The town market in Antigua, Guatemala is in an unusual place, smashed between a popular chicken restaurant and busy avenue on one side, and the always-dusty and harried bus yard on the other.
The intense chaos and sheer number of people in the Antigua Mercado on market day might dissuade the occasional traveler, but rest assured the lack of personal space is worth it.
Comprising hundreds of stalls selling everything from delicious exotic fruits and vegetables to pottery to dish soap, the Mercado is an experience that threatens to overwhelm the senses.
Smell the fruit before you see it
Just after passing through the household stalls, the main path through the market opens up to neatly stacked mounds of fruit on the left and right. The prices are consistently low due to the competition, so the only choice to make is based on how the wonderful fruit looks, unless you come across a vendor who is providing samples. Chopped pineapples reveal how juicy the fruit is. Approach the stall and you’ll likely be offered a yummy slice from a woman with a wide, open smile.
Most of the fruit and vegetable vendors are indigenous Maya from the neighboring towns who bring their young children with them. It is not unusual to see a woman collecting quetzals (the Guatemalan currency) in one hand with a toddler on the opposite hip.
During any part of the year, shoppers in this Central American city have access to avocado, papaya, star fruit, bananas and apples, which are mostly imported. The berries, mangoes, dragonfruit and zapote — a funny little fruit that looks a little like a sweet potato — are seasonal and only available for a few weeks or months at a time.
Despite its ramshackle appearance on first sight, there is a very logical division to the stalls in the market. After a few months of visits, locals can quickly get in and out with exactly what they need, likely for half the price they would have paid at the local grocery store.
Fruits and vegetables kept separate
Most farmers markets and grocery stores in the U.S. offer fruit and vegetables together in a produce section. But there is a distinct line between the two at this Mercado. Visitors must find their way through the fruit stands to the covered vegetable stands. Continue further outside the stalls to get the best prices.
In the outdoor vegetable area, the lines between vendors are implied at best. On the way, pause a little to enjoy the sounds of a live band; a different one plays for tips nearly every day.
Filling your bags with an array of unbelievably priced vegetables can make for an interesting walk home, depending on the distance you need to cover and the weight of your bounty. Fear not, the area tuk tuk drivers are ready to help intrepid shoppers get home, as long as they don’t mind how the driver dodges in and out of traffic while bouncing over the narrow cobblestone streets. Tuk tuks line the busy avenue where most people exit the mercado and charge about $3 for a ride anywhere in town.
Once home, your shopping complete, the only difficult part is deciding which delicious fruit or vegetable to try first.