Bargaining savvy pays off in Mexico

Story and photos by Michelle da Silva Richmond

Vendors come from small villages to display their vibrant waresIt's no secret that Mexico is a treasure-trove of colorful handicrafts. What may be a secret is that there is a special technique for walking away with some incredible bargains when visiting south of the border.

The entire country is a mecca for shoppers and whether you’re inclined to embark on a shopping spree or not, you may just find yourself caught up in a frenzy of buying. Shopping in Mexico is so varied and wonderful that it is virtually impossible for even the most blasé traveler – male or female – to return home empty-handed. With this thought in mind, you should take at least one empty suitcase with you when traveling south of the border as temptations can be found at every turn.

In the beginning…..

Centuries ago the Aztecs established an event, known as Tianguis, launching a cultural tradition which lingers to this day throughout Mexico. The happening -- meaning “marketplace” in the ancient Nahuatl language -- gave birth to a cultural phenomenon which thrives to this day: regateo, the art of bargaining.

La Ciudadela Market in Mexico City is bursting with colorful bargainsOpen-air markets were set up on different days and in different areas of Tenochtitlán -- as the ancient capital of Mexico was known -- providing locals not only with vegetables and basic foodstuffs, but affording them a social happening.

Legend has it that it was here that marriages were arranged, sacrifices plotted and -- best of all -- where bargains abounded. Often, goods were merely bartered but if actual prices were quoted, counter-offers were made and the "sport" began.

Whether fact or fiction, bargaining remains a basic fiber of Mexican life today. A good rule of thumb for you to know is that most handicraft stores (unless government-run) are open to haggling – and markets specializing in handicrafts expect it. Think of it as a quasi-national sport, one Mexicans relish with mucho gusto (much pleasure), so feel free to indulge and you’ll walk away richer for the experience.

Whimsical alebrijes are popular with tourists and locals alike.In larger cities such as Mexico City (referred simply to as “el D.F.” for Distrito Federal) and Guadalajara you will find items from around the world tucked into sleek shopping malls, famous-name boutiques, swank galleries and trendy designer shops, but the "real" Mexico will be found in other places.  

Rustic markets bursting with handicrafts, workshops and boutiques specializing in artesanías (handicrafts) beckon. The brightly colored treasures are true works of art and offer a meaningful way in which to explore the "soul" of Mexico.

The techniques…

Following are four different tried and true bargaining techniques in Mexican stores, shops and other marketplaces. Find one that works, perfect it – and go for it. Don’t feel guilty. After all, this sport was started by the ancient tribes of Mexico and remains a good-natured ritual to this day.

  • Macabre skeletons add to the Day of the Dead d├ęcor at Mexico City's Londres market.Ask for the price; make a counter offer, acting disinterested. Move slowly away, glancing longingly at the object of your “affection.” When you hear a price you like, start serious negotiations.
  • Walk determinedly into the shop, make a quick scan of the merchandise, then do some fast, no nonsense dickering. You’ll get better deals when buying in bulk.
  • Clench teeth firmly, pick up the object of your desires, clinging to it tenaciously until you hear a price you like. Keep on countering until you wear the clerk out.
  • Looking vaguely bored, ask for the price, giving a disdainful snort when it is quoted. Move slowly out of the shop, hoping the clerk will follow with a better offer. If not, go back in, swallow your pride and start from scratch.
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