A 48-hour whirlwind tour of Mexico City recently left me with little free time, but Lesley Téllez, the author of the Mexico City food blog The Mija Chronicals and founder of the food tour company Eat Mexico, gave me many suggestions. She was even kind enough to take me on a tour of Mexico City's oldest market, La Merced.
We started our venture early in the morning in the neighborhood of La Roma, traveling the metro's pink line eastward together to La Merced. Stepping off the train and ascending to the street of vendors that surround the market, I quickly understood why we didn't just meet at the market. As the market was still coming to life in the early hour, there was already a mass of stalls and people bustling about. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Entering La Merced and seeing the vastness of this densely populated market was overwhelming. Realizing that this was just one of many buildings that make up a maze of vendors sprawling across an area about four city blocks long by two blocks wide, was dizzying.
La Merced is situated in a neighborhood of the same name, just outside the southeastern corner of the central historic district in Mexico City. This area was an entry and exit point to the city after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, and appropriately became a point of trade. By the turn of the 19th century, the entire neighborhood was essentially one giant market, and in 1863, the first permanent building to house it was constructed. Since then it has endured and expanded, only to be outdone by Central de Abastos, the largest market of its kind, which was built to alleviate crowding at La Merced in the early 1980s.
I relied solely on Lesley's expert knowledge of the complex and walked through one section after another, each focusing on a set of common Mexican ingredients. First it was chiles; it wasn't just one or two vendors hawking their anchos, pasillas, and guajillos, but maybe 15 or more. This was repeated again and again—fruits, vegetables, corn, cacti, poultry, pork, beef, sweets—each area of specialty being large enough to be considered a well-sized market within itself.
You can find vendors selling hot food like tamales, quesadillas, and huaraches. We made a breakfast pit stop for a plate of chilaquiles that consisted of a layer of tortillas stewed in a tart and tangy tomatillo sauce and topped with poached chicken, onion, sour cream, and cheese.
As we reached the 1.5 hour mark of our quickly paced tour, there was a slight sense of disappointment on Lesley's face—we wouldn't be able to see the whole market unforunately. La Merced could easily take up at least half a day—more if factoring in getting lost—and beyond all of the amazing Mexican items there are to experience, it's the quantities at which these are sold against the overall enormity of the market, that's the real attraction.