When my dear wife and I travel, we often play a game where we look at some small, out of the way hamlet and ask “where do they get their groceries?” Sometimes the answer is just around a corner, where we pass a general store, but often there is no obvious answer.
Here in Mexpat land, there are several obvious answers. First off, we have mega-chains like Costco and Sam’s in Guadalajara. We also have traditional supermarkets, including a Walmart here in Ajijic and a Soriana next door in Chapala, and another called Mega near Guadalajara. All of this retail infrastructure would be very familiar to any visitor from NOB. While prices at these retailers are good, they are not the budget-friendly option in Mexico. Places like SuperLake stock the usual local foodstuffs but also exotic imports–at a mark-up–for the expat crowd.
Next there are the small specialty stores: the butchers, the bakers, the tortilla-makers. These are generally small shops run by families and marketing a very specific product. Again, not unlike the American market 50 years ago, but here the small retailers were never run out of business like they were so often in the States. Today in the States, these small shops are usually high-end or boutique retailers, while in Mexico they are budget-friendly providers.
One variation on the specialty shop is also one of the more unique retail operations in Mexico: the “guy-with-the-truck.” We can track the Dairy Guy, have heard rumors about the Beef Guy and the Fish Guy, and we absolutely rely on the Coffee Guy. These entrepreneurs load up their specialty wares and stop at specific locations on specific days, where you can walk up to their trucks and purchase your food. Somewhat like the food truck movement NOB, but for the raw ingredients, not finished meals.
Another retail form are abarrotes, literally grocers. These are mini-general stores, usually run out of the first floor of the home or even a room in the family’s casa, and they stock the usual suspects: things in constant demand by locals at very low prices. They are ubiquitous.
Finally, the most important retail operation in any village or town is the tianguis, or market. Usually set for a given day and deconflicted with neighboring towns (so if you miss your tianguis, you can take the bus down the road and visit the next village’s tomorrow), tianguis are a melange of fresh fruits and vegetables, snacks, toys, electronica, carry-out meals, pets, you name it. The tianguis is as much a social event as a shopping trip.
The tianguis is a cross between a farmer’s market and a county fair. It sprouts up once a week, transforming the street in the process. Wonder how the stalls get the power to run their cooking or entertainment devices? If you enlarge my photos, you’ll see an multiplug stuck into an extension cord leading up the stone wall. Somebody climbs a pole and hacks into the overhead electrical wiring!