Mercado Hidalgo- Tijuana, Mexico

The vibrant colors of locally grown peppers, the hefty weight of native root vegetables in your hand, the prickly skin of tropical fruits at its peak, the seductive aromas wafting from busy food stalls that activate your hunger, the energetic sounds of lively exchanges and transactions- these are the very elements that define markets and in turn local cultures.  Whether it’s a visit to your neighborhood farmer’s market in the US, a night market in Turkey or a floating market on the Mekong River, these are the places where you can get a vivid glimpse into the kaleidoscope of the local customs.

Nothing defines our traditions more than the food that we eat, and nothing reflects who we are more clearly than our local markets.  A morning spent weaving through labyrinths of vendors and stalls can transport you into the warmth and comfort of a cocina where families gather for their daily meals.  It is here, in the city’s biggest kitchen, where you can feel the heartbeat of the city’s core from where food trickles through its blood vessels into every household.  In return, bountiful offerings from the land and the sea are brought back to the market every day to continue the endless circle of life.  The market is a place of nourishment and a way of life.

One such market is Mercado Hidalgo, a sprawling indoor-outdoor market in the middle of Tijuana’s urban jungle.  This mercado got its start in the mid 1900′s when a group of Tijuana vendors selling produce out of their car decided to establish a permanent location.  After several moves, it settled into its final and current location at Boulevard Sanchez Taboada and Avenida Independencia in 1984.  In keeping with the true spirit of local markets, Hidalgo is owned by its merchants who run the 80 open air stalls.  3 generations of families have worked here, creating a unique community with its own history and culture.

The market even has its own chapel, honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, where vendors make their final rite of passage upon passing away.  This market is not only a place of tradition, it is a place of family, home and life.

Even as a tourist, it’s easy to feel the rhythm of this unique marketplace where you can feel, taste, touch and smell the essence of a Mexican pueblo.  There is a palpable richness in the air and an abundance of resonant energy- it’s everywhere you look, in the frijoles, the maiz, hierbas and frutas.  A diversity of dried chiles line the racks, reflecting the unique flavors of Mexican cuisine- chile de arbol, pasilla, chipotle, guajillo, ancho, morita, and California.

Skillful men and women shave prickly spines off of nopales, preparing them for the scrumptious dinners that will nourish the mass. It is in the conversations and interactions with these merchants that one can begin to get an understanding of the deep roots of Hidalgo.

Jamaica, tamarindo and chayote from my memorable dinners in Tijuana were displayed in various shapes and sizes.

Carnicerias and queserias piled high with fresh food stood back to back in the tight hallway spaces that never ceased to attract both locals and tourists alike.  Deep fried crispy chicharrones looked familiar to me, and large jars of pickled white strips of tender chicharrones were a novelty, but nothing grabbed my attention quite like the chicharrones prensado, a gigantic mound of densely compressed pig parts so real that it flaunted the occasional tufts of pig hair.

Little girls squealed with delight in the crammed dulcerias where they jumped in joy for caramels and chocolates while older folks took to tequila flavored gummies and frutas cristalizadas with nostalgia.  Dried and candied oranges, pineapples and papayas proved to be cheap and satisfying treats to chew on while perusing through neighboring stores selling ceramics, tableware, cookware and molcajetes.

It’s not just about browsing and being a passive observer- one must be willing to fully plunge into the rhythm of a market with an open mind, for it is only through meaningful intimate interactions with the vendors that you can even begin to comprehend the local way of life.  Perhaps an old lady will give you a few extra oranges with your purchase and ask you to come back again the following day for her lemons.  A street vendor may invite you to their home for dinner after seeing the way you marveled over their tacos de lengua.  That grumpy old butcher, who isn’t grumpy at all once you get to know him, will tell you which stand to go to for the juiciest tomatoes. You never know what can happen at a market, but you’ll always know that whatever does will become a magical experience and a beautiful memory, and be translated into an appreciation for life that you will take back to your culture.

Go to Mercado Hidalgo on your next visit to Baja California and feel the spirit of Tijuana with your own skin, and be sure to wash down those buttery tacos de sesos with a cup of freshly squeezed cane juice to complete the experience.  Repeat as necessary.