Central de Abastos in Oaxaca City is quite possibly the most intimidating shopping arena in the world, especially for a tourist. Imagine every kind of consumer item (I mean every kind!) packed into three football fields in a grid of 50 columns by 50 rows, with a crowd resembling a U-2 concert swirling around you. Overwhelming, to say the least. The first time I went into the Abastos, I became so disoriented I ended up exiting at the closest point to me and walking around the outside of until I arrived back where I started. These days, having spent a lot of time, I can safely say I know the market as well or better than most locals. If I held a “what’s in the Abastos?” question/answer session with 20 people chosen at random, I doubt that anyone could name something that isn’t for sale there (yes, even wedding dresses ).
Once you’ve been there a few times, though, your eyes tend to relax and you start to take in every little nook and cranny. And you start to wonder all sorts of things, like, “There’s no refrigeration here, where does all this produce go at the end of the day? And where do all these flowers come from, and who buys them? How far away have these live turkey and chickens come from and are they really going back by taxi like everything else? Who in the world manages this place and where do the rent checks for all these different vendors go?”
Needless to say, I spend a great deal of time in the aisles of the chile vendors (yes, most items tend to be clustered together, produce with the produce, leather goods or flower vendors all together). Over the last six or seven years I’ve developed very good relationships with most of the chile vendors and actually registered two of them (Violeta and Elisio ) with the F.D.A. as food facilities, which is a must if I’m going to be able to import their products. If you ever get to Oaxaca City and are really up for an adventure, head straight to the Abastos and dive right in. Better yet, go with a guide like my friend Roberto Gavidia; at least then you’ll come out of the Abastos where you entered it.
Photos by Chris Guibert