Buying at the source and finding regional craft specialties
Like the food, craft items in Mexico are regional and the three states that make up the Yucatan peninsula: Quintano Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche are renowned for particular specialties.
The most ubiquitous item may be the handmade hammocks that are made in Maya villages throughout the region and sold in parks, souvenir and more upscale specialty stores. Plenty of information exists online about choosing and caring for hammocks so I won’t delve into it here, other than to say the village of Tixkokob specializes in them. In Merida there are many stores with competitive prices in the craft market near the main market downtown. The prices in the two story “Mayan Cooperatives” just north of the main square (Calle 59 or 57) tend to be high.
Other regional specialties are palm fiber items, embroidered clothing/home decor, filigree jewelry, and culinary items.
Casa de Los Venados in Valladolid is a private house museum that can be visited daily at 10am. It is packed with the best of Mexican art and crafts from around the country. Tours are available in English and Spanish – and provide an excellent overview of the types of items available in the region.
Palm fibers and henequen have been used for centuries to make Panama-style hats, baskets and other items in the Yucatan. Today, you can find a huge selection of hats throughout the peninsula, with the highest quality coming from Becal in the state of Campeche. For a look at how the hats are made with fascinating pictures, click here.
Gorgeous palm fiber items can be found in variety of souvenir stores, at the Sunday craft market around the square in Merida (mostly handbags, coasters and hot plates), and at larger stores like the government run Casa de Las Artesanias in Merida. The hot pink hot plate/trivet pictured above was purchased there for about 40-60 pesos. Woven fiber Rosary beads, Christmas ornaments, Catrina skeletons, and cigarette cases are also available.
Solid, mostly pastel colored tortilla warmers are available all over town and Casa de Las Artesanias has a great collection. But, for a really special one – like the one pictured above on the right above – I opted to spend a few dollars more at Artesania – my favorite store in Merida. This well curated shop has superior craft items from all over Mexico, beautifully displayed. Their multi-lingual staff is knowledgeable about their products and never pushy.
Embroidered Dresses, Shirts and Home Decor
Indigenous women, or Maya descendants can be seen everywhere in the Yucatan peninsula wearing huipiles – the traditional dress that pre-dates the Spanish. Style and intricacy vary greatly – I spend a lot of time examining women’s embroidery without staring. Often the huipile is worn with a lacy skirt or underdress – and a folded shawl.
Most towns and villages have their own style of embroidery. I was unable to determine if the local styles evolved naturally, or were dictated by the Spanish conquerors as they did in Guatemala, for example.
The first shirt in the picture above was hand embroidered from Campeche. The next shirt is most likely machine embroidered, but I’m not completely sure. The black one next to that is definitely made by machine. Both shirts were bought at the Sunday market on the main square in Merida on two different trips. The next white is handmade – from the craft market on Avenida Tulum in downtown Cancun. The last shirt was picked up December in Cancun on a whim, even though it is blatantly machine embroidered – for about $10.
Dresses similar to the white shirt from Cancun – in white and colors – can be found at the stores in the Merida crafts market near the downtown main food market. I also recently saw them at the crafts market around Parque de Palapas in downtown Cancun. I’m sure you can also find them in Playa del Carmen due to their popularity.
Men in the Yucatan wear Guayaberas – the cool, tailored cotton or linen shirts. They’re sold all over the peninsula in stores for tourists and locals alike, of varying quality. Shop around – there are a lot of stores on Calle 60 and 62 in Merida with quality guayaberas for men – and guayabera-style dresses for women.
These pillows are either from Chiapas in Mexico, or nearby Guatemala – and you can buy them all over Merida, Cancun and Playa del Carmen. You can also buy them in Antigua and towns all over Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. In the stores in Merida that specialize in products from Chiapas – mainly on Calle 62 just north of the main square – the salespeople state the products are Mexican. Since the trim and back of the pillows are made from the same material as the women’s skirts in Chichicastenango, Guatemala – I suspect Guatemala. Either way, they are beautiful and very inexpensive, depending on your bargaining skills.
Food and Liquor
Habanero is the pepper of the Yucatan, and high quality salsas are available in groceries, markets and handmade at the mercados. In my opinion, nothing compares with neighboring Belize’s Marie Sharp, but the Mexicans in Merida make a very unique, piquant salsa. El Yucateco can be found in supermarkets, small grocery stores and even at the airport. Salsa Bomba is some fiery stuff that I picked up at the smaller Santa Ana market in Merida.
Chocolate originated in the Yucatan and artisanal chocolate making is on the rise in the area. Chocol Ha in Campeche is noteworthy for their light and airy chocolate tamales. Merida has several artisanal chocolate stores, like the exceptional Ki’Xocolatl on Santa Lucia park. Chocolhaa Maya, a 100% organic artisanal chocolate factory in Valladolid on Calzada de Los Frailes, offers a brief informational tour with tastings.
Tequila can be found everywhere, and some of the manufacturers from Jalisco have opened showrooms in Merida, Valladolid and Cancun. But, the liqueur of the Yucatan is Xtabentun.
A mixture of anise and fermented honey produced by honey bees from the nectar of the Xtabentun flower is combined with rum. Marketed as the drink of the Maya, it is believed that Xtabentun did descend from Balche’, a ceremonial Maya drink that was modified by the Spanish. D’Aristi is a popular brand that is can be found for a fraction of the price at the liquor store around the corner from the Mayan Collectives in Merida, who have ridiculous mark-up. I’ve gotten mixed information about whether it’s possible to visit D’Aristi, which is in Merida – but I’ve never really had time.
If you live in a country with liquid restrictions for air travel and don’t want to check a bag, you can find Xtabentun at the duty free store in the Cancun airport for a lot less than it would cost in the US (and the Mayan collectives), but more than it would be in a liquor store off the tourist trail. I bring 3-4 plastic bags, wrap the stuff up well and check it in my suitcase for the trip home.
Filigree is the jewelry style of the area, and intricately twisted silver and gold designs are available in quality jewelry stores and souvenir places in most towns. Since I own similar filigree earrings from Malta and Ecuador, I have not priced them in the Yucatan. But, I’ve had interesting conversations with salespeople about the similarity of styles. Casa de Las Artesanias has a large selection of filigree jewelry.
Merida boasts several large bookstores that offer a good selection of Mexican art, local history and regional cookbooks. You can also find small book selections at museums on the peninsula and at some of the larger touristy stores in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. The old and new archeology museums in Merida also have substantial book collections in their gift shops. The old museum in Palacio Canton is only open for special exhibitions – check with your hotel before setting out.
John L. Stephens “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan Parts 1&2” is a great read for anyone interested in Maya ruins, the history of the region and what it was like in 1839-41. Frederick Catherwood’s detailed illustrations of many significant Mayan ruin sites, enable readers to see before and after scenes of ruins as they were cleared of brush.
The Hacienda Teya and a selection of other regional cookbooks enable you to replicate Yucatecan specialties at home. I’ve also bought these books for foodie friends.
Libreria Dante, a huge bookstore on the main plaza in Merida is a treasure trove of art and Mexican home design books. When a sudden downpour interrupts activities on the square, it’s a great place to spend time browsing.
Supermarkets offer an opportunity to pick up inexpensive souvenirs, and food items often impossible to find at home. Typically, I pick up gift sets of salsa for friends, canned peppers, dried peppers, achiote paste, the peanuts with lemon, the Japonaise peanuts, more salsa.
Other regions of Mexico
Since the Yucatan Peninsula attracts upscale visitors from Mexico and around the world, there is also an opportunity to purchase art and folk crafts from other parts of the country. Select upscale stores in the malls in Cancun, Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen, Campeche, and Merida offer some of the best of what is available to buy in the country.
Artesania, their small satellite store in the shops around Santa Lucia Park, and 100% Mexico, the store in Hotel Casa San Angel have the best selection of high end Mexican art and craft items in Merida. Another quality store Mexican craft store can be found on Paseo Montejo.
For an overview of the amazing arts and crafts of Mexico, don’t miss the Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatan by Mejorada Park in Merida. They also have a gift shop.
Miniaturas on Calle 59 in central Merida is crammed with miniature objects – including many Catrinas (skeletons) in many forms and occupations. Here you can buy a smaller Arbol de Vida (ceramic tree of life) that would be easier to transport home than the huge, intricate, very fragile ones.
Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen has a couple of stores featuring high quality Mexican crafts, a good variety of mid-range products including gorgeous Talavera from Central Mexico, and a lot of touristy stuff. Depending what you’re looking for, you may need to shop around, but the quality stores are immediately obvious. I haven’t been to Playa in a few years and don’t remember names, but every trip it’s the same: 2-3 high quality stores.
No matter where you travel in Mexico, there are unique, high quality craft items available. The Yucatan Peninsula offers a selection of quality products for all budgets – for souvenir seekers, as well as lovers of craft and folk art.
As soon as I posted this story on Facebook, Mexican food authority Cristina Potters of Mexico Cooks recommended this book which she says is “far and away the best book ever published in English about the Yucatan and it’s cuisine.”
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