalatlaco offers some of the better seafood in town, with tostadas and ceviches some of the highlights.

My favorite bakery: Boulenc hardly needs my publicity. It’s become something of a media darling and recent years and boasts a wait for a table at just about all hours. But it really is that good: expect high quality, French-style breads and a mouth watering menu that includes breakfast items, sandwiches (a vegetarian Bahn Mi is killer), pizzas and salads, along with craft coffee drinks. Oh, and it’s also one of the more beautiful places in town.

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Best-kept secret: Well, it seems the secret is already leaking, at least to the locals, but for now, Aloha tiki bar tucked into the center of a building entered through a signless door on Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil is still very exclusive: so exclusive that it’s invite-only, in fact. That’s mostly because getting a liquor license in Oaxaca can be complicated and the San Diego-hailing owners aren’t there yet, so it needs to operate as a private club. Make friends in town and ask around — there’s a group text going with the invitees, all of whom can bring guests, letting them know whether it’s open, it’s closed and the hours on any given night. 

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An unbeatable view: For the best vista of the city skyline and surrounding mountains, hike or take a cab up to Cerro del Fortín. At the top, there is a viewing platform — but that’s still not the best view. Keep walking upward along the left guard rail for about 100 meters until you arrive at a clearing in the trees, ideal for watching the late sun hit the building tops and a magnificent bird’s-eye view of Temple de Santo Domingo de Guzmán.

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