Hunting for vintage wares at Mexico City’s beloved La Lagunilla Flea Market, finding that perfect cheese at Tijuana’s Mercado Hidalgo, perusing hand-woven rugs in Oaxaca, or discovering chic homeware designs at local boutiques in Guadalajara.
The issue is not if you should shop when you travel to Mexico but how. We constantly get travel questions from our concierge clients, and the top of the list is shopping etiquette. They wonder when it’s appropriate to bargain, how much to tip, and why the store clerks sometimes seem to follow them around the shop.
We’ve already shared our essential tips for traveling to Mexico, but shopping is an animal all its own, so we wanted to dive into some specifics here.
What To Buy In Mexico
From small boutique stores to local markets, department stores, and coffee shops, there are plenty of opportunities to shop in Mexico.
If you travel to the Northern border towns like Tijuana, Mexicali, or Juarez, you'll meet many people who cross from the United States for the day solely to do their food shopping. Whereas in historical spots like Guanajuato or Puebla, travelers often search high and low for handmade, artisan gifts.
Before you travel to Mexico, we want to make sure you familiarize yourself with the variety of store concepts, opening hours, and, of course, any cultural norms you should follow when shopping. Let’s go store type by store type, shall we?
Local Boutiques And Small Shops
Small, independently-run stores are prevalent throughout Mexico, and you’ll generally come across two types: the tiendita or a boutique shop.
The most common are small corner stores known as a tiendita (pronounced “tee-en-dee-tah”). These shops offer a range of goods, be it essentials groceries, sweets, and even day-to-day homewares.
You also have boutique shops where you’ll often find handmade and artisan goods. These could be spots that carry traditional accessories and jewelry or, in the bigger cities, even boutique stores showcase creations by up-and-coming Mexican designers.
Boutique store hours vary, but they’re generally open from midmorning until late at night (say, from 9 AM to 8 PM). FYI, some stores may close for a midday break, so be sure to double-check specifics.
As a rule, vendors are generally charming and polite, and thankful for your visit. Manners are always appreciated, and vendors usually expect a greeting from patrons like “Hola, Buenas tardes.” Or “¿Hola, Como Estan?” For a deeper insight on traditional greetings and other tips on language and manners, check out our essential tips to know before you travel to Mexico.
Don’t be alarmed if the store clerk follows you around as you shop -- it’s common for them to do this so that they're nearby should you have any questions or needs. Finally, don’t assume you can bargain. In fact, it is not common to bargain or asks for lower prices in stores and shops -- that said, some vendors may offer discounts for large quantities or cash payments.
Large Indoor Or Street Markets
On the opposite end of the spectrum from a quiet boutique shop is a Mexican market or mercado. Heads up that your first visit may be a bit nerve-racking between all the people, the noise, and the general chaos.
However, if you are wanting to experience the real Mexican culture, visiting a market -- be it the open-air markets known as tianguis (pronounced “tee-ahn-geeese”), which date back to pre-Hispanic times or the large public markets you come across in almost every major city -- should definitely be high on your list.
Street markets usually open around midmorning at about 9 or 10 AM. Generally, markets that offer fresh produce or meats will usually close on the earlier side (at about 4 PM), while other markets selling clothing, pottery, jewelry, and other handmade traditional accessories may stay open until late at night.
Make sure you read up on the everyday foods that originated in Mexico so you can search them out on your visit. Be it the gourmet huitlacoche, the adored quintoniles, or the prized chicatanas, you’ll likely encounter at least one new-to-you product, and we highly recommend you try it out.
Depending on the time of day you visit, the market may be quiet or shoulder-to-shoulder with people. Be ready to bump into people and repeat the phrase “con permiso” as you walk your way through the narrow market aisles. Several words can be used to excuse yourself, like “disculpe,” “perdon,” or “perdona,” but “con permiso” is the most common and polite way to ask for permission to walk past someone in a crowded space.
FYI that usually, vendors do not like it when tourists touch their products. Therefore, it is highly recommended to avoid touching any perishable goods or to ask the vendor for permission before doing so.
Of all the types of shopping here, markets are the place where negotiating is the most acceptable. Prices will typically be displayed on each product, but you can indeed bargain for a better price. The things to account for when searching out a deal are the seasonality of the product, the quality of the product, the quantity you want to buy, and, of course, the way you ask for it.
Lastly, use your common sense and be aware of your surroundings. Theft is not common at most mercados, but pickpockets do frequent busier common spaces like markets. Keep your phone inside your pocket, your purse closed, and don’t wear anything flashy.
Mexican Department Stores
Another must-visit place in our book is a Mexican department store. This is not simply because you can find all sorts of shopping there but also because they’re quite a contrast to the mercados.
Department stores are usually located in major cities and towns, and you’ll come across a few chains as you travel in Mexico. Liverpool is a mid-to-high-end retailer and one of the oldest and largest chains of department stores in Mexico.
Another well-known department store is on the upscale El Palacio de Hierro. Translating to “The Iron Palace,” this is Mexico's premier department store chain along the lines of Saks Fifth Avenue, Le Bon Marche, or Harrods. For more everyday household goods, head to department stores like Sears and Sanborns.
Like the United States, most department stores in Mexico are open seven days a week, and negotiating in department stores is never an option.
Small Independent Coffee Shops
Coffee is a major part of the Mexican culinary culture, and as such, coffee shops are quite prevalent.
Recently, coffee has taken on more and more specialization, and, as such, international chains like Starbucks are setting up shops throughout the country.
The more coffee-obsessed locals have embraced the third wave coffee movement, which means you’ll find chic, boutique coffee spots in most major cities. A few of our favorites are Chiquitito in Mexico City, Caffe Sospeso in Tijuana, Fitzroy in Guadalajara, or Cafe Brujula in Oaxaca. Many of these spots focus not only on quality but also on serving Mexican grown beans (usually from Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla, or Chiapas).
Tipping is not mandatory at coffee shops, particularly if you order at the counter or to go. However, if you sit, we suggest tipping around 10%.
Now, you should be ready to go and shop at Mexican authentic shops, stores, and markets. Don’t forget to head over to the essential travel tips to know before your travel to Mexico and read up on how not to be an “Ugly American” when traveling to Mexico.
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