Mercado Libertad | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Mercado Libertad

Guadalajara is a beautiful city, perhaps Mexico's loveliest, full of colonial buildings, churches, fountains, monuments and statues. Tourists converge on the Centro Histórico like they do San Francisco's Union Square. There's a lot of good stuff to see, but I'm much more interested in the city's gritty underside, the places where real people live real lives and tourists rarely go. One such place is Guadalajara's Mercado Libertad (Free Market) also known as El Mercado de San Juan de Dios.

It is a breathtakingly ugly building erected in 1958. The second-largest covered (albeit leaky) market in Mexico, it houses hundreds of vendors of every imaginable commodity.

Many people have set up shop just outside, making it difficult to determine exactly when you have entered the official market itself. Here, squatting sidewalk shopkeepers sell kitchen utensils, cheesy toy guitars and equipale chairs, the latter a regional specialty.

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This man is selling huge copper cooking pots, good for cooking carnitas, and cast aluminum orange juicers—essential in the kitchen because everybody in Mexico drinks fresh-squeezed orange juice all the time. His juicers cost $180 pesos—about $17 U. S. Y'all up north can buy a somewhat sexier one online for $129.99 plus tax, shipping and handling. Pricey, but hey, so are U. S. oranges.

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The Mercado Libertad is vast inside. Not too slick-looking, not too well-lit, not too clean; but it's big—225,000 square feet—as big as a hundred typical American suburban houses. It's three stories house maybe a thousand tiny stalls.

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Narrow aisles teem with shoppers. Mind-numbing displays disorient visitors. Vendors hawk their wares. Still photos don't even begin to convey the chaos. Check out this video clip.


In the mercados, I'm always drawn to food sellers' stalls. The variety of edible stuff in Mexico is vast compared with U. S. or European supermarkets. Here's a sampling of the non-meat vendors.

[The butchers deserve their own post. But their story is so gross I'm gonna have to precede it with a warning for the squeamish.]

Here we have an herb seller. Natural remedies are far more widely used than over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. I know woefully little about medical herbs, although Rosario routinely uses them. Next time I get la gripe (the flu), I''ll ask her to treat me instead of calling Dr. Gorgeous.

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I normally think of dried skate as an Asian delicacy, but here it's known as raya, and this sample is hanging in a stall selling folk medicines, so maybe it has some kind of curative or restorative powers.

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Buckets and bins of dried legumes and chiles, most of which are unfamiliar to me, line the aisles. The brown, cone-shaped objects in the left image are piloncillos—Mexico's flavorful raw sugar. Unrefined, it's full of micro-nutrients and subtle flavors, and has not been treated with any chemicals. If you're gonna eat sugar, this is the sugar to eat.

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While we're on the subject, got a sweet tooth? C'mon, I know you all secretly nosh KitKats and Gummy Bears. Why not try a sweet that might actually be good for you?

The pink and white bars are alfajor de coco, a confection of coconut boiled in sweetened milk. The two types of brownish sweets are calabeza en tacha (candied pumpkin) and camote en tacha (candied sweet potatoes), made with raw sugar grated from piloncillos.

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In the image below, the white balls are greñudas de coco—grated coconut balls. The burned-looking yellow cylinders are also greñudas de coco. Pretty special at three pesos apiece.

Note the yellow jackets crawling on the greñudas. Mexican people don't make a big fuss about insects in or near their food. In fact, they even eat insects, but that's a subject for another time.

Pelliscos means "pinches." The little brown tamarind balls will pinch you for sure; they're spiced with chiles.

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Now we're gonna get into some truly unusual foods. Coyol is the name of both a kind of palm tree and its nuts. I didn't ask the vendor what they were used for, figuring that someone in San Miguel would know. Bad guess. A Wikipedia entry leads me to believe I'm not missing anything.

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Cocuixtle, also known as piñuela, is the fruit of a bromiliad. I had no idea that any part of a bromiliad was edible. Cocuixtle is used to make a sugared drink with medicinal properties.

I've just got to try some of these things. But I must say the appearance of this vendor's stall was not confidence-inspiring.

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People in Mexico make delicious drinks out of almost anything. These big jars contain aguas frescas: water and sugar flavored with fruits or grains or God knows what. The vendor is serving me a styrofoam cup of tamarindo—sweetened water flavored with pulp scraped from the insides of tamarind pods.

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Sugarcane is a favorite. You can buy little disks of peeled cane, or a container of fresh juice, which this man is extracting with this non-OSHA-approved machine.

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Cups with sliced pepino (cucumber), jicama, sandia (watermelon), papaya—whatever, are universally available snacks. They're served with lime juice, salt and chile, which tastes way better than it sounds.

The white roots in the foreground, some of which have been cut up and placed in styrofoam dishes with hot sauce drizzled on top, are called camotes de la tierra. The name translates to something like "earth yams," but they're not related to sweet potatoes. My friend Patty says they grow everywhere, like chayote. I guess you just go out in the jungle, dig some up, and bring them to market.

(One of the little adventures of living in Mexico is sampling foods gathered in the wild.)

Camotes de la tierra are mealy and kind of tasteless. They appear to be good primarily as a medium for transporting salt, lime and capsaicinoids to your mouth. If you've eaten them once, you've eaten them enough.

Along the top row, we have clear plastic cups of pomegranate seeds (yummy) and a green berry-like fruit called (I think) arrañes verdes. (I'm not entirely clear here, because the young lady who told me what they were may not have spelled the name correctly, and I'm unable to find any references to them.)

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A few years ago, I may have eaten a fruit like this that might have been called something like arrañes rojos. Same berry-like fruit, but ripe and extremely sweet with a most exotic flavor. Arrañes verdes on the other hand were sour and nasty, and adding salt, lime and chiles only made things worse. Here Jean, wearing green nail polish just for the occasion, is holding a serving of arrañes verdes. I threw it away after a taste.

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To end on a positive note, here's one of my favorite treats: mango-on-a-stick. Way better than candied apples.

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Vegetables occupy only a tiny corner of the Mercado Libertad. Even if I make ten posts (which I won't) I couldn't cover the whole place. But there's a few subjects I can't resist writing about, so stay tuned for more.
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