What You’ll Find in This Post:
A bunny at the Mercado De Artesanias La Ciudadela
Though my study abroad program in Mexico City wasn’t really built for things like sightseeing, exploring, or shopping, I still managed to squeeze some of that in! Here I will show you some of the fruits of my exploration: What I observed, what I found, where I found it, and what these environments were like.
But first let’s talk about money
Generally speaking, Mexico was more affordable than the U.S., even at the airport. Ubers, medicine, food . . . you name it, Mexico probably offered a product or service cheaper than its U.S. counterpart.
Many establishments around the city couldn’t break big bills because they didn’t typically handle currency that large.
ATMs were not easy to find, often tucked away inside buildings (like restaurants & museums) or in dimly lit alleys. Sometimes the ATMs I did find—notably the Banamex ATMs—wouldn’t accept my card, other times there wouldn’t be an English language options, sometimes they wouldn’t have any money in them at all, and sometimes it would still take money out of my account after hitting “Cancel”. This is one of the rare occasions I will advise you to get money exchanged or use an ATMs while in still the airport because trying to get it done out in the city could provide for more roadblocks than you’re prepared for.
The Mexican peso symbol ($) and the United States dollar symbol ($) are identical, which can easily make money exchanges confusing. For example, I freaked out when the airport ATM read that I’d be charged an $81 service fee, but then I learned that it wasn’t showing me currency in USD (like some foreign ATMs do for my card), it was showing me currency in MXN (Mexican pesos). $81 MXN is about $3.61 USD, which made a lot more sense. It already takes a lot of effort to rewire your brain when getting accustomed to another country’s currency, but it was even harder for me to look at something that reads identical to prices in the U.S. and constantly remind myself that it meant a completely different amount. Also, if you’re interested, here is an article about the U.S. dollar, the Mexican peso, their overlapping origins, and some busted myths.
What I bought and where I bought it
Buying snacks, mugs, flowers, etc.
First let me mention the men standing in the median selling stuff like flowers, snacks, and water. I saw many of them immediately after leaving the airport then could later spot a few throughout the city. I saw locals stopping their cars to buy things from them and they definitely sold products for cheaper than a brick & mortar store. Speaking of brick & mortar stores, Mexico City had plenty of them—from grocery stores to 7-Elevens to indoor, escalator-filled shopping malls—that would feel familiar to any American. They also had plenty of Starbucks so you can get your commemorative mugs and $10 coffee no problem.
San Ángel Market
Also called Bazaar Saturday, Saturday Market, and El Bazaar Sábado, this place—as you may have inferred—is a market that pops up every Saturday between Carmen Square and San Jacinto Square. The market is big, big enough for someone to spend at least two hours just covering the grounds, and though adjacent to a mildly overpriced restaurant, the market offered products that would fit anyone’s price range. From here I got another turtle sculpture to add to my collection, a patterned jacket-thing (that was dubbed “the art teacher shawl”), and a scarf. The man who showed me the scarf even showed me all the different ways I could wear it around my body, including turning the darn thing into a knotted vest. And the guy that sold me the turtle? He let me have it for slightly cheaper because I didn’t have enough coins.
The “art teacher shawl” and a handmade turtle sculpture
My group and I also came across some contemporary artists & designers on our way out of the market, selling things like paintings, sculptures, photographs, and graphic illustrations. We didn’t get to spend too long browsing, but I remember being impressed by the variety and quality of work for sell. That in mind, we were surprised to see that such unique & lovely artworks were being sold at such a low cost. When we asked the artists about it, they said that their work wasn’t valued as much in Mexico City as it would be valued in the U.S. or Europe, so they essentially had to keep their prices low in order to compete in a market that apparently wasn’t very interested in their products to begin with. I write a bit more about this in my post about art in Mexico City, but for now just consider what you would do if someone offered to sell you a piece of art that you believe is worth more than what they’re offering.
Mercado De Artesanias La Ciudadela
The outside of the building, viewed from the park across the street
Mercado De Artesanias La Ciudadela—or just La Ciudadela for short—is a traditional style market full of handicrafts and folk art. It was established in 1965 and when I went they listed 350 vendors that sold anything you could possibly hope to find: Clothes, jewelry, rugs, furniture, ceramics, Olinalá lacquered boxes, alebrijes (colorful sculptures of mythical creatures, like in Coco), cartonería (papier mache animal sculptures), silverware, glass, and musical instruments. There was also a restaurant in there (I think) and a group of musicians performing nearby.
This market was a lovely place to explore because not only was it full of friendly people, plenty of options, and no pushy salespeople, but it was also well organized. The streets within the market were clearly labeled, the overall layout was grid-like, and it was not crowded at all when I visited. This really struck me because the only markets I had experienced before were souqs, all of which were various combinations of narrow streets, winding paths, loud noises, street clutter, and many more things that many people may find anxiety inducing. La Ciudadela, in contrast, was a very calm vibe.
Photos taken from the pathways in La Ciudadela
When it comes to haggling, I’m not sure what the “rules” were in La Ciudadela, Mexico City, or Mexico overall. What I will say, though, is that many of the (predominantly female) vendors here derive their main source of income through making and selling handicrafts. I bring this up because we Americans have a snooty habit of unintentionally devaluing the crafts of “lesser” communities, especially when we travel abroad. So, to all my Americans and anyone else who this may apply to, I encourage you to not be that tourist who tries to lower the price of a handmade mirror from $50 to $20 just because A) You forgot how much work went into making this object (a symptom of America’s ready-made culture) or B) You feel entitled to a discount (but don’t have a reason why). And if you still need reassurance, know that I didn’t encounter any items that I felt were overpriced nor did I contend with any salespeople who I felt tried to upcharge me, so at the very least you can trust that you’re probably not getting ripped off, and thus, have no reason to push for a lower price.
Now, here is a collection of the things I bought:
Beaded earrings, two beaded rings, a beaded bracelet, a handmade turtle sculpture, a violet scarf, and a mariachi sombrero
Museo Nacional de Antropologia & Arena Mexico
I included these two in this post because they’re examples of the kinds of places where you go to for one activity—history, art, a performance—but then have the option of buying things while there. Often the things available to buy at places or events like this are notorious for being overpriced and/or low quality, but sometimes you come across a stall, shop, or individual salesperson that offers items that, to your surprise, are well-made and reasonably priced. Sometimes they even offer the kinds of objects that cater to a niche interests or just do a great job at reminding someone of their adventure abroad in a more meaningful way that expected.
The objects I got at the museum include magnets styled after indigenous sculptures of women (complete with information cards), coffee, chocolate, and a bandana with the Aztec sun stone printed on it. The magnets came from a tiny gift kiosks within the museum itself, and they were reasonably priced, but the other items came form the main gift shop and were unsurprisingly hella pricey. But I bit the bullet because it was the only opportunity I had in my schedule to get some of the things on my gift list. Of the objects I got for myself, my favorite is the bandana because the cultural cocktail it represents really amuses me: The image of an object—the sun stone—that represents a nearly obliterated culture’s mythology and now serves as a symbol of Mexican culture, printed onto a type of scarf that I associate with cowboys, coalminers, & 2000s summer fashion, based on a style of scarf that originated in India.
One of the magnets (still in the packaging) and the bandana
Then at Arena Mexico, I bought a lucha libre mask which, much to my surprise, may be one of the most unique objects I’ve ever purchased abroad. The mask was attached to an event that I don’t think I could have experienced to that scale anywhere else in the world. And even though I later saw other places around Mexico City selling masks, the fact I bought this one right outside the arena made it special (and compared to the other ones I saw, this one seemed more well-made). Then, on top of all this, the color combo of the object held significance to the person who I bought it for and it high key looks like a cross between Power Rangers and Black Panther. Purchasing this object was like a 5-way-win and I can’t say that about anything else I’ve bought abroad so far.
Lucha libre mask
I know there are way more places to explore and shop around Mexico City, whether you’re looking for handicrafts, tchotchkes, boutique stuff, or even just a shopping mall. So, I encourage you to investigate and see what’s out there, or better yet, go find something that’s up your alley. I have never been one to really enjoy shopping, be it at home or abroad, but shopping in Mexico City was one of the best parts of my trip because I made time to explore places and shop for things that I found interesting.