Tijuana: Serious shopping for the serious shopper

articles Travel & Destinations

David Roland

Photo Gallery: Tijuana: Serious shopping for the serious shopper (Photos © Robert Mohr 2006)

Tijuana: A Taste of Mexico Part III:

Recently we have heard and read much of “outsourcing” in economic terms. And it’s true that by the large-scale outsourcing of services and manufacturing, we are incrementally destroying our own economy. But the key is the term “large-scale,” since only the larger losses truly affect a local economy.

I have for years “outsourced” some of my needs to Mexican craftspeople – especially tailors and bootmakers. I know that I should support local labor, and in many aspects of my life I spend extra money to shop at the local guy rather than the national “big-box store.” But the guy in my hometown who wants $60 for a set of boot-soles might not miss my battered old boots, while the man I pay in Mexico is living at what many of us might consider the poverty line.

Ceramics, wicker, hammocks...
Ceramics, wicker, hammocks…

So I choose to “spend local” in Mexico a few times a year. I save a little money, and I’m helping a local economy that is in worse shape than the one in my own town. I don’t recommend this kind of outsourcing for business or industry – in fact I’m against it – but I think that on a personal level it’s not much of an ethical issue.

In the U.S., we live in a land of such plenty that we waste more than some other countries use – throwing away things that aren’t broken, simply because they’re “old” (if a year or two can truly age something like a chair, a stereo or a bike).

In China, people make a living by gathering scraps from factory waste bins and putting them together to create something new – tiny pieces of fabric, for instance, are sewn together to make insoles or soles for shoes, or padding for hat-brims. Small trims of wood (dunnage) are glued together to make inner frameworks for couches or tables. In the U.S., such things are thrown into landfills.

Mexico is a country rich in tradition, in land, in spirit – but it is not a rich country. Mexico is still a developing nation, and its people are in flux economically. I have been coming to Mexico since I was a boy, and the lesson of my life is that I am economically more fortunate than most of the people I pass on the street in Central or South America. I’m no better than they – in fact, maybe they are far happier than I am.

But I have the economic advantage of living in a rich country, so I learned to spread some of that economic good fortune around. And in so doing, I benefit as well (I can buy five handmade shirts in Mexico for the price of three here at home).

A maze of narrow alleys with stalls set behind roll-up steel doors
A maze of narrow alleys with stalls set behind roll-up steel doors

A wise Sufi teacher once said that if he can afford it, a man should pay someone to wash his clothes and cook for him. This is neither arrogance nor condescension, but the creation of a job for another person. By keeping his time free for what he does best, a person also becomes responsible for helping to support someone else. This is not charity – it’s taking an active part in the economics of life.

It never made sense to me to spend a lot of money going to another country, only to haggle over a few cents or dollars when shopping for things to take home. The economics of it just don’t make sense. Shopping abroad serves to support a foreign economy – one that is generally in need of those dollars to keep itself running. So if you find things you like in Mexico, I believe you should buy them and take them home.

All the souvenir shops are crammed with leather goods, hats, tee-shirts with funny and not-so-funny sayings, sandals ( huaraches), blankets ( mantas or colchas), paintings and knick-knacks of every imaginable description. Quite a bit of it is designed with the tipsy college-crowd in mind, and I’ve seen it all before. As noted, Avenida Revolucion is the central place for this kind of stuff, and you may want to see it just to say that you’ve seen it.

Other than buying “tourist gifts” for folks back home, there is some great shopping in Mexico. You can find all sorts of handmade and specialty items at reasonable prices.

One of the most accessible places to find great things is the big Mercado de Artesanias, in the north end of Zona Centro, on the north side of Calle Secunda between Ocampo and Negrete. This used to be a sprawling maze of narrow alleys with stalls set behind roll-up steel doors. In this mercado you could find boots, lamps, nudie playing cards, knives of every description, black-velvet paintings, statuary and just about anything you could think of. When I was a kid, the handicrafts from Mexico all had a consistent look and feel – hand-made ” rustico” items in leather, wood, stone, metal or blown glass.

Blown glass sculpture
Blown glass sculpture

Then something interesting happened. Crafts fairs in the U.S. started showing all kinds of interesting pieces that had been hybridised with some kind of art – raku ceramic, Tiffany-type stained glass, carved wood. Shortly after this wave of innovative crafts artworks, Mexican artisans began to sell those very kinds of items, essentially knocking the legs out from under a number of norteño artists. Today, there are huge stores dedicated to Tiffany-style stained glass. The average price and level of quality of Mexican handicrafts has jumped up, as the market broadened. Where you might not have been able to find a stained-glass window 15 years ago, now you can find whole stores that sell nothing else. In the same period, faux pre-Columbian ceramics have become very popular.

Yes, the Mercado de Artesanias is the place to walk around and discover the joys of shopping for things you don’t really need but really like the look of. There you will find beautiful hand-painted ceramics, blown-glass, paintings and other decorator items, including metal work and carved wood. Just go and explore – you’ll be glad you did. Plan to spend the better part of a morning or afternoon there. There are a number of small taco stands scattered around the mercado to give you the sustenance (along with the ever-present Coke) to continue your trek.

At the south end of the Mercado de Artesanias is North Star Crafts, a large sculpture shop selling garden sculptures and huge planting pots in cement, plaster and clay. Here you can find statuary ranging from the gaudy to the sublime, and everything in between. North Star Crafts is on Calle Secunda between Ocampo and Negrete, across from Washington Dental Clinic.

A close-up...
A close-up…

In the center of the mercado, you will find The Stained Glass Gallery, run by the amiable Senor Enrique Santos Chavez. Here you will find whole windows, hanging panels to be hung in windows, sconces, table lamps, and other delightful stained glass items. While the designs wouldn’t fool a Tiffany aficionado, they’re good enough to fool the neighbors – owner Miguel Echeverria has taken great care to replicate the old master-craftsman’s standards. The Stained Glass Gallery is located in Tonala # 261 of the Mercado de Artesanias.

Looking for hand-made boots? Ignore the big shoe stores on Revolucion or Avenida Constitucion. There are a number of boot factories in and around Tijuana, but by far the best is La Casa del Avestruz, run by the amiable and expert Antonio Sanchez de la Cruz. Located at Calle Secunda # 1514, the small yellow-fronted shop is between Mutualismo and Avenida F (Cinco de Mayo) in northern Zona Centro. There you will find walls lined with boots made in just about any kind of leather you can name, including ostrich, snakeskin, shark, manta ray and muleskin (my favorite, for its supple toughness). Round toe, box or pointed toe, stacked or Cuban heels – you can have your boots any way you want them at Avestruz. Mention me to get Antonio’s special price for friends – he’ll give you dollars off. For instance, the boots I’m wearing right now were $150 retail, but I get them for $125 – hand made, to the size of my feet (actually, to the size of each foot – all of us have one foot slightly larger than the other). Antonio will happily meet your needs; for clients with special needs, he’ll insert orthotics or lifts.

Want handmade shirts or suits? Tijuana is filled with tailors who can make you fine clothing in a short period of time. I go to a wonderful sastre in the old district (Zona Norte) who makes terrific shirts for me from my own pattern. At Sastreria Jaramillo Hermanos, I pay $35 for a handmade shirt, plus the cost of the fabric. Usually, I shop for my fabrics in Los Angeles and bring enough for Señora Alicia to make several shirts (or have her use the extra fabric for linings). The least expensive shirt I can have made in the US costs about $75, so this saves me just over a third of the cost. The real savings come in with more complex patterns – vests, suits, tuxedos. A vest is $45, using my own fabric. There is a cost for the modelo (pattern), which is amortised over the number of items you have made from that pattern – it might only add a few dollars per shirt. I’m currently saving for a bespoke tuxedo a la modo espagnolo – a beautiful Spanish-style tux with a vest and trousers for just $500 (a decent tux in the US costs $500 off the rack). Señora Alicia can be found at Calle Coahuila # 1606, between Avendia D and Mutualismo in Zona Norte (north of Zona Centro on the west side).

An artist at work
An artist at work- Juan Su–artist – Gutierrez Gallery.

For the adventurous, there is El Mercado Central Miguel Hidalgo – at Boulevard Sanchez Taboada y Avenida Independencia, at the edge of Zona Rio where it meets Zona Centro. Founded in 1955, this market is a two-story building that encompasses an entire block, with a large parking area in the middle. Just like the mercado municipal you’ll find in every town in Central and South America, this is where you can go to find meats, vegetables and fruits, as well as seasonings and cooking implements. Here you can find tortilla presses, hand-hammered copper cooking pots, enamelware and glassware, and beautiful hand-painted crockery in a number of designs. The prices are much better than elsewhere in Tijuana. You’ll also find bottled vanilla, dozens of kinds of dried chiles, and all types of panoches (candies and candied vegetables), as well as fresh agua de coco in the shell. It is a wonder to watch Margarito the cocodero hack the top from a coconut still in the pulpy outer layer, trim it down and insert a straw for you to drink. When you are finished drinking the sweet juice, he will scoop out the meat of the coconut for you to take with you. All for a buck.

There are some good low-cost eateries in Miguel Hidalgo, where you can find the usual offerings, plus pastor(lamb) and chivo (goat). You’ll also find a well-stocked liquor store (with many tequilas and agaves), where the prices are lower than most other liquor stores in town. Another adventure here is the public restroom – you will need to buy a token to use either the men’s or the women’s, and you will also need to buy toilet paper. The token is about a nickel, and the toilet paper about the same.

There is even more offbeat shopping in Tijuana, as there is in every town in Mexico. We’ll look at some real money-saving in upcoming articles.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by David Roland © 2008
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