I turn down a crowded pedestrian street lined with restaurants, cafés and clothing shops. I duck through the outdoor handicraft market of colorful clothing and amber jewelry. I’m leaving the tourist zone – now buildings show peeling paint, and Mayan women bustle about with fruit and vegetable purchases.
The streets are choked with people outside the huge municipal market in colonial San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. I come for lunch and groceries.
Mayans in colorful hand-woven dresses stand by small buckets of carefully stacked potatoes and tomatoes. Men in jeans and cowboy hats carry racks of leather belts and push carts of home-filled jars of honey. Traffic goes nowhere as people jump out of cars to buy plastic cups of freshly squeezed orange juice. I buy a kilo of hairy red rambutans, a lychee-like fruit, from a teenager with a wheelbarrow.
I duck into the market, passing fruit and vegetable stands: oranges, plums, strawberries, blackberries, papayas, mangos, bananas, prickly pears, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, chili peppers, mushrooms and carrots.
I find the elusive pitthaya, called dragon fruit in English. They aren’t cheap but unique, with a juicy kiwi-like texture and a peel of pink flames. I buy the biggest white guayabas (guavas) I’ve ever seen – as big as pears. They give off a strong, pungent odor.
A medicine man wearing a black leather jacket and cowboy hat stands between fruit and vegetable stands. He’s selling little baggies of wood, roots and leaves. He explains the different mixtures, what they are for and how to prepare them: how long to boil, and with how much of each mix. There’s nothing wrong with me but I appreciate his time, so I buy one for sore muscles, looking forward to the mountain biking I’ll do when I get back home to Toluca in central Mexico.
I get a bag of ground coffee for half the price of San Cristobal’s famed coffee shops. Chiapas coffee is dark and powerful. From the same stand I find cacao beans, the rawest chocolate. They are bitter – unlike chocolate, no sugar or milk is added. Supposedly they are very healthy, a super food.
I enter the main market building, a huge corrugated hangar, where packaged food, eggs and meat is sold. The first person I see sells cheese and I buy a few chunks, including a red, white and green one, the colors of the Mexican flag. The red is made with chili and the green with cilantro. It crumbles like feta but spreads nicely on warm bread.
I leave the hangar and pass big bins of brightly colored beans. Yes, they are good, says the salesman. I choose a mix of pink, purple and yellow ones, thinking that I’ll cook them for my girlfriend when I get home. By now I’m hungry. Every Mexican market has inexpensive little restaurants tucked away in corners, the best places for local specialties. I get a black mole, a curry-like combination of secret ingredients, including chili and cacao. The waitress picks up my bag of beans, looking confused. She carries them into the kitchen. I hear laughing. She comes back and tells me that the beans are painted. They are for making jewelry. She drags me into the kitchen to show me what real beans look like.
After lunch my hands are full. For the price of a meal in one of San Cristobal’s finer restaurants, I got a good lunch and week’s worth of breakfasts. I exit the market and make my way back down the winding streets of San Cristobal. Oh well – maybe I can’t boil and eat my colored beans, but they gave me a great reason to share a laugh with some friendly, interesting people in one of the friendliest and most interesting towns in Mexico.
Ted Campbell left the US ten years ago to pursue a life of adventure, first in Asia and now Latin America. He writes about travel, music, culture, food, and mountain biking. He lives in Mexico, travels as much as he can, and writes a blog called No Hay Bronca.