First-time visitors to the Mexican capital are often astonished by the wealth of crafts available from open-air markets, government-sponsored stores, and hundreds of boutiques nestled in the heart of the city. Modern Mexico is a melting pot of many old civilizations and enjoys a rich cultural heritage. The result is a wide variety of crafts - unmatched by most nations.
From the southern peninsula of Yucat'an come delicately embroidered guayaberas (men's short-sleeve shirts), coral jewelry, and hammocks. The state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, provides finely textured and richly decorated clothing and wall hangings of bright colors woven by the Maya Indian populations. The dry and mountainous state of Guerrero is known for its silver mines, and its capital, Taxco, the ``silver city,'' is home to world-famous silversmiths.
Oaxaca, for its part, produces pastel-colored rugs and cheerful pottery. Puebla is known for bright and intricate faience tiles and tableware, and the state of Mexico is famed for lace tablecloths, glassworks, and leather artifacts.
If there is a problem, it is not where to find crafts. Stores abound in the center of Mexico City, where most visitors congregate, especially in the Zona Rosa, or Pink Zone, which contains most of the luxury hotels. Instead, visitors usually worry about finding the best selection of crafts at the best prices. Fortunately, many of the best markets are reachable by Mexico City's excellent subway system.
Bargaining is a must at most markets and stores in Mexico City, and prices for the same items can vary widely. An unwary customer can find himself paying as much as 30 percent more for an item at one location than he would at another. Depending on how much time visitors can devote to shopping, and the types of crafts they're interested in, several suggestions can be made.
For clothing items, hand-painted wooden boxes, wall hangings, pottery, and onyx chess sets, head for the Mercado Artesanias de la Ciudadela at Balderas 130 (subway stop Balderas or Ju'arez). According to Jaime Morett Manj'arrez, president of the National Council of Craftsmen, ``the market carries samples of 85 percent of the national popular art production.''
The market was established by the government to enable craftsmen to sell their products directly to the public instead of having to go through intermediaries. As a result, prices are reasonable, although bargaining is still a must.
Silver jewelry, however, can be unusually costly at the Ciudadela market and is best purchased instead at the Pink Zone market, or Mercado Insurgentes Zona Rosa, at 154 Londres Street (subway stop Insurgentes).
This market also has one of the best selections of clothing, blankets, and leather artifacts in the capital.
If you happen to be in Mexico City over the weekend and are looking for top-quality and unusual souvenirs, head for the famous Bazaar Sabado (Saturday Bazaar), at 11 Plaza San Jacinto in the southern district of San Angel.
San Angel can't be reached by subway yet, but most taxi drivers are familiar with the bazaar, where some 100 well-established craftsmen display their wares every Saturday from 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m. ``The bazaar was started 27 years ago by an American, Wendell Riggs, who wanted to give a new life to a building from which he had moved his rug factory,'' says Ignacio Romera, general manager of Bazaar Sabado.
Since then, the bazaar has relocated to a stately colonial mansion that faces the cobblestone streets and lush gardens of Plaza San Jacinto. A group of 80 painters and sculptors, attracted by the crowds visiting the bazaar, also gathers every Saturday on the plaza to display their artworks. Visitors to Bazaar Sabado usually marvel at the choice - jewelry of all styles, clothing, wool carpets, glasswork, stoneware, papier-m^ach'e items, or pottery.
``Three stands offer popular art from the provinces,'' says Mr. Romero. ``The crafts are bought by buyers who canvass the nation, allowing Bazaar Sabado to offer the best from the provinces.''
Other well-stocked and convenient stores to shop in include Sanborn's drugstores, which are peppered through the capital, and government-run Fonart crafts stores.
The main Fonart store is not far from Bazaar Sabado at 695 Patriotismo Avenue. It features two floors of crafts from all over the republic. Other stores can be found near the Latin American Tower at 89 and 44 Ju'arez Avenue (subway stops Hidalgo or Bellas Artes).
A chain of drugstores/restaurants called Sanborn's also features crafts. Prices tend to be stiff, and the choice is limited, but people in a hurry will find items of quality. Well-stocked Sanborn's are at 45 and 333 Reforma Avenue.
The most famous boutique is nestled in the House of Tiles, Casa Azulejos, a former colonial palace situated in front of the Latin American Tower at 4 Madero Street (subway stop Bellas Artes).
The entire second floor of the tile-encrusted mansion, built in the 16th century, has been turned into a crafts center.
Here are such unusual items as antique-style gold jewelry by Oaxaca goldsmiths, and, from Taxco, prized Byzantine-style silver picture frames, mirrors, and jewels studded with amethysts, coral, and turquoise.