NOTE: ALL MARKET PICTURES IN THIS POST WERE TAKEN AT THE FRIDAY MARKET AT EL LLANO BENITO JUAREZ PARK UNLESS OTHERWISE SPECIFIED.
Oaxaca abounds with traditional markets. The grand market of the city, Central de Abastos, was brilliantly described by D.H. Lawrence a century ago in his Mornings in Mexico.
“The market is a huge roofed-in place. Most extraordinary is the noise that comes out, as you pass along the adjacent street. It is a huge noise, yet you may never notice it. It sounds as if all the ghosts in the world were talking with one another, in ghost voices, within the darkness of the market structure. It is a noise something like rain, or banana leaves in the wind. The market, full of Indians … silent footed, hush spoken … but in countless numbers.”
Things have changed since Lawrence wrote this in 1927. Central de Abastos has grown exponentially. New roads and improvements in transportation have made it possible to bring in fresh fish from the coast daily and a wide variety of products unimaginable in Lawrence’s day. Upscale local restaurants and even foreign demand have forced improvements in quality without sacrificing the simple humanity that attracted the famous British author. For a very recent description, try A Trip to Mercado de Abastos for Oaxacalifornia on the Mezcalistas excellent website.
If you prefer to stick with the literary style, John Vaillant brings Central de Abastos alive in his recent novel The Jaguar’s Children.
The taxi stops on the west side of Abastos near the river, what is left of it. It is not even four, but already the first trucks are coming in from the coast with fish and oranges, seashells and coconuts, maybe a special order of turtle eggs hiding in the belly of a tuna, or a crocodile skull with all its teeth. And from the south they come with coffee and mangoes, chocolate, iguanas and velvet huipils, and from the Sierra with calla lilies, beef, pots in all sizes still scarred by the fire that made them, maybe even the skin of a jaguar, and from the north with a saddle for the horse, or a yoke for the plow hecho a mano from the trunk of a tree. Maybe you need an ox to go with it, a burro, a goat, some turkey chicks or birds that some turkey chicks or birds that sing. Maybe corn, mole, mezcal, vanilla, worms or chapulines— sí, those are grasshoppers, amiga— big or small as you like. The ladies from the pueblos catch them in the grass— my abuelas did this. And if you’re lucky there will be huitlacoche— that fungus in the corn that makes the seed explode— con la bisteca es perfecto. All the things that make Oaxaca famous, you can find them in this market and most other things too, even la última cena— the last supper— not the holy picture for the wall but a poison for the rats. Not even the big box stores in Gringolandia have such things, and the prices are better, but only if you bargain.
Abastos es una paradoja— here you can find anything, but you can also lose anyone, and this is why César comes here. Abastos is the biggest market in the state of Oaxaca and it is a labyrinth— who knows what’s at the center or even where the center is. You can live your whole life in here and some people do. It can be frightening for a güero or a campesino who is not used to so many people and so many things all in one place together. Because every kind of person is here from every tribe— Zapotec, Mixtec, Mazatec, Trique, Huave, Chinanteco— so many different faces and clothes and dialects and so many ancient products— copal, cochineal and bark paper for medicine bundles, herbs and seeds, mushrooms and magic ingredients and witch supplies— mango-color beaks from the toucan and black hands from the monkey. All this you can find next to action figures for the Undertaker and the Blue Demon, or a statue of Santa Muerte, or blades for the fighting cock, and every kind of mezcal. There is magic here for everyone.
Somewhat smaller and largely enclosed is the 20 de Noviembre Market can be found just off the Zocalo, more readily accessible and less intimidating. If you have the time and are willing to travel into the beautiful valley, the regional markets offer unique arrays of items found nowhere else. Four of the most popular markets are held in Etla (Wednesday), Zaachila (Thursday), Ocotlán (Friday), and Tlacolula (Sunday). All are accessible by car within an hour or two from the historic center of the city.
However, if you are like me, Small is Beautiful as E. F. Schumacher wrote over forty years ago. There are numerous small markets throughout Oaxaca waiting for you to visit and enjoy. A local favorite is the Friday/Saturday Pochote organic market. It is named after a thorny tree with fuschia-like pink flowers and was founded in 2003 by local artist Francisco Toledo. The market is small but has a wide range of produce and locally produced items including fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables, eggs, coffee, honey, chocolate and flowers. You can also find pottery, fabrics, clothing, jewelry, and natural health products.
The Pochete Market used to be located at Xochilmilco near the Iglesia Xochilmilco however it has moved close to the Museo del Ferrocarril on Calzada Madero street not far from the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad.
When in Oaxaca, I stay at Casa de las Bugambilias on Reforma. Just a few blocks away on Friday there is a wonderful neighborhood market at El Llano, Benito Juarez Park. On most days the park is a peaceful and cool place to stroll with the Templo del Patrocinio on one side and the beautiful Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe y Capilla de Belén at the north end.
Llano is one of the oldest parks in Oaxaca, inaugurated in 1894 by then governor Gregorio Chávez. The park is dedicated to Oaxaca-born President Benito Juárez. For nearly two decades from 1950 to 1970 the park was a zoo with African animals. At each corner there are two sculptured lions painted in golden color.
There are several interesting trees in the park including a tall ash with the ‘copa de oro’ plant wrapped around the trunk, laurel trees, a higo de valle planted by General José María Morelos in the winter of 1812-1813. Oaxaca’s sister city of Palo Alto, California contributed a white oak tree to Llano Park. Finally, there are several trees from Australia including araucarias and eucalyptus.
The Friday market is extensive with stalls surrounding the park but not as crowded as the larger markets. Meats, vegetables, sweets, clothes, toys and a variety of other items are sold mostly to locals who come out to enjoy their neighborhood Friday market.
And now, the tiny market that makes me very happy. Every Saturday from 10-3, Monty Howard and Pilar Aquino drive into the city from San Agustin Etla and set up a small organic market just outside the famous La Olla Restaurant. They grow all their own vegetables. I have been enjoying inspiring conversations and admiring exquisite vegetables for many years.
Whether you are in the mood to visit a giant market like Central de Abastos, one of the regional markets outside the city, or a small neighborhood market Oaxaca has a traditional market for you. You don’t have to buy. You can look and enjoy and know that when you eat in one of the wonderful restaurants or on the street, the food has almost certainly come from a market like the one you are visiting. I will leave you with this picture of a healthy snack. Provecho !