6 mins

How to bag a bargain in Mexico

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, goes souvenir hunting in San Miguel and learns a trick or two about getting the best deal

Mexican textile (Marie Javins)

On my last day in San Miguel de Allende, I dropped off my laundry, then headed to the bus stop.

BOOM! A firecracker went off ten feet from me. I swore out loud. In English, but I don't think I fooled anyone. I wasn’t going to miss the fireworks when I headed off to do some sightseeing on the Yucatan Peninsula tomorrow after my month-long stay in this pretty colonial town.

I caught the bus and noticed as soon as I boarded that a man was playing guitar and singing off-key (and loudly) from the rear of the bus. We all headed up the hill to the Tuesday Market, stopping by the panoramic viewpoint to let a clown board.

A clown. 

San Miguel was testing my devotion to her, here on my last day.

The Tuesday Market is a kind of magnificent outdoor dollar store. It’s a massive flea market with lots of used stuff, plastic goods, and food stands. I wanted to check out the Otomi embroidered textiles. I'd eyeballed some of these in the shops in town and priced them from-actual-makers in the artisan's market, but I wanted to check the biggest market in the area before I committed to buying.

But I spotted no embroidery at the Tuesday Market. But I was in love with these textiles, and I had to have one.

The market did have an excellent used power tool section. I was salivating – I’m a big DIY-gal – but how would I get used power tools home?

I was done with the Tuesday Market pretty quickly and caught the bus back to town. I got off near the tourist trolley, which was parked at the panoramic viewpoint over town. I’d never gotten around to taking the trolley tour, but I had participated in a marvellous walking tour, and then a few days ago had taken a driving tour of the nearby towns of Dolores Hidalgo and Pozos. The tours benefited the local library and were fantastically interesting, so I was happy to participate.

I walked the rest of the way back to the centre, got something woefully inadequate for a meal – I’d recently been to a Mexican doctor who’d advised me to quit eating sugar in all forms, including wheat and pasta – and then headed to the town market to buy the embroidery I craved.

I really didn't mind paying full price. At 2,300 pesos ($180), a large hand-embroidered textile was a bargain. But when I asked the grandpa who had sewn it along with his wife: "Which one do you like best?" he thought I was negotiating and lowered the price to 2,000 pesos ($156). I tried several times to get the price back up, but he wouldn't hear of it.

He grabbed an interpreter and then voted on which textile I should buy. Then his grandchildren, son, and the interpreter voted. Majority ruled, and so I bought the one most of them told me to buy.

Plus, it had donkeys and mice on it. How could I not buy it?

Of course, now I’d have to carry it around the Yucatan for the next ten days. But the inconvenience was worth the look on the grandpa’s face when he got to decide which Otomi textile I should take home.

The next morning, my iPhone alarm went off at 4:30am.

I was really learning to hate that sound.  But for once, I didn't hit the snooze.

I got up, showered quickly, ate some oatmeal and drank some coffee, packed the last bits into my bag and zipped it up. I was about to put my bag outside the flat’s door and slam it shut with the keys inside on the table, when I remembered the one time someone else had been staying in the building this past month. They'd double-locked the outside door, which only opened with a key.

I went downstairs with my bag, checked the front door, went back up – the motion-sensors had gone off and the hallway was completely black – and left the keys on the table, pulling the door shut behind me.

That's it, I thought as the outside door shut. Better hope I have everything.

I really better, I knew, since I'd waited too long to leave and was worried about how long it would take me to get to the bus terminal. I have a wheelie-bag for the shorter trips, if you can call a month 'short', and now it made funny clunking noises as I rolled it over the cobblestones against the silence of the San Miguel night.

Couldn’t be helped, I thought.

A taxi pulled up next to me. Great!

"Central Estacion, por favor."

My worries about time were unfounded. The taxi whisked me through town, and I walked up to the counter at 6:05 to claim my internet-ticket, making the 6:30 bus in plenty of time.

At ten, we pulled into Norte bus terminal in Mexico City. I checked my bag at Left Luggage, walked to the end of the terminal, and bought a round-trip ticket to the pyramids of Teotihuacan. Police videotaped all the bus passengers twice, and I was patted down and had my bag X-rayed before boarding. The ride took about 40 minutes, but flew by because a friendly 37-year-old Romanian architect sat down next to me and chatted.

When we paid to go into the ruins, he asked the ticket seller: "What time do you close?"

The pyramids close at five.

"I'm staying until then."

Wow. That was devotion. I left him to enjoy his long day. I had no intention of staying until five. The sun was high in the sky and my original plan had been to come tomorrow morning, but then I'd had a freelance job interfere with that, and that's when I realised it was better to go on arrival in Mexico City, since I wouldn't have to return to the bus station then.

After two hours of climbing on and looking at pyramids, I was exhausted. I exited by the Pyramid of the Moon and flagged down a bus back to Mexico City.

I reclaimed my bag, dragged it down the stairs to the metro, went one stop, dragged my bag through a long hall, down some stairs, under the platform, up some stairs, boarded another train for five stops, and up an escalator. I worried about being the only one with luggage. Was it even allowed? Or were others just too smart to bring bags on such a crowded system?

At my stop, I walked four blocks to Hotel San Diego, checked in, judged it adequate, and headed to a huge souvenir market.

The market was huge and I nearly got lost. I browsed carefully, and was satisfied by my findings.

My embroidered textile from the Otomi grandpa in the San Miguel market was much, much better than anything I saw here. 

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