Cancun Flea Market
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During all my years of traveling, cab drivers have always been my best guides to the most wonderful, out-of-the-way places you're not likely to know about unless you live there, or have great instincts for the offbeat places.
Even if you love the upscale malls -- and Cancun has plenty of them -- you should not pass up the opportunity to experience this genuine Mexican market -- a strange slice of schlock heaven. Far from the generic malls, and all the beachfront resorts, we arrived at the flea market. We happily observed colorful cantinas, a noise-filled market and merchants who sold cheesy souvenirs right alongside handcrafted art, and loads of inexpensive jewelry. Sometimes we had to laugh as the wound-up merchants chased us halfway across the market, trying for that one last chance to seal the deal.
Quirky Shop Owners, Guitars, T-Shirts and MoreI made the mistake of telling one shop owner I had always wanted to learn to play the guitar. She sang off-key while she strummed an old guitar and promised me she would make my dreams come true. I wanted to tell her to quit singing, and then she would really make my dreams come true. But she pursued me with such ardor I did not have the heart to rain on her parade.
The flea market is not for the refined, quiet shopper. It is chaotic, loud and even a little obnoxious. But the sprawling marketplace is also friendly and entertaining. The merchants are right in your face, you can touch the merchandise, haggle over the prices, and the day is just not complete, unless you have been chased down by a merchant before you go home.
My traveling companion and I enjoyed the quirky characters every bit as much as the eclectic merchandise. I'm sure gringa flashed on our heads like cheap neon as we shoveled out pesos and tried not to look shocked when we walked away with a post card of a pretty beach scene that cost us 20 pesos. As soon as we realized 20 pesos is only $2, we were relieved.
In the blazing Cancun sun, all of those plastic chili peppers, striped blankets, glittery sombreros, and dangling puppets start to look alike. But that's just the way it is at a flea market -- you have to skim through the layers of trash to reach the treasures. One shop owner sold those tacky shot glasses that I see in every bad souvenir shop, but they were not nearly as fascinating as the industrial-sized cockroach that crawled up the wall. Even if Senor Cockroach seemed too close for comfort, we didn't have the heart to tell the smiling shop owner the large insect repulsed us. Could he have been a pet? She seemed to know him.
The man with the armloads of T-shirts stopped stalking us. It was time to find some real Mexican art treasures. Now, you will not necessarily find museum quality stuff in a flea market, but you will discover some fine examples of primitive, Mexican folk art. The attractive, hand-crafted, silver jewelry is also one of the better flea market bargains. I found a bracelet with a beautifully etched, primitive Aztec design -- only $15 US dollars. The conversation pieces were the miniature, marble cat sculptures that reminded us of our finicky felines at home The stone dolphins and glass seals were equally handsome bookshelf ornaments. They, too, were inexpensive.
Craft Treasures to be FoundIf you want a real taste of Mexico, you will notice extremely detailed paintings on thin sheaths of bark hanging from the ceilings almost everywhere you look. Many of the scenes are of weddings, family celebrations, fishing trips, and as disgusting at it is, cock fights in the streets. The hand-painted plates also brandish bold colors and offer glimpses of Mexican culture and life. If you buy more than one bark or plate, you can usually negotiate a nice discount on the second and third one.
We brought home a raft of treasures -- enough art, in fact, to frame one kitchen wall. We also bickered, bargained, and received a free serenade. Alright, it was a bad serenade. But it left smiles on our faces and warm memories of our first trip to Cancun.
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Terry Loncaric is a Chicago freelance writer. Her stories have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Girlfriends and other publications. She has also provided the photographs.