American Vegan Shopping, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
When I first went shopping in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I was stunned by the low price of food
By food, I mostly mean fresh vegetables & fruit, and minimally processed food like rice and beans. Processed food such as jam or peanut butter, olive oil or pasta is cheaper than in the U.S., but expensive compared to produce. I think that’s because a) it’s processed and b) it comes from far away on big trucks, just like in the U.S.
In the U.S., almost all food production and distribution is controlled by a few huge and highly profitable corporate food conglomerates. Produce is swept up in that net, and thus is much more expensive than it should be. Small grocery stores barely exist because the economics of food distribution ensure that they can’t survive.
In Fairfield IA, where we live most of the year, processed food is relatively cheap. But veggies and fruit are over half my food budget, which is 3 times my Mexican food budget.
In Mexico, every neighborhood still has many small stores, which survive in spite of big supermarkets, because local people without cars (that’s most Mexicans) shop regularly at those stores. And that’s where we bought most of our food.
At first I was embarrassed by walking out of our local grocery store with 3 bags of produce for 150 pesos, or about $10 U.S. I felt like I was stealing!
From everything I learned as time went on, it seems my initial feeling was right. It is stealing. For us gringos, anyway. Not for the average Mexican family. Same with the bus fares.
Someone told me that the average daily wage in Mexico is 200 pesos, or about $13.50 U.S. Farmers likely earn less than that, and the indigenous people least of all. Poor Mexicans live in conditions that may politely be called ‘rustic’ and rudely called ‘hovels’.
The saving grace for farmers is they can produce their crops cheaply with hand labor and minimum inputs, sell directly to consumers from stalls at weekly markets, or on the street from the back of pickup trucks. Or they deliver directly to small grocery stores, which are everywhere. Or even big supermarkets. Or failing that, to a local middleman or distributor.
That system of distribution, e.g. in the village where we stayed, may be as simple as a farmer dropping off some crates at somebody’s garage, and then a couple of guys with a pickup truck taking a bunch of crates of groceries around to the local stores and restaurants.
I’m not sure how everybody gets paid, because my Spanish is too minimal to have that kind of conversation – even supposing that anyone would want to tell me the details. Nobody’s getting rich, that’s obvious, but more research is needed.
I suspect co-operative arrangements, e.g. my uncle/cousin/friend has a garage, and if I/we give him a crate of something, he’ll let us use his space.
All I know for certain is that twice a week, a pickup truck pulls up to the local store where we shopped, and two young guys unload it. Another guy stocks the produce bins and stuffs the single cooler in the store with lettuce, broccoli, avocados, cabbage, celery, green onions, cilantro, spinach.
It was amazing the variety of goods packed into our small local store, and the constant stream of customers.
Next door to the grocery store is a small tortilla factory, where we bought a stack of hot corn tortillas every morning for 5 pesos. Their machines run steadily from early morning to mid-afternoon. Coolers packed with tortillas go out to local restaurants and stores – by pickup truck, no doubt.
After Hours at the Tortilla Factory in Boca de Tomatlan, Mexico
From Boca de Tomatlan, porters carry groceries from the store to the dock in wheelbarrows. From there all kinds of goods go to other coastal villages which are only accessible by boat. There everything is picked up and delivered by other porters to stores and restaurants, in wheelbarrows or ATVs, or on their shoulders.
And the produce is still cheap!
One of the porters carried a 5 gallon bottle of water up our 75 steps every couple of days. The water cost us 21 pesos, and we gave the porter 20 pesos, or about $1.30. According to some locals, that was overly generous. I doubt Lupe the porter thought so.
Once a week, we rode a bus for 35 minutes up the coast, past the hovels and resorts and beaches to Puerto Vallarta. There we shopped for everything we wanted that we couldn’t find locally, and once we got familiar with stores and locations, we planned our shopping trips like military campaigns.
There was no one store where we could buy everything we needed. The same is true here in IA. But we might go to 2 or 3 stores, 5 minutes apart by car, not 6 or 7 stores on foot or by bus, lugging all our purchases on our backs.
We found veg friendly foods like tofu, quinoa, almond butter, tahini, dates, almonds, spices, oatmeal, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, soy milk, rice noodles. Brown rice was scarce and usually awful, and we never did find plain cashews. I found miso, at Toyo Foods, but nutritional yeast did not exist in PV. So no vegan yogurt or pesto, which are dietary staples for us.
We usually ate white rice with our corn tortillas and beans. Expensive quinoa was rationed but made a nice change. A friend we made in Boca loaned us a Magic Bullet, so I was able to make almond milk instead of buying and lugging it from the city. I made hummus, which gave us something to put on our tortillas besides avocado and almond butter.
For veggies travelling to the Puerta Vallarta area, or living there long term:
Here are our favorite stores and markets, their location, and what’s available there. You’ll need a good map and remember, nobody speaks English, so you’ll need to know how to say what you want en Espanol. Google Translate is handy for that. Plus bring cash – Mexican pesos, and count your change.
Toyo Foods: Asian food store in the centro district, Calle (street) Peru near Calle Guatemala. Take any bus going north on Calle Morellos, that says Centro, not Tunel on the front, get off at San Salvador and walk up. It’s on the right. There we found rice flour, tapioca starch, nice clean short grain brown rice, sweet rice, noodles, miso, tahini, tofu, sea vegetables, soy milk, coconut milk, many other oriental foods and cooking implements. I lusted after the knives and woks. Good prices on everything.
Kitchen Store: Right across the street from Toyo foods is a small store, when you can buy all kinds of small appliances, pots & pans, dishes and various utensils. Better quality and better prices than Leys or Walmart.
Organico del Puerto: Tiny organic food store in the Emiliano Zapatos section, about 8 blocks east of the Malecon at 501 Calle Venetiano Carranza. They have almond butter, almond milk, tahini, hummus, gluten free mixes and flours, tofu (same brand as Toyo Foods, 3x the price), herbs and spices, cereals, etc. Expensive but they do have stuff you can’t find elsewhere.
Super Cereales: Bulk foods, big selection, good prices. 2 blocks from Ley’s Supermarket, on Peru, near Uruguay. They have dried fruit, nuts and seeds, grains and beans, spices and herbs, and almond butter, honey, vanilla, oils, etc. A good sized store with a clerk who bags and weighs everything. Not particularly helpful if you don’t know the Spanish names for what you want.
Bulk Store: It has a name which we could never remember. Located on Calle Insurgentes, about 1/2 block south of Calle Basilio Badillo, just where highway 200 ends, facing west (toward the bay). They have the same stuff and good prices as Super Cereales, except no almond butter. In this store, the very nice guy behind the counter will let you type what you want in English into Google Translate, so he knows what you’re talking about.
Farmer’s Market: Saturday mornings at Calle Olas Atlas and L. Cardenas, right by the Malecon. A big fun social event, geared to gringos, so on the expensive side, but lots of yummy treats, and a food court for lunch. Excellent bread and organic veggies, with many exotic and hard to find items, like fresh ginger – but get there early for those. Otherwise, crafts, jewelry, clothing, massage and chiropractic available. Be sure to hit the used bookstore/cafe across the street on L. Cardenas.
Emiliano Zapatos Market: THE place for fresh vegetables and fruit. Every morning, farmers bring their produce into the city to all the food stalls in this 2 block area. It’s veggie heaven! Go east on V. Carranza, right to the end by the tunel on ramp.
Pick Up Trucks on the Street: Keep your eye peeled for those in the down town area or road sides. We’ve bought sweet potatoes, melons, papayas, mangos etc often from those street vendors for ridiculous prices. Carrying a watermelon in your backpack is not exactly fun, but it is fun once you get it back to your casa.
Leys Supermarket: At Uruguay and Ave Mexico, walking distance from the north end of the Malecon. Very busy store, the place to go for all the items you can’t find at the markets or the little grocery stores. Lots of household items, mostly crap. And there’s an atm, plus bathrooms. After a while we stopped going because we preferred the small stores. But if you want your Norte Americano staples, you’ll find them at Leys, and if you’re staying near downtown, you can’t beat the location!
Walmart, Costco, Mega, Sorianos: Gigantic western style supermarkets, up near the airport and marina. Not on our fave list. Only go there if you absolutely must. E.G. you need to use a credit card, or American dollars, or MUST HAVE a favorite brand.
Why travel to Mexico and have the same shopping experience as you can have back home?
Explore the local stores, practice your Spanish, and make shopping an adventure!