Where the Buys Are
Who should drive seven hundred miles south of the border to the Mexican cities of San Miguel, Guanajuato, and Dolores Hidalgo? Every bargain hunter in Texas.
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HAVING DONE MORE THAN MY FAIR SHARE of shopping in the interior of Mexico, whenever I travel there I expect to come across some beautiful things that I can never take with me. So as I stood in Casa Armida, a shop in San Miguel de Allende, transfixed by a gigantic carved retablo full of painted saints and soaring angels, a familiar voice kept murmuring in the back of my head: “Keep moving. You can’t afford it, and you can’t get it home.”
I had never seen anything like it. Each of its 23 saints and angels had been carved and painted individually, then placed in rows on hand-hewn ledges and columns. This magnificent wall hanging, made in the Mexican state of Michoacán, seemed like it would bring miracles and good fortune to my house and family; surely it would shower its blessings upon us. Best of all, it was eight feet high and four feet wide—just the size of the empty space above my fireplace.
When I strolled into Casa Armida, an amazing store stacked two stories high with hand-painted furniture, massive iron chandeliers, and one very old cannon, I thought I was only browsing. But I couldn’t leave without asking for the price of the retablo. The salesman quoted me a price of $600—less than I expected and no doubt a fraction of its value in the United States. Still, $600 is a lot of money for a piece of folk art. And though my truck was parked outside, I intended to bring back a cedar dining table I had seen on my last trip to the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo. I did not have room for both.
If your shopping in Mexico has been limited to border towns or the stalls near the cruise ship docks, you haven’t begun to explore the wonders—or dilemmas—that await you in the interior of the country. This is particularly true in the historic cities of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Dolores Hidalgo, three of my favorite shopping destinations. The area is easily reached via flights to nearby León, but since it is only seven hundred miles from the border on generally excellent highways, I prefer to drive. Armed with auto insurance and a map-filled road log from Sanborn’s (the best-known auto insurance company in North America for travel in Mexico), I have covered thousands of miles on these roads without incident (only during the day, of course; for safety reasons, you should never drive at night in Mexico). Along the way, I’ve seen some spectacular sights, and I’ve brought home purchases that air travelers can only dream about.
Sanborn’s can also help you get the car permit and tourist visa you need to go into Mexico. The crossing rarely takes more than fifteen minutes at the new Columbia Bridge, north of Laredo, where U.S. customs officials will likely remind you that American citizens are permitted just one $400 duty-free allowance every thirty days. But don’t let that stop you from shopping to your heart’s content. Under the General System of Preferences regulations, noncompetitive items—including almost all crafts, works of fine art, and handmade furniture—are duty free, as long as they are not meant for resale.
San Miguel is always my favorite place to start, and not just because of Casa Armida. One of the oldest and most beautiful cities in North America, San Miguel somehow maintains its provincial identity despite many tourists and foreign-born residents. Its flourishing arts-and-crafts scene features a wide selection of goods from all over Mexico, but the best deals are for local products. The light fixtures made of copper and etched glass or intricately punched tin are such a bargain that I always consider replacing every fixture in my house. Concha belts are also a steal, starting at $25 for leather belts with conchas made of alpaca, an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc. Belts with sterling silver conchas (look for the official sterling stamp, .925) are two or three times more.
Less than an hour north of San Miguel, the town of Dolores Hidalgo has just as much to offer. Back in the early 1800’s, parish priest Father Miguel Hidalgo introduced the craft of ceramic making to this backwater region as a way for the local Indian population to escape poverty and serfdom. Talavera de Dolores, as their tiles came to be known, were modeled on the famous Talavera de la Reina tiles of Toledo, Spain, which had been imported by the Moors in the eighth century. A sturdy tile with intricate hand-painted patterns, the typical Talavera de Dolores is white and cobalt blue and sometimes has a dash of yellow, green, or red.
You can purchase the tiles at bargain prices directly from many small manufacturers in Dolores. My favorite is Talavera Juan Vásquez, in the middle of town at Puebla 56 and 58. The six hundred tiles and matching hand-painted sink I purchased there for $250 two years ago adorn my guest bathroom at home. (The same pieces—thanks to last year’s peso devaluation—would now cost about half as much.) In addition to what’s inside, you’ll find dozens of local artisans painting intricate designs on unfired vases in a courtyard behind the Vásquez family showroom, as well as a huge pile of rejected tiles for sale at less than a nickel apiece. Like most shops, Talavera Vásquez will ship to the U.S., though if you’re shipping tiles, you should order extras to compensate for possible breakage.
Ceramics was not the only craft Father Hidalgo brought to Dolores Hidalgo, whose name was changed from simply “Dolores” in his honor. A long tradition of wood carving still flourishes here. On the way into town from San Miguel you will find several furnituremakers with carved colonial furnishings, as well as centuries-old doors, ironworks, and some huge horse-drawn wagons. On this trip my favorite store, Muebles y Decoraciónes, had a cedar table even larger and more beautiful than the one I remembered from last time. It had double pedestal bases, weighed perhaps three hundred or four hundred pounds, and was big enough to seat twelve—and the price was only $350. I wanted it without a doubt, but the prospect of moving the massive table into my house was daunting.
Unable to choose between the table and the retablo back in San Miguel, I headed two hours down the road to Guanajuato, where the best goods are not in shops but in the hands of strolling vendors. My first purchase in this university town of narrow streets and outdoor cafes was a wonderful toy ceramic bus—a classic piece of folk art made in the southern state of Guerrero, which borders the Pacific. The colorful rural bus had a dozen carefully sculpted people inside and all their belongings on top. The asking price was 50 pesos, and as I handed it over I held up the little bus to admire it again and said to the vendor with great satisfaction, “This is a present for my wife.”
“And this,” he told me, holding up the 50-peso bill, “is a present for mine.”
I might have bargained with the guy, but the price seemed fair. As a general rule, this is how I suggest you operate when dealing with vendors on the street: Follow your heart and head to what seems like a fair price, keeping in mind that the last couple of dollars you would save probably mean more to the vendors than they do to you. Of course, you can bargain if you like, but do so within reason. Even though most stores have fixed, clearly marked prices, many tourists mistakenly assume that everything is negotiable—or at least, they are being charged what is sometimes referred to as the gringo price. If you are uncertain, there are three ways to accomplish the goal of paying less. Ask if there is a discount, especially if you are buying several items. If something is priced too high, simply say you can’t pay that much and leave it to the seller to offer a discount or let you walk out. And when all else fails, smile. I have found that almost everyone in Mexico is susceptible to a smile.
The vendor in Guanajuato doing the steadiest business on the Jardín, the main plaza, was a woman selling beaded jewelry and belts made by her and her three teenage daughters. In their blouses and skirts adorned with exquisitely embroidered, multihued patterns, all four women could have been lifted from a postcard depicting classic Mexican costumes. The only exception to their traditional dress was the mother’s pair of jeweler’s glasses, which she wore to magnify the thousands of tiny beads that she strung. I bought an elegant black-and-white beaded belt for my wife for $17, and the woman threw in a small bracelet for my daughter.
I did consider bargaining with the same lady for an embroidered tablecloth draped over the back of her park bench—one of the most beautiful items I’ve ever seen for sale in Mexico. The family was from the small village of Tenango de Doria, which is inland from the Gulf Coast city of Vera-cruz. Despite its remote location thirty miles from the highway on an often impassable dirt road, Tenango de Doria is famous for its colorful embroidery, ranging from small cloths for wrapping tortillas to giant wall hangings and tablecloths like the one I coveted. The most popular designs are a panoply of animals of all shapes and sizes, with such an abundance of fine yarn in the embroidery that dozens of hours of work must be required for even the smaller pieces. The giant cloth I liked was unique because it featured not a rainbow of colors on the white muslin but only one: gold. A thousand yards of spun golden threads, it seemed, were embroidered into hundreds of beasts of land, sea, and sky. And the $200 price was uniquely high, although it sounded even higher in pesos—a million two hundred thousand.
It was not until later that evening that I realized the tablecloth could help me decide between the carved cedar table and the retablo. If I covered the funky old table we already owned with the beautiful cloth, I could take home the wall of saints. But the next night, the bead lady told me that the cloth had been sold. And, no, there was not another. It was one of a kind, made by a neighbor at home. “Lo siento,” she said. I was sorry too. I had broken a cardinal rule of shopping in Mexico: If you want it, buy it now. Come to think of it, I began to worry, the retablo might also be gone. I was willing to forgo the table for another year, but I could not stop thinking about those saints.
Arriving back in San Miguel, I was relieved to find that the saints were still smiling down on me. Within an hour, the clerk had the retablo packed in multiple layers of straw, shredded newspaper, heavy brown paper, and thick plastic. I charged the purchase on my tarjeta de crédito, or credit card, and advise you to do the same whenever possible in Mexico. With a credit card, you’ll get a much better rate of exchange for your dollars and you won’t have to carry large amounts of cash. (You can also get the same excellent exchange rates by using either your bank card or credit card to get cash from Mexican ATMs.)
With my truck loaded for the drive to the border, I decided to take one of my favorite drives in Mexico, the Juventino-Rosas road heading west from San Miguel. Juventino Rosas is known for shopping of a different sort: It has the highest concentration of curanderos, or healers, of any town in the country. My intention, however, was simply to enjoy the fine scenery along the road, which circles a scenic dam called Presa San Miguel, affording a magnificent view into the deep, rocky gorge of the San Miguel River. As the road climbs from lake level to hilltops overlooking broad highland valleys, tremendous vistas lead the eye across fields and ranchlands to the mountains in the distance. I passed families working on their land—women washing clothes in the falling waters of the deep ravines, young men walking single-bladed plows behind horses, old men gathering firewood on burros. Young children were gathering flowers to sell to passing cars, waving their bouquets in hopes of flagging someone down.
At the top of a hill, I slowed to look at a group of men working on a large pile of rocks. Each was chiseling heavy stones into precise sculptures: slender pyramids on decorative bases, perfectly round obelisks, and one beautiful pink-stone pig. When I pulled over, the men grinned wide grins. “How much for the pig?” I asked a man who had climbed down from the pile and introduced himself as Federico.
“A hundred pesos,” he told me; that was just sixteen bucks—a bargain. “But there’s a problem. It’s not finished.”
Indeed, when I walked around to the other side of the carved pig, I found a large rectangular stone with only the outline of the animal traced on it.
“How long to finish it?” I asked.
“If I hurry,” he replied, “maybe two or three hours.”
I gazed at the mountains to the north and at the storm clouds gathering strength above the rich farmlands. Then I thought of how great the pig would look in my garden at home.
“Three hours?” I said. “That’s okay. I’ll wait.”