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Four Things to Buy at Tijuana's Largest Mercado For Your Loved Ones Back Home ~ L.A. TACO

Nov 27, 2023

If you traveled across the border and didn't lug back a heavier suitcase full of regional goods for loved ones, did you even go at all?

10:42 PM PDT on June 8, 2023

Whether you're seeking out the perfect gift that will even impress your parents, or simply locating a decent place to alleviate the stress of souvenir shopping, Tijuana's Mercado Miguel Hidalgo guarantees the perfect recuerdo.

Located on the western edge of the city's bustling Zona Río, just two miles from the border, this Mercado boasts an impressive selection of vendors selling almost anything you could think of: candies, dishware, fresh fruit and vegetables, handmade shoes, kitchen utensils, pottery, cheeses, and butchered meats—the list goes on.

Founded in 1955 and named after the "Father of the Nation," the Mercado is composed of rows of brightly colored, two-story buildings that span an entire city block. Mercado Hidalgo is one of the city's largest and most diverse markets, containing its own central parking lot, public restroom, cafe, and church, plus several restaurants, plenty of vending stalls, and even a dentist's office.

The Mercado remains a popular shopping destination for tourists and locals alike. While I’d recommend spending an entire day in the Mercado to appreciate everything it has to offer, it's also just as easy to spend an hour or two and find what you need then get out.

Many items at the Mercado are allowed past customs, but keep in mind the list of currently prohibited and restricted items that won't make it back into the U.S. Products like fruit, vegetables, alcohol, and even certain grains are heavily regulated, so if you’re not sure, check out the current guidelines and know before you go.

Generally, as a rule of thumb, up to $800 worth of merchandise is allowed back into the U.S. if it's for personal use or intended for gifts. So as long as you’re sticking to the rules, you’ll be fine.

Here are my own top recommendations for gifts you can find at Mercado Miguel Hidalgo...

We all know someone who has a ridiculously sweet tooth and the Mercado is the perfect place to shop for them, with multiple candy stalls throughout offering dozens of classic Mexican sweets, as well as some familiar U.S. treats like Takis, flamin’ hot Cheetos, Kinder chocolates, and even bottled Coke.

De la Rosa's original Mazapán's can be found in various sizes and flavors at certain stalls. The original flavor can be bought in a 30-piece box for 100 pesos, but other selections like chocolate-covered, coconut, Splenda, and Gigante are also available with select vendors. Be on the lookout for price differences, though; some stalls are a lot pricier than others.

Other popular Mexican candies commonly found in the Mercado include: Borrachitos, a soft milk candy; Pulparindo, a sweet, tangy, and spicy candy offered in different flavors like chamoy, mango, and extra picante; and Paleta Payaso, a chocolate-covered marshmallow treat with sour gummies. Most of these candies range in price from 50 to 150 pesos, depending on the size and flavor of each type.

Luis López, a Tijuana local currently working at one of the Mercado's many candy stalls, has frequented the location since he was a child.

"There were times I came here when I was younger, when I was ten years old — it was just different back then," López says. "Some of the stores [in the mercado] weren't here yet."

He said one of his favorite candies is often overlooked: Bolitochas, a hard candy coated in chili and lime that comes in several flavors.

Another popular option for those not interested in candy is the bottled sodas, Lopez tells us. Mini bottles of Coca-Cola and specialty sodas that are often hard to find, like Yoli, a lemon-lime flavored soft drink typically only found in the Mexican state of Guerrero, are great options for gifts for friends in the States.

For the cooking-obsessed person in your life, Mercado Hidalgo has anything and everything they need: spatulas, cake servers, plastic and metal kitchen tongs, mallets, and even cake decorating tools like fondant molds and small rotary cutters, ranging in price anywhere from 50 to 200 pesos, are easy to come by.

While the Mercado has an impressive selection of products overall, it has an expansive range of kitchen utensils. Many vendors offer products perfect for stocking up one's kitchen.

Stainless steel serving spoons, silverware, citrus squeezers, wire strainers with handles, and wooden rolling pins are all available for under 100 Mexican pesos, or roughly under $5.50 U.S. dollars.

For under 150 pesos, you might even be able to find packets containing multiples of these utensils, meaning that buying in bulk could save you a couple of bucks if you’re really looking to fill up your kitchen drawers.

Be on the lookout for which stalls offer the best prices, though. One stall may offer serving spoons for 60 pesos, but another could offer identical serving spoons for just 49 pesos. That's another reason to spend a little extra time browsing the stalls.

There is no need to worry if you don't carry pesos either; most vendors will take American dollars or even credit and debit cards.

While a bag of sea salt or a container of dried peppers may not immediately seem significant for souvenirs, pantry staples are one of the most convenient items to bring back across the border.

Know someone who loves using honey as a sweetener? Jars of it, both with and without the honeycomb, can be found in various sizes and prices. A 16-ounce honey jar can be found for 80 pesos or under $5. A 33-ounce jar can be purchased for just over $8.

Sea salt can be purchased at 50 pesos for a two-kilogram bag at La Cava del Queso, a stall that sells a variety of cheeses and other items, like tostados and jams.

Pure vanilla extracts can be found in various sizes, ranging from 100 pesos for a 16-ounce bottle to 170 pesos for a 34-ounce bottle.

Dried beans and chile peppers are other great choices. Almost any type of frijol can be found in individually portioned bags or large containers that allow you to choose your own amount. Ranging from 17.50 pesos for half a kilogram of black beans to 40 pesos for a kilogram of sulfur beans (a rare pale yellow heirloom variety) the Mercado has excellent prices for any variety of beans.

The same goes for dried peppers. Some vendors will only offer pre-packaged bags of chiles secos anywhere from 50 to 100 pesos, while others will let you choose how much you want.

An assortment of other dried and non-perishable pantry items can be found at several stalls in the Mercado, making practical gifts that will liven up your loved one's dishes.

My personal favorites at the mercado would be the variety of ceramics and dishware found among so many stalls.

If you’re planning to purchase ceramics intended for use with food and drink, be advised of the current advisory on such items sourced in Mexico. Ceramics intended for decoration are safe to buy. While ceramics are safe to drink from or cook with at low temperatures when appropriately sanitized, traces of lead can still be found in certain products, especially glazed ceramics.

The only way to know if a product is entirely lead-free is by having it tested after returning to the U.S.

Simple matching hard plastic plates, bowls, and cups are available in multiple colors and priced anywhere from 10 to 40 pesos per piece. For simple ceramic dishes, the price will jump to anywhere from 45 to 150 pesos per piece.

Looking for something more colorful? Several stalls offer a range of colors and designs, such as the famous blue and white Talavera-style dishes that range from 60 to 200 pesos depending on the size and type of the dish.

Most stalls will also have more rustic options that feature a bare terracotta look, with some having simple floral designs and others having intricate and brightly colored patterns. There are even terracotta mugs with designs from La Lotería, the traditional Mexican card game.

Mugs can usually be bought for 50 to 100 pesos, with the more intricate ones going for around 150 to 200 pesos.

Medium-sized ceramic bowls and molcajete-style dishes typically range anywhere from 100 to 300 pesos, depending on size, style, and which stall you purchase it from. If you’re looking for a larger ceramic dish, such as a jug or platter, expect the price to exceed 300 pesos.

For 25 years, Marina Varela has worked in one of the larger stalls tucked away in the back corner of the mercado. Varela said the ceramics specifically are made in various states, such as Jalisco, but they’re all handcrafted in Mexico. Her personal favorite is the colorful ceramic plates found in her stall.

As tourism and client growth continue to shape the mercado, Varela said the vendors remain as a close community. No matter what you’re looking for, whether it's candy or ceramics, she said vendors will help guide you in the right direction to the stall that suits your needs.

So whether you're on the hunt for funky ceramics or cloyingly sweet candies, Mercado Hidalgo has your back when it comes to finding the perfect souvenirs in Tijuana.

Blvrd Gral Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada 9365, Zona Urbana Rio Tijuana, 22010 Tijuana, B.C., Mexico

This story is part of TIJUANA WEEK at L.A. TACO! A collaboration with Professors Amara Aguilar, Laura Castañeda, and USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Make sure to check back daily for more stories. A printable L.A. TACO Pocket Travel Guide to Tijuana will drop later this week so keep an eye out for that soon.

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