The biggest market in Mexico City provides an estimated 80% of its food and it can be an overwhelming but exciting experience to watch the market’s controlled chaos. Entering through 10-peso toll gates, the market finally comes to an end at a parking lot between the two main buildings, nearly a kilometer away.
Central de Abasto is open 24/7 and specializes in fruits, vegetables and packaged goods by the tonne, but also dispenses to smaller markets and individual retail clients.
The north building offers abarrotes (packaged goods); the south, mostly fruits and vegetables. A veritable highway of traffic moves between them, leading to giant stacked parking garages and loading docks that run through the interior rows of the market.
Cart sellers, market vendors and restaurateurs load their purchases into beat-up VW buses, tiny two-door hatchbacks and huge cargo vans, bags of potatoes and limes, plastic-wrapped crates of mayonnaise; loads of giant Corona cups, chamoy mixes and the colorful powders used to make psychedelic micheladas.
Central de Abasto opened in Colonia Iztapalapa in 1982 to alleviate stress on La Merced, the previous wholesale market, that had grown into neighboring streets, creating heavy congestion through the center of the city. The new market houses over 2,000 businesses covering a whopping 328 hectares.
The main building runs 2,250 meters along its five passageways, with eight minor rows (lettered “I” through “X”) running about two-thirds of that distance from east to west. The hand carts, shopping carts and pallet jacks zoom through intersections with the carretilleros (hand-cart drivers) generally receiving the right of way.
It’s an underground city unto itself with bank branches, cell phone shops, Oxxos and gambling parlors — a city that comes up for air every couple of blocks where the passageways rise in concrete hills to overlook the loading docks. Carretilleros sprint hard up each hill, moving hundreds of kilos at a time, and stop for a breath before going down the other side, fighting the pull of gravity.
Central de Abasto moves around 30,000 tonnes of food a day. The major passageways teem with hand carts flying past.