The Mercado in Cancun is a flea market for fun and treasures

Cancun Flea Market

I've always had a weakness for flea markets. Call it the thrill of the hunt. I know I can go to a mall and probably find what I need, but I will never encounter the strange characters I meet at a flea market.

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In a flea market, you know that alongside the gaudy Elvis clocks with the swiveling hips, you may eventually stumble upon some authentic treasures. That is why my eyes lit up like the hotel strip of Cancun, Mexico, when the cab driver told me and my traveling companion if we wanted to see the real shopping action, we needed to mingle with the locals, at the massive, downtown, tented flea market.

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.

The Mercado in Cancun is a flea market for fun and treasures

Quirky Shop Owners, Guitars, T-Shirts and More

I 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 Mercado in Cancun is a flea market for fun and treasures
The T-shirt salesman with the bad teeth and the big smile kept throwing shirts at us. When that didn't work, he followed us to the next shop. When that didn't work, he resorted to flirtation, in Spanish, English --it didn't matter. Soon, I knew he would offer us three shirts for the price of one. Some customers like the cat-and-mouse game of this strange version of Spanish "Price is Right." We found our dream T-shirts, after digging through many mounds of shirts. We bought some cool renderings of the ruins, but then we found goofy sun faces, with blazing rays, that reminded us of the Mexican Riviera's sticky summer heat.

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 Found

If 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.

Updated: January 2, 2017

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