Words and photography by Ehren Seeland
There is an abundance of markets in the state of Oaxaca that collectively speak to all of the senses. Rife with livestock, produce, textiles, pottery and an array of local delicacies, one of the most authentic experiences that one can explore while visiting this intriguing region of Mexico is the variety of weekly outdoor shopping venues. Of these, one of the oldest and most frequented is the immense open-air emporium that makes up the Sunday market in Tlacolula de Matamoros.
This sprawling community was founded in 1560, is located roughly 30 minutes east of the city of Oaxaca and sits at 5,200 feet (or 1,600 meters) above sea level. It is the main commercial center for the valley region, with rural dwellers traveling to the center from a mix of other towns in order to shop, as well as sell their wares.
On this Sunday, I am wedged between a young mother, her 18-month-old son, and an older woman with eyes that crinkle at the edges in order to tell a thousand stories with one friendly glance. Three men shout over the radio in the front as I fish a piece of paper from my purse, and quickly transform it into a rousing game of peek-a-boo with my tiny seatmate. A few radio songs later, we pull up beside a gas station on the side of the road in Tlacolula, and slowly pour out of the colectivo taxi like sap from a maguey plant. The young mother leans her son over to me as we say our goodbyes, and soon I am moving into the sprawl of the market with the wet remnants of a sloppy kiss on my cheek.
While my plan was to arrive early in order to avoid the throngs of people, my comfy bed had other plans for me. Luckily, my shopping list is short and I head straight to my first vendor to buy a piece of barro rojo pottery from a woman named Maria. My next stop sees the purchase of two embroidered aprons for my nieces from a family in Mitla, along with a bag of crisp lettuce and beans.
Having chosen sleep over breakfast, I stop for a cup of chocolate tejate – my eyes settled on the ground where three ducklings scavenge for snacks. I am awoken from this fuzzy revelry after a massive runaway turkey breaks free from the binding that holds his legs, and a flurry of dusty feathers sends my tejate down my right arm.
The aisles of the market, which covers a weaving series of streets and indoor halls, are quickly transforming into a sea of colorful aprons and straw cowboy hats. I duck into a food hall, where a selection of meat is being sold and cooked over hot coals, along with whole grilled onions. My plan to foil the crowd moves me out the back door, past textile vendors – their wool tapetes and embroidered dresses dancing in the wind – along with women carrying enormous pans of chapulines (spicy roasted grasshoppers), intricate handmade baskets, and a series of woven mats covered in fresh produce.
It’s just past 2pm and the crowd has become so dense that I’ve nearly slowed to a stop. A scuffle occurs when yet another turkey makes a break for it –shocking a pulque vendor who proceeds to spill this fermented maguey drink down my left arm. I concede that I cannot outsmart the crowd, which has now swollen to massive proportions. This marks the start of my return to the city with a final stop at Comedor Mary for an order of limonada and zingy chile rellenos that are rich with quesillo and meaty picadillo. Satiated and still scented with a mix of Oaxacan libations, I wind myself back to the main road and flutter into a colectivo back to the city like a turkey on the run.
These taxis (the maroon and white cars) are 20 pesos each way and can be found in three venues in Oaxaca to Tlacolula: out front of the Chedraui in La Noria, outside of the Guerreros baseball stadium, as well as alongside the Abastos market. There are also buses that head east, so you’ll want to keep your eyes open for signs in the front windows, along with an ear out as they call out the final destination.