Shopping for used clothing in Latin America may shock some American women who aren’t used to mercados and bazaars. But if you can accept a few things about the culture here, you can find good used clothes for great prices, without having to carry a closet with you on your travels.
I would bet money most American women would say I travel with far too few items. Some women getting ready to retire and travel – like me – have asked what I carry in my suitcase. This post isn’t about that, but I’ll get to that entry soon.
To those women who are planning to retire early and travel the world – let the clothes and closets go. I’ve found that if I need something, I can simply buy it from the local economy wherever I happen to be. It’s not packaged new in Amazon shipping, or from a hangar in a mall, but it fits the bill. I simply buy what I need as I go, and you know what? I still have too much stuff, even with one suitcase!
Of course, not everything I buy is used. Undies, shoes, and jeans I buy new. But, stuff like sweatpants, skirts, sundresses, tank tops can come from bazaars (used clothing stores) and mercado stands (similar to the old-school flea markets back in the U.S.).
The 411 on mercados, or markets
In the mercado, there are two types of stands. One with clothes piled up in heaps, unsorted, and another with clothes sorted and placed on hangars.
Here is a picture from the giant mercado in Antigua, Guatemala.
Proprietors buy clothes in bulk. They are giant balls tightly wrapped in plastic. Most of the clothing is from the U.S. Your donated clothes have a chance to make it all the way down into Latin America, depending on where you donate and what your donation center does with the clothing.
Some stalls do not sort through the bags – they just leave the pile there for customers to sort through. I’ve seen the bags cut open at the mercado and everyone jumps in to sort through the goods and make their claims. Other stalls place the better items on racks, and move cheaper items to discount bins. Discount bin prices can be as low as $.50 in Mexico; in Guatemala, bins are $.85 to a dollar. (In my experience, everything is more expensive in Guatemala.) Haggling at markets is accepted if there is no price clearly listed, but generally, if it’s on a hangar, you’ll pay a little more.
When mercado shopping:
- Bring hand sanitizer with you. Going through those bins sometimes can mean the clothes aren’t exactly freshly laundered.
- I keep whatever I buy tightly wrapped in plastic away from any bedding or fabrics, until I can get it laundered and blasted in a heat dryer. We have never had problems with bugs – and I never want to.
- There are no ‘dressing rooms’ near these market stands.
The 411 on bazaars, or used clothing stores
Most of the time bazaars are family-run businesses so people take pride in their work. Their discount bins (if there are any) will be spotless.
I’ll share a typical experience I had in a thrift store at our last stop in Oaxaca City. I had a skirt that no longer fit properly so I decided to buy a new one and browsed several thrift stores in the southeast section of the city.
Often, the discount racks in bazaars will advertise deals that offer something like three tops for 150 pesos ($8.50 USD), or 60 pesos each. On regular racks, expect to pay from $4 to $15. It’s a dramatic difference from the market bins, to be sure – $.50 all the way up to $15 for pieces like formal dresses or jackets – but you are paying for the clean presentation, as well as what is usually a higher-quality item. These thrift stores are generally family-run businesses that are well-maintained, and the owners take pride in their work – so if you decide to try to haggle – don’t make an insulting low-ball offer.
One store on my shopping trip was especially well-kept with friendly women workers. One woman was near the entrance greeting customers, another sat behind a desk on a platform for the check out, three more clerks were further back in the store. One of those young clerks stayed with me as I browsed.
Note that in many of these stores, it’s common to find several workers (usually in the same family) and it’s common for a clerk to hoover near you. It’s just the way it is. They are protecting their livelihood, and they want to be helpful. So my personal helper this day was Anna Maria. She held on to a few skirts that caught my eye as I continued to browse, and then showed me to the dressing room. (Yes, thrift stores will have a dressing room, or at least a dressing area.) As I changed clothes, I could see her feet right outside my door the entire time.
When I came out of the dressing room, I joked with Anna Maria that she must not see many gringas as customers. She laughed out loud and said no, never. This bazaar is a few blocks west from the Mercado Benito Jaurez and the Artisan Markets, both of which are tourist draws. But most American tourists aren’t going into used Mexican clothing stores.
I wanted to buy a skirt: it wasn’t too short, it had a bit of leg room to climb into a bus if needed (slight A-line), and it had pockets — all key to me as a traveler. Anna Maria took me to the platform checkout. I could now see what the woman behind the desk was doing: she was breastfeeding – right there – in the middle of the store where customers pay for clothes.
Now, seeing this doesn’t really phase me anymore, but I bet most American women would have been startled. I’ve seen women breast feeding as they walk down the street, not even kidding. I’ve seen it happen where the woman is sitting in some doorway on the sidewalk near the street. I’ve seen it happen on the bus. In the park. While waiting outside a school to pick up an older child. It’s such a different world from my own experience, having no children and coming from a culture where breast feeding is done behind closed doors most of the time. As often as I see breast feeding around Latin America, I still always get a sense of gratitude that that is not my reality: feeding a baby while working, walking, riding public transportation.
So the skirt. The asking price was about $7. I made the decision not to haggle. I’m a budget traveler, not a tight ass.
Two more tips on used clothes shopping in Latin America
- On sizes and brands: as I said, most of these clothes come from the U.S., so the sizes and brands will be familiar to American women. The markets and thrift stores have virtually every brand imaginable, from Old Navy to Ann Taylor, Forever21 to Lane Bryant. Sizes range from zero up to 3x. Mexican women are generally smaller in stature than gringas, so they buy smaller sizes, and you likely will see those less frequently – but you’ll still find them.
- One more haggling experience I’ve had: if you are shopping with a man, send him away from you! Often the proprietors are women, and they seem to give me less trouble haggling when Tedly is not there. A stall owner at the Antigua market quoted one price to my spouse, and she wouldn’t haggle. I went back without him, and got the same item for about a dollar less. Woman-to-woman haggling seems to work better. But pleases – don’t insult these women with a low-ball offer. This is how they support their families, and if you are reading this, you can probably afford to pay another dollar or two.
That’s an overview of shopping for used clothes in the local markets and bazaars in Mexico and Guatemala. You just have to leave your comfort zone and keep an open mind in order to shop in a different way if you want to be as budget conscious as possible. Additionally, for me, living this way beats carrying around a ton of clothes I may or may not need or wear.
I’ll do that promised ‘show and tell’ of what’s in my bag in the next week. Right now we are in Zihuatanaejo, Mexico, and the forecast calls for a greater chance of rain in the coming days, so I’ll make more of an effort to write a few more entries – including what I travel with, and why Zihuatanaejo is a special place.