By Greg Niemann
Many Americans have a hard time passing up outdoor markets and garage sales. On Saturday mornings they are out among a veritable army of bargain-hunters following brightly colored neighborhood signs that indicate someone’s once proud possessions might end up in their homes.
Sometimes a bunch of neighbors dedicate the same day for their garage and yard sales, thus increasing the number of prospective customers and allowing the buyers a more concentrated experience.
Not strictly a local U.S. phenomenon, urban areas worldwide have large outdoor markets. I’ve been to big swap meets in cities around the world. Closer to home there are several well-established markets, like Pasadena’s monthly Rose Bowl flea market or San Diego’s Kobey’s Swap Meet at the Sports Arena.
There are also those swap meets, street fairs, flea markets, and farmers markets that sprout up in many communities, usually on a designated day. However, many smaller outdoor markets are relatively narrow in scope: perhaps offering only produce, or handicraft items, or fine art, or antiques, or are geared around a specific seasonal or gastronomical event. A multi-purpose swap meet therefore offers the most diversity.
Mexico is no exception to these outdoor and street markets, and Baja California has numerous options with most markets conveniently set up in residential neighborhoods.
Expats and tourists alike are welcome to join the hordes of locals in Baja hitting the streets for the best deals. And you can find virtually anything at a Baja street market: new and used clothing, household items and supplies, tools, hardware, packaged groceries, sundries, school supplies, fishing tackle, toys, exercise equipment, and fresh meat, produce, and seafood. In addition to take-home food, there are lots of stalls offering on-site meals for the shoppers.
For many Mexicans a street market is much more convenient, and necessary than taking a bus to various stores and markets, or a city’s central Mercado, and is a major way in Mexico to trade and buy. Neighborhoods wait for the stores to come to them.
Like in the U.S., these Mexican street markets have several names: for example, “Tianguis” is defined as an open-air market or bazaar traditionally held on certain market days in a town or city neighborhood. This tianguis bazaar tradition in Mexico has its roots well into the pre-Hispanic period and continues in many cases essentially unchanged into the present day.
The word “tianguis” comes from tianquiztli in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire. Here again, there are also specialty tianguis events for holidays such as Christmas as well as for particular types of items such as cars or art.
In Baja, the markets are often called Mercado Sobre Ruedas (market over wheels). In the Rosarito Beach area, there is a market almost every day in different parts of town. They range from very small (just a block or two) to so large they encompass an entire neighborhood.
Saturdays at Primo Tapia
From my Cantamar house it’s just about a half mile walk up the hill to Primo Tapia and that’s where we often head on Baja weekends. The Saturday market there covers about 6-8 blocks, and surrounds the civic plaza, the library, and the primary school.
There are three or four fruit and vegetable stands and numerous new and used clothing stands, including many by locals who just lay their treasures out on a tarp in the street, augmenting a family’s source of income.
This Primo Tapia market has many food stalls and several specialize in pizza, probably the biggest food draw there. Families crowd covered picnic benches under bright blue traps sharing pizzas. It seems take-home pizza is just as coveted as you see the familiar square boxes carried everywhere.
I have a favorite bolillo (roll with a thick crust and hot and chewy inside) stand and I will munch on one while I wander about. There are taco stands specializing in the various popular types: carne asada, carnitas, barbacoa, shrimp, fish, whatever you want. The birria taco stand near the end of the first street on the left always has a long line attesting to its popularity.
After wandering the entire place, we always grab any produce and fruit just before we head back down the hill, stopping at our favorite stalls for bananas, mangoes, papaya, tomatoes, cantelope (melón), and watermelon (sandia).
What makes it even more fun for us is running into people from long ago and meeting their families. Long-time area shop owners and/or workers we’ve hired in decades past (electricians, plumbers, and construction people) have mostly stayed in the area and it’s kind of fun seeing their children grow up and have families of their own. To us, the Primo Tapia Swap Meet is a home away from home.
Rosarito’s Big Sunday Market
We’d heard about the big Sunday Los Panchos Street Market in Rosarito and finally made it there early this year. Of course, we’ve been back more than once. It’s easy to find, just off the free (Libre) road to Tijuana on the north end of town. We immediately saw booths and stalls, parked a couple of blocks away, and started hoofing it.
We walked on the street parallel to the highway for a couple of blocks thinking the market was not as big as we were led to believe. Then we came to the outdoor mart’s main street which takes off east up the hill with stalls on either side and down the middle.
You can find anything in those few blocks, from bicycle helmets, to infant seats, to freshly hewn furniture, to live goldfish. And there’s lots of food, fresh fruit, ice cream, pastries, peanuts in the shell, and the inevitable taco. On our second visit we discovered some outstanding tamales. The proprietor Francisco even had some Oaxacan style (our favorite – wrapped in banana leaves versus corn husks). Thus, we stood in the street, munching moist tamales de pollo estilo Oaxaca.
Most of the larger food stands offer covered seating, but walking and eating is part of the Mexican street experience. I also found a place that sells a sweetened bolillo, and another with small waffles.
The market extends up to the crest of the hill, and a block or two in either direction from the main street. Used goods abound on many of the side streets as here too women just lay out personal items for sale to help feed and clothe their families.
Sunday markets are also good because in Mexico that’s family day and you’ll see just as many fathers holding kids on their shoulders as you do mothers pushing strollers.
These markets might not be for everyone. We see very few gringos and you should have at least a smattering of Spanish. Many tourists might be more comfortable at the handicraft market downtown Rosarito or other places that cater to tourists and where almost all the sales people speak English.
Most markets start in the morning and end in early to mid-afternoon, generally from about 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. Not only are they an enriching experience, but you might have a lot of fun – and possibly come home with a treasure or two.
Col. Los Panchos: Rosarito Norte. This is the big one I just mentioned. It is actually on the hill across from Walmart and Home Depot and can be seen from the highway. Turn off Libre road north, take right at first light, park on side streets. There are also a few lots where they charge to park. Also, there is another small market a block or two behind Soriano Supermarket.
Central Rosarito: Extends up the street from Waldos and Cruz Roja for several blocks. La Misión: Behind Magana's Restaurant - about a half mile down the dirt road. La Misión: Gabby’s: Go over the bridge - Gabby's parking lot just past the school zone.
Colonia Plan Liberador, far north Rosarito on Libre road. Turn right past pedestrian bridge with stop lights on it.
Col. Mazatlán: By Oxxo, past Yaqui Tacos under bridge. Road hooks but go straight.
Col Constitución: Cross bridge over Cuota road from McDonalds to Blvd. Guerrero and turn right. Street fair extends up hill above Pemex./p>
Primo Tapia: From Cantamar go south up hill and turn toward ocean at the last overpass by the Panadería. The one we’ve been walking to for years.
Tijuana Area (Online maps can indicate location of colonias)
Many Colonias (Neighborhoods): Guaycura, Mariano Matamoros, Otay, Fundadores.
Colonia Mariano Matamoros, Colonia Libertad, Infonavit Latinos
Colonia Guaycura, Colonia Anabel
Colonia Ampliación Guaycura, Colonia Alemán
Colonia Buenos Aires Norte, Villa del real, Colonia Buena Vista
Infonavit Presidentes, El Barretal, El Lago
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.