Every where you go in Mexico you will find folk art and hand made crafts for sale -- in the streets, in the markets, in stores and galleries, and from vendors who approach when you are trying to read on the beach or drink coffee in a sidewalk cafe.
Where is the best place to buy crafts?
If you're just picking up a few souvenirs or inexpensive gifts for the folks at home, it really doesn't matter where you shop. When you see a nice weaving in an airport gift shop or a one-of-a-kind Christmas creche fashioned out of old beer cans for a reasonable price on a street corner, go ahead and buy. You may see a similar item for less money later and kick yourself for being hasty, but then again you might not. This is a case where it can be better to leap before you spend too much time looking, as we are not talking big bucks.
On the other hand, if you are shopping for expensive items, or are a collector or commercial buyer, it definitely pays to do some serious comparison shopping.
As a general rule when shopping for folk art and crafts, the farther you go down the "food chain" toward the actual creator of the piece you want, the better the price. Let's use a hand-carved wooden ceremonial mask from Guerrero as an example. You can buy this mask in an upscale Folk Art shop in Seattle for $300. Or, head for Tijuana and find a similar mask for $150. Travel all the way to Mexico City and you'll get your mask in the fancy "Pink Zone" for $100. For the price of a few subway tickets, however, you can shop in Mexico City's many craft markets: the same mask goes for $60 at the Ciudadela market, and just $50 in the Sunday Lagunillas flea market.
So, you reason, why not go right to the horses' mouth, where the mask is made, and get the best possible deal? In Taxco, Guerrero, you learn that the mask is back up to $100 -- Taxco is a popular tourist town. Iguala is just 30 miles away, however, and thanks to your high school Spanish you eventually locate a wholesaler who goes into the hills and buys from the artisans. He offers your mask for $40. You aren't giving in yet -- you rent a pack mule and go into the hills yourself. On the second or third day you track down the wood carver and buy the mask right out of his hands for just $20, a spectacular savings of $280! (not counting a few expenses).
Shopping The Back Country: Mexico's vast back country can be an extremely interesting place to do your shopping, but it isn't for everyone. If your Spanish is weak or nonexistent, you will need a bilingual or even a trilingual guide. Many indigenous people don't speak Spanish, and some artisans will not sell to people they don't know. Also, there are areas where strangers aren't welcome because of moonshining, marijuana, feuds, or other dubious activities. If you do decide to venture far off the beaten track, do your best to find out what you might be getting into first.
Shops & Galleries: Although prices are higher, there are definite advantages to buying folk art in an established shop or gallery. The owners are often very knowledgeable and will have pieces by the best artists. They will have good background information on the artist, and explain her techniques and style. Most will arrange shipping to your home, a big help if you want to buy more than you can carry. Some of the shops I deal with are willing to ship items purchased elsewhere, as long as you buy something from them.
Fonart: Fonart is not a place, but a chain of stores operated by the Mexican government to promote the sale of folk art and crafts. Fonart stores are found in many cities that have an active tourist trade. Items for sale are of good quality and prices are not bad, though they seem to be getting higher of late and are often not much less than prices in private shops and galleries.
Tourist Resorts: You'll find a good selection in many resorts, but the prices can be as high as a good shop in the US. (Note: Cancún has a large selection of Taxco silver at relatively reasonable prices).
Border Towns: Large border cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo have a surprisingly good selection of handicrafts. Prices are higher than at the source, but thanks to tough competition, they aren't as high as you would think -- and usually a lot lower than tourist resorts. If your only reason to visit Mexico is to shop, you might as well just go to the nearest border city.
Best Areas for specific crafts
Silver: Taxco, Guerrero is the silversmithing center of Mexico. The selection is huge and ranges from amazingly inexpensive silver rings and earrings to sterling silver table services worth thousands of dollars. Jewelry from Taxco is available in tourist centers throughout Mexico, but the widest choices and best prices are found in Taxco's more than 100 silver shops.
Note: Sterling silver is often stamped with the number 922. This means the piece is 92.2% silver, which makes it "sterling." Pure, 100% silver is called "fine" and is sometimes stamped "1000 fine". Fine silver is actually too soft for most jewelry. Jewelry stamped "alpaca" is a nickel alloy known as 'nickel silver' or 'German silver'. Whatever you call it, this nickel alloy jewelry contains no silver at all.
Hammocks: The finest hammocks in Mexico are made in the Yucatán. My favorite shop is in Mérida: Tejidos y Cordeles Nacionales, S.A. de C.V. at Calle 56 No. 516-B, located near the main post office in the market area. The selection is amazing and their hammocks are sold by weight, with fixed, very fair prices. Selling by weight virtually eliminates doubt about the hammock's actual size and avoids having to count strings. If you are buying hammocks wholesale, this store is definitely your best bet.
Panama Hats: The best palm hats aren't from Panama but from the small town of Bécal, in the state of Campeche. They are called Panama hats because this type of hat was widely used by people working on the construction of the Panama canal. In Mérida, check out Sombrerería "El Becaleño" on Calle 65 No. 483 between 56A and 58. You will also find Panama hats in the market and numerous other shops in Mérida.
Wooden Masks: Carved wooden masks depicting animals, devils, demons and various mythical beasts are a tradition in the state of Guererro. They are often referred to as, you guessed it, "Guerrero masks" or more accurately, "dance masks." These masks are carved from a very light fibrous wood with a long unpronounceable name. Old masks that have been used in dances and ceremonies are collectable, expensive and hard to come by, but many newer masks are very well done and relatively inexpensive.
Guerrero masks are available throughout Mexico. Although the best prices are probably in Iguala, Guerrero, you have to search to find them there. Ask around, but frankly, it is a lot easier and not much more expensive to buy masks in Mexico City.
Rugs and Blankets: Hand-woven woolen rugs and traditional blankets from Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca can be purchased throughout Mexico, but the best prices and selection are found in Teotitlán del Valle, a small Zapotec town outside of Oaxaca City. Markets and shops in Oaxaca have lots of textiles, as do many of the tianguis (weekly outdoor markets) in surrounding towns and villages.
Other places for rugs include Temoaya, near Toluca in the state of Mexico, where hand tied oriental style rugs are made; the Toluca market itself has hand woven blankets and serapes from surrounding villages; Tlaxcala, for brightly striped Saltillo style blankets; San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Pátzcuaro, Michoacán both have locally woven rugs, blankets and other textiles.
Metalwork: For copper worked by hand into beautiful vases, trays, candlesticks, plates etc., Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacán (near Pátzcuaro)is definitely the place to go.
Tinware (Hojalatería): Produced in Oaxaca, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Toluca.
Pottery is locally made and sold all over the country. Mexican alfarería is often low fired, utilitarian kitchenware. This pottery is attractive and inexpensive but lead glazes fired at low temperatures can be a health hazard, especially if the pottery is used with acidic foods. (See the Box: Lead Poisoning at the end of this chapter). High fired stoneware is safe for all uses.
Major pottery centers include Tonalá, Jalisco, a small town on the outskirts of Guadalajara. Pottery of every description is sold in Tonala's large street market (Thursday and Sunday) and numerous shops and ceramic studios. Ken Edwards, a famous potter who along with Jorge Wilmot introduced stoneware pottery to Mexico, has his studio here.
Tlaquepaque, also within the "greater" Guadalajara area, is famous for art and crafts of all kinds. Tlaquepaque is the home of ceramic sculptor Sérgio Bustamente. This famous artist's work can be seen at No. 236 Av. Independencia and in major galleries around the country.
Dolores Hildalgo, Guanajuato: A center for the production of majólica style ceramics and tiles as well as more utilitarian kitchenware. You will see this pottery for sale in markets all over the country.
Acatlán, Puebla: This small town is crammed with low fired pottery of all sorts. It is known for garden-patio pottery and animal shaped fireplaces. The family of the late Herón Martinez still produces some of his most famous designs of animals, candelabra and arboles de la vida (Trees of Life).
Puebla, Puebla: Majólica pottery is known in Puebla as talavera. This is brightly colored pottery, tin-glazed and high-fired with intricate designs. Talavera was first introduced from Spain in the 16th century. You can find it for sale in downtown Puebla at the El Parián craft market and in numerous shops and downtown galleries. (Carl's note: This pottery isn't cheap. As Steve said on our last trip through Puebla, "When I pay twenty bucks for a dinner plate, I expect it to come heaped with food.")
Several towns in the state of Michoacán produce some interesting ceramics: Tzintzuntzán has low fired dinnerware and kitchen pottery. They use a cream colored glaze and many of the designs include a very attractive fish motif drawn in brown. Capula: This small town near Morelia produces a low fired pottery with distinctive pointillist designs (formed with many tiny dots). Ocumicho: A small Tarascan Indian town famous for it's 'devil pottery' -- wild and crazy sculptures of devils, demons and fantastic creatures engaged in such everyday pursuits as driving a Coca Cola truck or romping in graphic group sex. Needless to say, Ocumicho pieces are considered very unusual. Patambán: Another small Tarascan town (near Ocumicho) that produces a more traditional dark green, low fired pottery. Their pottery co-op does some very beautiful stoneware. Morelia: The state-run Casa de Las Artesanías has a great collection of reasonably priced pottery and folk art. If your time is limited, this is the place to shop for folk art. (Humboldt and Fray Juan de San Miguel No. 129 in downtown Morelia.)
Atzompa, Oaxaca: A small town (near Oaxaca city) famous for green glazed kitchenware. Beware of the lead content. Green glaze is the worst! You will also find natural tan unglazed figurines. The family of the late Teodora Blanco still makes figurines in the style she made famous as muñecas abordadas, dolls "embroidered" with clay.
San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca (near Oaxaca city) was made famous by the late Doña Rosa and her distinctive black pottery. Her studio, Alfarería Doña Rosa, is operated by her family and has black pottery items for sale. There is heavy tourist traffic here, however, and you can get better deals around the downtown market in Oaxaca city.
Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas: Primitive pottery is baked in open fires in the streets and courtyards of this small town, 35 km south of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Look for animal figures, large clay water pots and pottery fireplaces.
Lorena's Pottery Tip: When we began traveling in Mexico I made a vow to buy at least one pottery cup in every market we visited. Several years and many cups later, I learned to check the inside of the cup before buying to make sure that the handle is completely sealed. The handles on some cups have a hole or deep dimple where they join the cup. This can make it difficult or even impossible to thoroughly clean the cup after use.