Mexico is a tremendously underappreciated country. And up until just a few short years ago I was one of the many who discounted its wonders. During that time of my profound ignorance I somehow held the opinion that Peru was the greatest country in Latin America.
Now there is no question in my mind that Peru is a pretty damned exotic country with all its many grand things and magnificent places like the majestic Cordillera Blanca, the cold haunting beauty of the Altiplano, and the wonders of Cuzco and the nearby Sacred Valley with Machu Picchu.
As it was I used to view Mexico as Peru’s little brother, both countries have great cultures past and present but like in the case of the towering Andes, Peru always loomed a little larger in my heart.
But I wasn’t so much wrong as I was wrong for reasons that I didn’t until now even begin to understand.
I’ve since decided that while the two countries share certain similarities they are for the most part wildly different. And it has taken me a number of years in both time and travel to discern the difference. And I think the basic quantitative difference comes down simply to geography.
Peru has a long mostly straight Pacific coast line which is divided almost down the middle by the Andes Mountains which separates the dry flat coastal plains from the wet Amazonian lowlands. Those three geographies – coast, mountain highlands, and rain forest also separate themselves with qualitative differences which all correspond to their respective geography. The people, the food, the culture and the lifestyles are all intrinsically linked to each of those three geographies. That might at first glance sound over simplistic but it really isn’t.
Mexico on the other hand cannot be so conveniently carved up into such neat slices. In fact the geography is so complicated I cannot even begin to explain the state where I’ve lived these past five years let alone do so for the entirely of Mexico.
But I will tell you this – and this observation is quite telling as to the diversity of Mexico – what we eat in my town is different from what they eat in Jiquilpan, just 7 km. away. The foodstuffs are more or less the same but the emphasis, the spices and preparation can be quite different.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Mexico is not just about tacos, tamales and quesadillas. The diversity of indigenous foods here is unparalleled anywhere in the Americas.
I would even go so far as to say that in ranking ancient rooted indigenous foods that Mexico falls somewhere around fourth place worldwide perhaps tied with Turkey. I would rank either China or India in first place, followed by Italy, then Mexico, or Turkey.
I know that is a profoundly ballsy statement but yes, dear heart, Mexico is that amazingly awesome. And I know I am probably leaving something out, but for the moment I still think that is a reasonably defensible position to take.
Damn these preambles of mine. My intention wasn’t to get into a pissing contest on national cuisines but instead I wanted to talk about one of my favorite places on earth, the local Mercado, which is the heart of local Mexico.
And I love my Mercado. This old school Mercado partially explains why I am still here. I can’t post any photos because the buildings themselves are old and a bit too worn to photograph well. So you know it’s true love when you love the old wretch ugly as she is anyway.
I visit the Mercado just about every day whether I need anything or not. It’s a nice three block walk from my apartment where I first pass the central plaza and the main cathedral.
What I like about the Mercado is that everything is there. Fresh fruits and vegetables arrive daily from everywhere in Mexico.
You want a fresh squeezed juice? Choose from beet, carrot, orange, celery, or you name it and there are half a dozen places that sell it.
Avocados and there are a dozen places. Fresh meat? One entire building with a dozen full time butchers.
And there are dozens of places that specialize in only selling a couple of specific items like tomatoes and onions.
A 16 oz. cup of the above costs just $0.75 US here. A true bargain.
This morning I made 6 stops all told to buy some avocados, 2 kg. tomatoes, 1 kg. onions, a bunch of spinach, a kg. cheese, 1 L. yogurt, 1/2 kg. dried dates, a cup of juice, a bottle of fresh pomegranate juice, and some eggs. Even with all those stops, 20 minutes later I was done and still had some change left from my 300 pesos ($15 US).
I am here after all this time because there still remains this authenticity of people and place.
Fun Fact: The state of Michoacán is the land of the Purépechas and experts believe it was their access to metal ores and their knowledge of metallurgy which gave them such a significant technological edge over the Aztecs as to allow them to be the only people adjacent to that great nation who remained unconquered.
Think about that. While the native American people of the Great Plains were still waging war on one another with Stone Age weapons, and the Aztecs were doing the same (but using obsidian edged weapons), while in the meantime the Purépechas had seriously upped their technology to copper.