The Local Markets of Cancun Mexico
Updated: May 20, 2022
We are back in Mexico, but I feel this time will be much different. It will be better. The first time we visited Mexico was for our proper honeymoon in 2020. Will and I had never been on an international trip together. It was also before becoming full-time travelers. And like I mentioned before, it was our honeymoon, so we splurged a little. We stayed in an all-inclusive hotel. We did the touristy things. Even though we did take local transportation and did things on our own, we didn’t fully engage with the locals. Markets weren’t our “thing” yet.
In case you are new here, we are Will and Katy. We are a travel couple that is traveling around the world. We set out in January of 2021 with the goal of traveling for a year. We accomplished that goal! After taking a break to evaluate what's next we are back on the road! We plan to visit multiple states in Mexico over the next few months.
ARRIVING IN MEXICO
Arriving at the Cancun airport felt easier this time. Other than the ATM at the airport not working, it was really easy to just walk out, find the ADO bus stand, and book two tickets to Cancun Centro. Last time I remember it being chaotic because we didn’t know the bus system. I thought I had booked our tickets online but came to find out it was a scam website. This time we bought our tickets and stepped onto the bus with confidence; knowing we didn’t need to sit in assigned seats.
The most comforting thing about returning to Mexico is the fact that I speak Spanish. After a year of traveling to countries where I didn’t know the language, it is such a breath of fresh air to be able to communicate. Over the past year, we did try and learn the basics of each language, but we were never fluent. There is a difference when you can understand the background conversations that are happening. There is a sense of comfort when you can blend in with the locals. This I think will be the biggest improvement as we travel throughout Mexico.
As we sat on the bus ride, there was a family that sat next to us. Three ladies and a teenager. They phoned, what seemed to be a cousin or uncle, to let them know they were on their way to Cancun Centro. They sounded eager to see him. As we approached Cancun and started passing by buildings, they called out to each other what they saw in excitement.
“Oh un Casino. Oh mira, Plaza Las Americas. Mira el fuente con conchas. Tenemos que venir a hacernos una foto aquí.”
(“Oh a Casino. Oh, look the Plaza of America. Look at the fountain with shells. We have to come to take a photo here.”)
I sat there listening and it truly made me so happy. I assume they live elsewhere in Mexico, perhaps in a smaller town without all the “pizazz,” without the “American influence.” They were coming to Cancun on holiday. They would stay with family, not just because it is more affordable, but because family is important to them. They would enjoy all the fun attractions that Cancun has to offer.
We arrived at the bus station. We all got off the bus. That family went their way and we went ours, but all with the excitement of being in Cancun!
It had been a long travel day and with a 20-minute walk down Avenida Tulúm, we made it to our home for the week.
OUR FIRST DAY EXPLORING
We overdid it. By the end of the day, we were exhausted and our feet were telling us to STOP!
We were eager to explore again! We had taken a break from traveling and so before arriving in Mexico we were so ready to get back into the swing of full-time traveling again. So the first day in Cancun we wanted to immediately get started, even though the day prior was a long travel day.
There are Walmarts and other grocery stores in Cancun, but we prefer to go to the local fruit and vegetable market. Not only is it more affordable, but we are helping the locals with their small businesses.
That is the first thing we did in the morning. We walked along Avenue Tulúm, the same street we walked down the night before to get to our apartment. At night it was filled with people and loud music. On that Sunday mid-morning, it was the complete opposite - very quiet. All we heard were birds chirping and a few cars driving by. We were told that things would be slower and quieter on Sundays. Which is why we didn’t leave so early but it was already 10:30 am. I thought there would have been more places open.
We arrived at Mercado 23, this is not the touristy Mercado 28 that everyone goes to, so we didn’t know what this market would include. Looking on Google we saw it had fruits and vegetables, which is the main reason we wanted to go to this market. As we walked up to the perimeter of the market, I saw shops with souvenirs and trinkets, and then a really long line. I peaked over to see what the locals were waiting in line for, and still in confusion, I asked the last man in line.
“Excuse me, Sir. What is everyone waiting in line for?”
He looked up from his cell phone and responded, “The creamery.”
“Ahhh, Thank you. And how do I get to the fruit and vegetable stands?”
“Just go along the people, make a left, then a right and you’ll see them there.”
“Thank you very much.”
It felt so good to be able to walk up to a stranger and just ask for directions. I didn’t have to pull out my phone and use Google Translate. I just spoke. It was such a comforting feeling.
Although I grew up in a home where my parents spoke both English and Spanish (and Italian when we visited my dad’s family), I haven’t used my Spanish daily for a long time. I am a bit rusty. I tend to get tongue-tied, but let’s be honest I get tongue-tied speaking English. It just takes me a minute to remember words. And I can read and understand it very well. While here in Mexico there will be the challenge of different words having different meanings. Many Latin countries have different words for certain things, or they have their slang version of Spanish. My family is from the Dominican Republic, so I’ll have to get used to the Spanish Mexican language. Regardless, it does feel easier to be in a country where I know the language. There is a level of comfort, like walking up to that man and instantly talking to him. I wouldn’t have done that in Tanzania or Turkey for example.
We made our way past the long line and made a few turns until we found the fruits and vegetable stands. Plenty of fruits and vegetables. There were restaurants with locals sitting outside waiting to receive their food. That is definitely where the locals go shopping.
We walked to the first stall and looked around. That first vendor seemed to have a lot of options, so I grabbed a basket they had laying on the apples and began picking out what I needed. A bunch of bananas, a bag of limes, carrots, peppers, half-sliced papaya, and zucchini. Once my basket was filled I went to the counter to pay. There was more I needed to buy, but I wanted to shop from another vendor too. We paid ($150 pesos / $7.40 USD) and went on our way.
We continued over to the next vendor, scurrying past the mangoes. Unfortunately, Will is allergic to the sap of mangoes, so we try to keep him far away from those. The vendor stopped and asked if I needed anything, and I said yes I am looking for spinach and kale. He had spinach but no kale, he took me to the spinach and gave me a couple of bundles. How nice it was to get fresh spinach over the bagged spinach you get in America! I kept looking around his shop and got the rest of the items on the list: onions, broccoli, apples, garlic, and a bag full of avocados! I got to the counter and asked if they had powered cinnamon. He measured some out for me into a little baggie. I grabbed it and noticed it was a lighter color than I am used to. Confused and wondering if I asked for the wrong thing, I opened the bag and smelled it. Yup, it was cinnamon alright. (Later when getting home I looked into why it was a different color and it’s because it's Ceylon Cinnamon instead of Cassia, which is what I’m used to). We paid our total ($300 pesos / $14.85), grabbed the bags full of items, and tried to find a corner in the market so we could put all our groceries into our backpack. Unfortunately, it didn’t all fit. We would have to get a proper grocery recyclable bag before we came back out.
A full bag meant we were done for the day. As we made our way out of the market we stopped to look at the menu of a few of those restaurants. We were hungry, but these prices seemed too high. So we continued. Just a minute later we stumbled upon a tamale street vendor! Yes, jackpot! On our first day out, we found fresh tamales and it was already noon! Back in Coral Springs, Florida, Will would have to wake up super early to get to this Mexican bakery to get fresh tamales because they would run out of them by 9 am! I asked the vendor how much the tamales cost. “21 pesos” she responded. One dollar for tamales!? We took four!
With our hands full we looked for a spot on the sidewalk to sit down and enjoy those fresh tamales. I unraveled the corn husk and took a bite into the warm tamale. Perfection. We sat there so happy as we devoured our tamales. Some locals passed by staring at us. They were probably thinking to themselves: what are these kids doing eating on the side of the street! We didn’t care. We had found our tamales on our first day. We ended up going back to the tamale cart and ordered four more to go!
We got back to our apartment, dropped off all our fruits and vegetables, and set back out again. This time to go film our market video at Mercado 28.
We walked up to what we thought was Mercado 28 and looked around a little bit, but it didn’t seem right. I pulled out my phone and checked my maps only to confirm that we hadn’t walked far enough. We tried to get to the market by memory, since we don’t like having our phones out in public but ended up at Plaza 28 instead of the proper market. I put my phone away and we walked another 5 minutes and reached the actual market.
We walked through this market which held tons and tons of stalls with plenty of options for souvenirs. Shirts, purses, hats - anything you can think of. We were on the hunt for a patch, an ankle bracelet, and as always, trying to talk to the vendors to hear their stories.
We made our way from stall to stall looking for our items and talking to the locals. Each time we asked for a patch they didn’t understand us, which is something we are used to since we never knew how to say patch in the local language, but this time we did know how to say it. They just didn’t understand because we think it's just not a common thing that people buy. One vendor even though we said Apache and brought us into his shop to show us his Apache statues.
The market didn’t seem very busy. Again, because it was a Sunday. If we want busy markets I think we need to go out on Saturdays. We’ll have to test that theory on our next market trip.
We did find a vendor who was kind enough to share her story. She was a young lady, manning her shop by herself. I went in asking for a bracelet and she began showing me all the bracelets she made by hand. Since she was the first vendor that said she made her products by hand, we wanted to dive deeper into her story. I asked her what she did before opening up her shop, and the level of comfort she had in sharing her story amazed us. She told us that she is from Chiapas. 8 years ago she lived with her family in Cancun. During that time, her mom got sick and passed away. With a heavy heart and a need for change, she moved back to Chiapas where her family is originally from.
There she began making the bracelets, perhaps to keep her mind busy. After 2 years in Chiapas, she decided it was time for a change again and moved back to Cancun where her father was living. She opened up her shop by herself and a year later things were going okay. She doesn’t have as many sales as she had hoped, but she told us that she prays God will bring her business this summer. She mentioned her brothers live in Chiapas so I asked her if she misses her family. She was a little slow to speak. She said not really because there tends to be a lot of family drama. I eased her out of the heaviness of the conversation and said I would buy a bracelet from her. I picked one out and she helped me tie it to my ankle. She showed me a few more things she makes like the hand-stitched shirts and then we said our goodbyes.
She was the last stall we visited. We found both my bracelet and a story.
We made our way back home, stopping at an “heladito shop,” a homemade popsicle shop. We ate them on our walk, trying to finish them before they melted all over us.
Out of curiosity, we stopped in at the Walmart that we passed by, just to see how it differs from the ones in the States. It seemed very similar, with local products instead. They had a bakery, hot bar, grocery section, clothing section, and home items. They even had a little food court with a couple of options for food. It reminds me of how some Walmarts have a Subway or other food chain right at the entrance. We did pick up a couple more things we needed, like oats and peanut butter, and made our way to the self-checkout counter. It was just like the ones in the States. We bought a reusable grocery bag which will come in handy when we go back to the fruits and vegetable markets.
When we got home, I looked down at my Apple Watch to see that we had walked 9 miles; more than I thought we had. We were wiped, but it was a great first day!
Until next time... What could possibly be next?