Street Markets of Mexico: Immersion, Adventure, Overload

Photo Credit: Julian Tapia

Photo Credit: Julian Tapia

Earlier this fall, I revisited El Potrero Chico, Mexico, with my friend Julian Tapia. My goal was simple: climb as much rock as possible before my skin gave out. An array of 1,000+ foot limestone knife blades, El Potrero, is synonymous with long, exotic sport climbing, and we were psyched to get on as much of it as we could.

Little did I know, we would barely climb, but it would be the most adventurous trip to El Potrero I had ever had.

After years of tying in with Julian, I am learning that the process of adventure observes no loyalty to our itineraries. I didn’t know it yet, but we were about to explore the side of El Potrero Chico I had never seen—the human side.

One day we woke up to find water droplets on the tent. I poked my head out—we were camped in the backyard at Homero’s (the original El Potrero climbers’ camp) and the fog was so thick I could not see the house thirty yards away. Undaunted, if a little wobbly from last night’s cervezas and vino, we marched into the canyon, started up a route, and immediately got stormed off.

During the rest of the five-day trip, we would ascend two routes. I scowled as impatience dug in hard. Smoldering under the bulk of our forced rest, I somehow wanted the rock, my partner, the weather, everything to bend to my will and let me crank out mileage on the cliffs. Julian was completely undeterred. One day, he suggested we check out Hidalgo. We were soggy, and I was vaguely irritated but agreed.

In town, we stumbled into the Tuesday market and ducked under the tents. My frustration vaporized—I immediately realized it had been years since I had truly explored a foreign country. The market saturated my lizard brain, triggering all my senses in a chain reaction. I can speak broken Spanish, with enough comprehension to navigate simple encounters. In the market, I was overwhelmed and fascinated. Tables overflowed with everything: piles of golfball-sized onions spilled over onto tables lined with Nikes, Pumas, Jordans. From the front edges of these tables hung posters: soccer players, monster trucks, the Vírgen de Guadalupe. At the next tent, a man sat inside floor-to-ceiling curtains of brightly packaged plastic toys—unicorns, action figures, American football cards, badminton rackets, chrome-dipped tiaras, cap guns, water guns, and spaceships. Nearby, a woman officiated Loteria games (similar to bingo) that would run all day. “La Mujer…la culebra…el nopal…el borracho.”

Photo Credit: Julian Tapia

We swam through the humanity, and my heart pumped hard. There were snippets of conversations I could not understand danced up to my ears like hummingbirds at a feeder, and disappeared just as quickly. We bought jalapenos, onion and strange avocados that people eat like apples. We enjoyed cups of melon drizzled with the mysterious Mexican red sauce that goes on everything from hélado to eloté.

“¿Quieres salsa?”

“¡Sí, gracias jefe!”

The vendors nodded to us patiently and professionally as I squinted and gesticulated, short of breath from listening to their music-like language, straining to sort it out into phrases and prices. Clusters of young boys pointed at us, laughing, and we laughed back. Suddenly, we emerged from under the last tent. We bought gorditas from a woman, and Julian took pictures with some excited teenagers who were helping her load her things into a van.

“¿Estos son tus niños?”

“Sí, son mis niños.”

“¿Son muy amable, no?”

She smiled. “Sí, muy amable.”

Photo Credit: Julian Tapia

Photo Credit: Julian Tapia

We sat down in the square nearby, drizzled more pervasive red sauce onto our sandwiches, and ate. We were ecstatic. I could not stop thinking about how kind and dignified the vendors had been, and how their lives were synonymous with their goods. I had foolishly tipped one man selling vegetables. He had shrugged and dropped the coin into his till neither condemning nor appreciating the act. His business spoke for itself, and its ethic was clear—he required no handouts, especially from grinning gringos.

Making the most of the rainy weather, we spent the rest of the trip drinking copious amounts of cold cerveza and continuing to explore Hidalgo at street level, by moving among the people whose livelihoods its commerce nourishes.

I am learning to appreciate life as people around me live it. As “climbers,” it gets very easy to detach ourselves from society as we commit to pushing our limits and expanding our horizons. Sometimes, though, those boundaries have nothing to do with climbing. There are people in the world who live as close to the edge as rock climbers will ever dream—and who do not do it by choice. For the people of the Hidalgo markets, every day is an adventure. Every day is survival.

So if you are ever in Mexico, get immersed in a street market. You might learn something.