Vallarta Daily News recently published an article about Walmart’s growth in Mexico, which many foreigners understand what this means for produce markets, butchers, and tiendas in Mexico. Adios.
The article sparked the conversation ‘where are the best grocery stores in Puerto Vallarta?’
My most treasured moments here in Mexico are my daily strolls through the Zapata Municipal Market area to buy my daily fruits, vegetables, and meat selections. Stopping in the surrounding tiendas to pick up my paper and bathroom supplies, the owners working the counter, knowing my name, and always a friendly smile and truly grateful for my business.
If you ask me, the best grocery store in Puerto Vallarta is no grocery store at all.
When I first arrived to Puerto Vallarta and lived in the Romantic Zone I still very much had my gringo ways and desired the grocery store. For many north of the border our tradition is shopping on Saturday for an entire week’s worth of groceries, this means lots of frozen and canned foods.
In my first days in Puerto Vallarta I went in search of the best grocery store in the area, and of course convenience matters too. In the Romantic Zone the foreigners could not get enough of Rizos, so I thought I should give that my first try. What a mistake. I could not understand why foreigners gushed over Rizos. While the kid’s book ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ is enjoyable, it really isn’t the products we desire to see on the grocery store shelves. Rizos was dirty, the food was expired, and the meat always had a hint of green. Eventually the store did close blaming Mexicans for being thieves, but something tells me the store closed because of management and quality, two things that determine success or not in every business.
Finally someone suggested that Ley’s was the best place for groceries in Centro, and I had heard the name from many foreigners before. With excitement to discover the best grocery shopping in Puerto Vallarta I headed out to Ley’s for my ‘weekly’ grocery shopping.
Upon entering Ley’s I could not help but to wonder if all the foreigners in Puerto Vallarta were playing a cruel joke on me. The most recommended store, Rizos, could have never passed a health inspection, someone had to have been paying off the city to run such a dirty store. I never thought it could get any worse, but Ley’s hit that mark. The smell of the store is enough to test anyone’s gag reflexes, I could not finish my shopping and left my cart in the middle of the store before we needed a cleanup on isle #5.
It wasn’t long after that the announcement was made that Puerto Vallarta would be hosting a ‘Farmers Market’ in Old Town, finally some great news for us in Old Town looking for better grocery shopping in our neighborhood. Needless to say it was a disappointment and didn’t meet the qualifications to be named a ‘Farmers Market’, mostly the market is handmade clothes, jewelry, art, and breads, with very little ‘farm’ options. While it has added a small handful of actual farmed goods over the years, it’s much more of a tourist attraction than an actual usable Farmer’s Market, which is why it’s only open during the tourist season. Not really a local option for us year-round residents.
I was aware of Mega in the Hotel Zone and I had shopped there often, but my quest was to find something in Centro or Old Town. Living in this area of Puerto Vallarta has a lot of perks, but getting out of the city center and returning can be challenging with the roads and traffic. The Hotel Zone is close enough, just not always convenient. This has gotten slightly better with the new tunnel and widening of the road, that route will shoot you right to the front of the Mega, but ‘back in the day’ the single-lane tunnel and police stops for bribes along that route was more trouble than it was worth. That’s another column for another day.
I spent many months traveling from Old Town to the Hotel Zone for my grocery shopping at Mega. It wasn’t until I started to expand my social circle to include Mexican friends that a true local recommended the Zapata Municipal Market.
I did have some concerns about market shopping. First, was my Spanish well enough to actually order what I wanted from a butcher? Grocery shopping had the advantage of just grabbing the packaged meat without needing to communicate. The other major concern was about sanitation, the concern that had me running from the other two previous recommendations. I have an extensive background in food and food safety in the United States, so many of those things were stuck in my head. I was even still avoiding eggs at that point because they were not refrigerated in the grocery stores. (if you want to know why eggs are refrigerated in the U.S., you can read that article we published here)
I knew that the market could not be any worse than green eggs and ham or sickening odors, so I had nothing to lose. In preparation I made a small list of items and Googled the Spanish translation for some things I was unsure about, mostly meat cuts and things I knew I would need to ‘order’ from a counter.
Arriving at the market for my first time was a little overwhelming, for me the challenge was completely the language differences and would I feel stupid and stumble on my words. The answer was yes, by the way. However everyone was helpful and appreciated my attempts. I learned most of my food related Spanish at the Zapata Market. Grocery shopping and Spanish lessons at the same time, that’s time management.
One thing I had failed to study before my first market trips was the difference between a pound and a kilo, we were dealing with the metric system now. For many months at the market I ordered everything by the kilo because I didn’t know how to order a half or quarter kilo of meats. Needless to say I wasted a lot of meat and gave a lot away to friends and neighbors. They were not sure why I was buying in bulk, but they were happy I did.
It really took me several months to get the hang of ordering food by quarter kilos or even by price value, such as $10 pesos of cheese instead of half kilo. Before long I was able to get my portions under control and have less stress at the market, which is when I really started to enjoy the experience.
It wasn’t long before I was shopping the market every morning with my coffee cup and buying just the food I needed for the day. A chicken breast, a fish fillet, a couple of vegetables, one apple, etc. One thing you will also notice is that items like chips, cokes, cakes, breads, and junk overall are not easily available for purchase like they are in chain grocery stores. My health started to thank me for the changed diet, and my wallet had some thanks too. I now eat 5 meals a day for about $5 a day, at most $50 a week for groceries, much less than my weekly grocery shopping that was $100 – $150 a week. (Using USD)
I can see the tradition of market shopping every morning and the importance it plays in local communities and neighborhoods. The market is where the locals meet up, talk about the recent happenings and neighborhood rumors, catch up on family news, and swapping family recipes. I cannot tell you how many great cooking tips I received at the market and how so many locals were happy to tell me about some of the food items that were not common in the U.S, the social activity of shopping in the market really expanded my food options. This doesn’t happen at large grocery stores.
The expansion of chain grocery stores, Walmart, Costco, and Sams threaten this unique shopping experience that has long been forgotten north of the border. The next time you are heading out to one of these larger grocery outlets, ask yourself, what can I buy at my neighborhood market and tienda, and what part can I play in preserving Mexico’s traditions.
The answer to where is the best place to grocery shop in Puerto Vallarta is easy for me, anything local.
Enjoy a weekend day at the market this weekend, it’s not too late!
I have been six years grocery store and Walmart shopping free! I challenge you to experience a different way of shopping. Your health, wallet, and the locals will thank you.
Ian Hayden Parker
* These are the thoughts and opinions of Ian Hayden Parker.
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