One of the many ‘unknowns’ for us in relocating to Mexico was the type of food available in grocery stores. We weren’t sure what to expect as far as the varieties of foods available, the quality of them, or the cost. We knew food in Mexico was ‘cheaper’, but didn’t have much information to validate that. It was the kind of knowledge best gained by personal experience.
The first couple of weeks after we arrived, we ate out at restaurants a lot, especially since we were just perching at a friends house until we got things figured out with a rental property of our own. As nice as it may seem to eat out at restaurants all the time, there are some drawbacks to this approach.
First, it is expensive. Even with the reduced costs here in Mexico, the cost of always eating out adds up quickly. A quick back-of-a-napkin calculation I did when we first arrived suggested that a couple could eat out for every meal for about $900 CAD a month. Compared to Canada, that is obviously very cheap – But hey, it’s still $900 bucks, and we are on a budget.
Secondly, there are a lot of good options for grocery shopping in the city, where the produce is fresh and the costs are low. Mexicans are not keen on second rate produce. Fruit and veggies in Calgary, Alberta, weren’t as good as what we have available here in Mexico. I guess that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since a lot of our produce in Calgary was imported from Mexico! Yep, it was fresh when it left the field here in Mexico, but significantly reduced in quality by the time it finishes its 4,000 KM plus trip to Canada.
A third reason why eating out all the time is problematic, is the logistics of getting around Queretaro. If you were going to find a place to eat three times a day in this city, you’d end up driving for hours. Basically, you’d blow your whole day just finding places to eat. Not very convenient, as well as a real time-waster.
Lots of Choices for Groceries
Here in Querétaro there are lots of options for getting the weekly necessities. The range of grocery stores pretty much runs the full gambit from high-end supermercados, which look suspiciously like the more expensive grocery chains in Canada, to roadside tiendes: Small local markets consisting of temporary tables offering everything from watermelons to cheap children’s toys. Throw into the mix an increasing number of well-known international retailers like Costco and Sam’s Club, and you end up with grocery options very similar to what you would find in Canada or the USA.
When we first arrived, we really weren’t sure where to get all the necessary groceries, so we started with shopping at the big retail stores. Soriana, La Comer and Chedraui are probably the biggest domestic chains here in Mexico. They offer pretty much anything you can get in Canada, although often the ‘imported’ items come at a higher price that we expected. Shopping for locally produced items is more economical, including things like cleaning supplies. The big internationally known brands are common as well, but it seems that there are additional import costs and probably tariffs being passed on to the consumer.
Small, temporary markets called ‘tiendes’ often pop up in the middle of a road somewhere and are gone the next day. Local vendors bring produce, dry goods, electronics and more to these one-day markets. Most of the neighbourhoods (colonias) seem to have at least one local market sometime during the week. Locals seem to just accept the fact that for that one day, they will need to find a new way to drive home! I really can’t see that ever working in Canada, but hey, things are different here!
Just last week we decided to explore one of these tiendes at the recommendation of some friends and we were not disappointed. This market only comes together on Wednesday mornings, so if you arrive after noon the selection is gone and some of the vendors are already packing up to leave. We got there early enough that there was lots of selection. Vendors equipped with portable tables, or in some cases just plastic tarps placed on the ground,
displayed their wares. This particular tiende included fruits, vegetables, pottery, stationary, clothing and several tables with cheap kids toys. Every tiende across the city is different, but most do feature fresh produce as the primary draw.
One thing that continues to surprise me is how much fresh produce in the local supermarkets bears the ‘grown in USA’ label. Ironic too, considering that one of the jobs Mexicans often perform in the USA is agricultural!
At the tiende, we picked up enough veggies for our weekly needs (and then
some). Everything looked very fresh. At the register, the total came to $105 pesos for everything! That is about $7 CAD. For that price we got a watermelon, one cabaza (similar to zucchini), a few avocados, some broccoli, garlic, two cucumbers, a bunch of red grapes and roma tomatoes.
Another option for groceries are the many permanent markets located in the downtown area of Queretaro.
One of the biggest markets is called ‘La Cruz’. It covers a city block just north of the historic downtown. The market itself is permanent and many of the shops inside have been there for years. There are some temporary vendors that set up outside the main market, but these change regularly.
Inside, vendors include dry goods, furniture, staple foods, specialty shops and a host of other types of goods. Prices are quite good and some of the food is better purchased here than at large supermercados, mainly due to the freshness. Beans can be purchased at any supermercado, but our friends insisted that the bulk beans you can purchase by weight in La Cruz are superior.
I loved exploring the market, but there is one drawback to the area. Parking a car near La Cruz is a miserable exercise in frustration. There are parking attendants on hand who try to get you slotted into the lot, but their perception of how much space is needed is highly optimistic. When I tried to park, the attendant insisted that I could fit my Nissan Murano into a space better proportioned for a Smart car. In the lot, cars are directed to park bumper-to-bumper to maximize every available metre of space. As a result, it isn’t unusual to see a few forlorn drivers waiting beside their cars for other drivers to return from the market to move their cars and let them out of the gridlock.
Large supermarkets here in Queretaro have the same ‘big box’ look and feel as similar outlets back in Canada. They seem to carry a much larger variety of goods than local shops, including a lot more imported foods. This seems to make them popular with upwardly mobile locals who prefer to spend their pesos on non-Mexican products.
These supermercados feature dairy and bakery sections, and many even have deli counters. Their well-kept isles are stocked exactly like stores in Canada or the USA. If you didn’t pay attention to the fact that all signage is in Spanish, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a grocery store north of the border.
The first time I came across a milk display set up in the middle of an aisle, I did a double-take. Surely this was a mistake! Fresh milk in cartons stacked higher than my head. At room temperature. Likely sitting on the floor for weeks. With a three month shelf life indicated on the top of each carton! What is going on here?
Does pasteurization work so effectively that these airtight cartons can prevent bacterial growth for so long? I can’t think of a better explanation that this, so I’m going with it. (If anybody knows differently, jump in here and comment.) Even more confusing is the fact that the coolers in the dairy section ALSO have fresh milk, but in plastic bottles rather than the rectangular ‘tetra pak’ type packaging. Maybe that little bit of air in the bottles means refrigeration is necessary just to get it to the week long expiry date.
One interesting quirk about the bakery sections in supermercados (and even smaller shops with baked goods) is worth mentioning. On display are all kinds of bulk breads, buns and sweet pastries. What is NOT apparent is any kind of bags or baskets in which to pick up the goods. At first, this was puzzling. Until I stood back and watched the locals shopping I couldn’t figure out how to buy bread. Near the service counter in the bakery is a stack of large round trays, similar to pizza pans. Alongside these trays are sets of tongs like you might use for turning meat on a BBQ grill. To buy bulk
baked goods, you pick up a tray and a pair of tongs to pick up your selections. These are then taken to the bakery attendant, who bags the baked goods (separate baggies for each individual sticky item, like donuts) and affixes a label with the price. This package is then taken to the front cash to pay as usual.
Over the past three months we have averaged $8,384 pesos a month (about $577 CAD) for groceries, which is higher than we expected. That is lower than Canadian prices, but not dramatically so. Once we adjust to buying more local foods in favor of some of the imported things, this cost will probably go down further.
It seems that every week we are here we make discoveries about new places to shop where the selection is better, the prices lower and the produce fresher. We’ll probably continue to get a few favorite items at international retailers like Costco (bottled water for $0.21 a bottle and beer for not much more), but as we explore the area more thoroughly we’re bound to begin making more changes to how we do the weekly grocery run.
Since food is my favorite adventure, I look forward to the extensive, exhausting research ahead! Adelante!