The craft tradition of Mexico, much of it descended directly from arts practised long before the Spanish arrived, is still extremely strong. Regional and highly localized specialities survive, with villages throughout the republic jealously guarding their reputations – especially in the states of Michoacán, Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Yucatán. There’s a considerable amount of Guatemalan textiles and embroidery about, too.
To buy crafts, there is no need to visit the place of origin – craft shops in Mexico City and all the big resorts gather the best and most popular items from around the country. On the other hand, it’s a great deal more enjoyable to see where the articles come from, and certainly the only way to get any real bargains. The good stuff is rarely cheap wherever you buy it, however, and there is an enormous amount of dross produced specifically for tourists.
FONART shops, in major centres throughout Mexico, are run by a government agency (wfonart.gob.mx) devoted to the promotion and preservation of crafts; their wares are always excellent, if expensive, and the shops should be visited to get an idea of what is available. Where no such store exists, you can get a similar idea by looking at the best of the tourist shops.
Among the most popular items are: silver, the best of which is wrought in Taxco, although rarely mined there; pottery, made almost everywhere, with different techniques, designs and patterns in each region; woollen goods, especially blankets, which are again made everywhere, and sarapes from Oaxaca – always check the fibres and go for more expensive natural dyes; leather, especially tyre-tread-soled huaraches (sandals), sold cheaply wherever you go; glass from Jalisco; lacquerware, particularly from Uruapán; and hammocks, the best of which are sold in Mérida.
It is illegal to buy or sell antiquities, and even more criminal to try taking them out of the country (moreover, many items sold as valuable antiquities are little more than worthless fakes) – best to just look.
For bargain hunters, the mercado (market) is the place to head. There’s one in every Mexican town which, on the traditional market day, will be at its busiest with villagers from the surrounding area bringing their produce for sale or barter. Mercados are mainly dedicated to food and everyday necessities, but most have a section devoted to crafts, and in larger towns you may find a separate crafts bazaar.
Unless you’re completely hopeless at bargaining, prices will always be lower in the market than in shops, but shops do have a couple of advantages. First, they exercise a degree of quality control, whereas any old junk can be sold in the market; and second, many established shops will be able to ship purchases home for you, which saves an enormous amount of frustrating bureaucracy.
Bargaining and haggling are very much a matter of personal style, highly dependent on your command of Spanish, aggressiveness and, to some extent, experience. The old tricks (never show the least sign of interest – let alone enthusiasm, and walking away, will always cut the price dramatically) do still hold true; but make sure you know what you want, its approximate value and how much you are prepared to pay. Never start to haggle for something you definitely don’t intend to buy – it’ll end in bad feelings on both sides. In shops there’s little chance of significantly altering the official price unless you’re buying in bulk, and even in markets most food and simple household goods have a set price (though it may be doubled at the sight of an approaching gringo).