One of my favorite places to shop in Mexico is Tonala. It is well known for its blown glass and metal sculptures…and for its Sunday market! Tonala is a small suburb on the east side of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, approximately a 2-hour drive from Leon. The Sunday market in Tonala is a grand shopping adventure. I will share my tips, tricks, and experiences here so that if you ever have a chance to wander through the Tonala Sunday Market, you have some idea of what to expect.
During my first trip to Tonala, I went during the Buen Fin weekend, which is similar to Black Friday in the US. Parking was very difficult to find that day and I would recommend arriving early – maybe before 9:30 AM – in order to find a good place to park and shop the Buen Fin deals. On my subsequent trips to Tonala, parking was not an issue before 10:30 AM. My favorite parking place is easy to find on Google Maps and it is the first one right off of the main road (on google maps, it is called Naztlin), but they fill up fast. They make you pay 40 pesos (US$2) in advance no matter how long you are parked, but it is worth the price. As is always the case in Mexico, when you park, do not leave valuables in your car. It is always advisable that if you have to leave bags in your car, they should be out of sight. An alternative type of parking lot in Tonala will provide a paper on which you list the items left in your car. These tend to be the really small parking lots where you have to leave your vehicle key. Essentially, they keep an eye on the vehicle and your belongings, plus they have the vehicle key so that they can fit more vehicles in the parking lot. You use this at your own risk, but I have not had any trouble from the parking lots that do it this way. Simply make sure that everything in your vehicle is still there before you leave, and don’t leave anything valuable (electronics, jewelry, money).
Finding the best prices in the shortest amount of time:
The market is an overwhelming display of items, with vendors crammed together under tarps and crowding the sidewalks that line both sides of the main road as well as many of the side streets that branch off. One of the first things I noticed is that the permanent shops along the main road typically have higher prices than the street vendors that are lined up along the sidewalks. However, the permanent shops have a much larger selection of items to choose from than the vendors in the market. With this in mind, I recommend winding through the tarp-covered walkways first to check out the things they have on display and check prices, and then circling back around to look at the permanent shops on the way back.
Another thing I noticed is that the shops and vendors further from the main road also have better prices. I highly recommend walking on those side streets too, because you never know what you may find. There is more to see here than there is time to see it, even in the several visits I have made to this market. One thing to keep in mind though – for anyone that does not like the literal press of humanity against their body, walking through the vendors and through the crowded, tarp-covered walkways might be a horrific experience. It is a tight fit and the forward movement is often slow and requires much maneuvering around and between people. For this reason, I also do not recommend trying to push a stroller or wheelchair through the main street of this market. It is not very handicap accessible and there are several places where the sidewalk changes height all of a sudden, causing people to stumble and almost fall – which they would if there weren’t so many people in the way.
The way I have described this so far probably does not make this market sound very appealing. However, the things I have seen and found and the prices they charge make the entire experience very worthwhile. And if you are looking for “authentic” Mexico, this is a great place to find it.
Examples of great prices:
- Large, colorful, blown-glass hearts are 40 pesos (US$2) each from a nice vendor in a tiny, corner shop located off of the main market street.
- A vendor in a shop a few streets away (business card in the photos below) from the main street of the market sells large, heavy-duty, blown-glass pitcher and tumbler sets for about 400 pesos (about US$20).
Tips to increase your shopping enjoyment:
There are so many interesting, colorful, and unique items and artwork that can be found in the Tonala market. I am constantly amazed by all of the different things I see every time I go. In addition, every time I go shopping, I find more beautiful things that I want to buy than I can possibly carry (or fit in my house). To make this part of the shopping experience easier, take large bags, that can be comfortably carried on a shoulder or back, in which to carry purchases. I cannot stress the importance of this enough, based on my own experience.
Tips on finding food:
The food smells in Tonala are absolutely amazing! There are many places to get food in Tonala as you shop – from a sit-down restaurant inside a building, to a sit-down vendor cooking in the open air in the middle of the shopping alleys, to the street vendors selling food on the go. I have tried a few of each of these. I discovered my absolute favorite food in Tonala and it comes from street vendors that you find strewn throughout the market. The food is called a gordita and, in Tonala, it is fried dough filled with something sweet. I have had gorditas elsewhere, and they are delicious, but the gorditas in Tonala are different. They sell them plain but they also sell them with a variety of fillings – chocolate, cajeta, or cream. The dough is sweet, so even the plain ones are delicious. Hands down, this is the best food in Tonala, and every time I go, I buy a few bags. The best price for these is typically 10 pesos for 5 gorditas. Sometimes, I have seen vendors charge 15 or 20 pesos for 5 gorditas, but I typically skip those vendors and find the ones with a better price.
You can also find a beverage from street vendors called tejuino. It has lime juice and fermented corn in it. It is delicious! This is a drink that is very popular in Jalisco state (which is where Tonala is located). I highly recommend trying this unique beverage.
Another fun street vendor, if you can find them, are the ones that sell street palomas (these taste similar to margaritas). The experience is fun to watch and the palomas are sweet. It is fun to watch them make the drinks because, since they are not supposed to sell alcohol on the street, they have to be sneaky with their tequila. They sell these very large palomas for around 90-100 pesos each, but you can get some of your money back if you return the really cool clay mug it’s served in. (I never do that.) There is usually a small crowd of people around the vendor, watching and joking about the experience. I don’t know how sanitary the drink-making station is, and I’m sure that the guys reuse the mugs that people bring back without washing them well, but if you think about it, alcohol kills germs, so it’s probably okay. As long as you don’t think about it too much, it’s a much more enjoyable experience. (Update from July 2020: this experience may not be something I would do now in light of the pandemic, but perhaps someday we can enjoy this again.)
One bit of advice that we were given when we first moved to Mexico was that if there are a lot of people waiting to eat at a place, then it probably has excellent food. While walking through the alleys of vendors, the amazing smells from all of the food vendors grilling meats and veggies are mouth-watering and most, if not all, of these places have crowds of people surrounding them. I have only eaten at one of the places, one street over from the main crush of people, and the food was delicious. Waiting for seating in the middle of a crowded alley of vendors is not something I really want to do, so I have not stopped at other places yet.
While walking down a side street on my second trip to Tonala, I found a hidden restaurant called El Jardin (The Garden). The only reason I found it was because I heard a lot of birds chirping nearby and looked over to see an aviary. On the fence of the aviary, was the sign for the restaurant. We were hungry and decided to check it out. As we wound through a sidewalk between the aviary and building, we found ourselves in a small portico filled with tables. The staff is very friendly, they serve alcohol all day, and the food is delicious. It is now our go-to place to find respite from the crowds. There is also a restroom nearby that is free if you go from the restaurant. The only problem is that there are no toilet seats or toilet paper, so be prepared!
Tonala is a beautiful place, filled with art in the most unexpected places. There is more to see than can be seen in one, two, or twenty visits. The Sunday market feels like it stretches on forever. If you find that you have bought too much but you have only made it through a small part of the market, the vendor that I have bought the glass pitcher and tumbler sets from will let you leave your purchases with them under the table, along with the box(es) of glassware purchased from them. I am sure they are not the only vendors willing to do that. If you are not comfortable with that idea, some of the parking lots will watch your car for you if you leave purchases in it and return to shop. By 3 PM, many street vendors start packing up their tables. The permanent shops stay open longer, but the market starts to disperse at 3. If you saw something that you wanted to purchase, you need to get it before then.
Sometimes, you may see large carts being wheeled through the streets. The men pushing these carts will carry your large purchases for you for a price. If you go shopping for furniture, this is definitely the best option for “carting” it around.
No matter what you decide to shop for in Tonala, you will likely go home with more than you expected. Let me know if you have any other suggestions for shopping in this wonderful town. Enjoy!