A market with a million stories, the Mercado de la Merced lies sprawling across some 12 blocks in Mexico City, offering a mind-boggling array of goods, as it has for centuries. Operating in the northwest corner, next to the 17th-century Santo Tomás Apóstol La Palma church, is a 67-year-old association of dulcerías – purveyors of sweets and candies – with 154 stalls selling traditional goodies in elaborate and tantalizing displays. Willie Wonka would eat his heart out.
According to the association’s president, Daniel Jiménez Chavarría, it is the only market of its kind in Latin America, and it is deeply ingrained in the traditions that thrive across Mexico. “What we sell is purely artisanal, and we are offering a different presentation,” said Jiménez, a silver-haired man with glasses, describing how these small stalls differ from their larger competitors.
What’s great about the artisanal stuff sold at these stands it that it is so unprocessed, in addition to being a lot cheaper than industrially produced candy. Take, for example, the alegrias – cubes of amaranth grain, often mixed with peanuts or other nuts and raisins, all held together by honey. These block-shaped treats make for great energy boosters on hikes, as they lack refined sugar or unnatural ingredients. At La Merced’s dulcerías, they go for 12 to 20 pesos in bulk, whereas the same candies often sell for 5 pesos each elsewhere in the city.
Both in the sweets section and elsewhere in the market, one finds amazing deals for bulk purchases. La Merced remains the largest traditional market in Mexico City, and many street vendors and merchants in small stores across the capital come here to stock up on supplies. We bought some homemade freezer pops after watching for a while as the señora sealed off the plastic tips with a lighter – very DIY. Ten 6-inch pops went for 5 pesos, or about US$.03 per pop.
Roughly three decades ago, as Mexico City’s population soared, dozens of new stands and much larger, wholesale-oriented dulcerías mushroomed all around the existing market and along the adjoining General Anaya avenue. “The big stores depressed sales,” said Jiménez, who runs his own stand at the entrance to the dulcería market (Locales 62-64, Puerta No. 6 near the Anillo de Circunvalación). “Only three years ago did they pass a law to stop the opening of new [big] stores.”
The association has taken extensive steps to differentiate its vendors from the bigger outlets. This is evident in the elaborate walls of confections, looking particularly red and white around Valentine’s Day. Jiménez said the colors and feel of the market change dramatically from holiday to holiday to give a seasonal mood to the aesthetics – something he notes you won’t find in the superstores only a stone’s throw away.
It’s a spectacle, to say the least. We were a bit stunned seeing a stand selling assorted candy pell-mell in giant vats by the kilo. And the colors and variety are dazzling. Indeed, the whole market is a bit dizzying, and the key to making the right purchases is having an idea of what you’re looking for and remembering the prices at the stalls as you go, so you can make comparisons. You’ll also need to remember where the stall you are interested in is and how to get back there – much trickier than it seems.
The traditional sweets part of the market is entered via a tunnel off of Misioneros. There are actually two entrances, the closer one marked “DULCERIA HNOS PALMA” and the other marked “Variedad En Dulces.” Although it’s a bit spooky, the tunnel is very safe, as it’s bustling with workers all day long. It also has some of the cheapest stands in the whole market, as it gets a lot less foot traffic.
In the heart of the tunnel, check out Local 17 – Dulcería EMI – a great spot for bargains. (It’s also easy to find again on your way out, so if you see something that you want to buy, note the price and if you can’t find anything better inside, pick it up on the way out.) From the tunnel, you’ll head up to the aboveground traditional candy market. Once you get to a lot of industrially produced candy, you’ve moved beyond the traditional section. We recommend checking out both areas.
If you head to the left as you exit the tunnel and enter the market, you can walk along the main two corridors of the market. Turning left again, back toward the main street, you’ll arrive at the outdoor row of vendors selling candied fruit and ate, a type of quince paste that often incorporates different fruits.
If you walk all the way up to General Anaya and take a right, you’ll come to the mega-sized candy stores, with eye-popping prices. These stores generally carry industrially produced sweets and snacks; one of the largest is Cynan at General Anaya 48.
The displays are nice but, in the end, what’s on offer at these stores holds no charm compared to the creative, homemade stuff back in the sweet heart of the dulcería zone.