Have a few hours to spare this weekend?
It’s a Saturday morning in San Ignacio. The sun is just starting to rise, but for many the day started hours ago. Stalls are assembled, burners are lit, merchandise is laid out, and produce is unpacked. For twin towns San Ignacio and Santa Elena, Saturday is market day. There are permanent market stands, but once per week the market grows 10x its original size. Traffic is redirected, streets become one ways, and downtown is swamped with people. Keep in mind that “swamped with people” is relative in Belize. “Swamped” in Belize is totally different from “swamped” in Chiang Mai, Thailand or Cairo, Egypt. The San Ignacio market day isn’t the largest or busiest in the world but if you seek cultural immersion and a glimpse of local life, then Saturday market is the place to go.
The permanent market stalls generally hawk fruits, veggies, nuts, spices, and local products such as honey, coconut oil, and cohune oil. These are mostly fresh and local. Belize is a small country and while an incredible array of produce grows here, there are select items which are imported. The most common being apples, pears, plums, and peaches. Some stalls have refrigerators which hold other imported goodies such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and baby carrots. However, these are not necessarily fresh and organic, and are relatively expensive. Belize has year round and seasonal produce. Avocados, for example, only grow in Belize during the summer. The same applies to mangos, pitaya, craboo, breadfruit and litchi. However, produce such as bananas, soursop, oranges, watermelon, carrots, cucumbers, papaya, guava and many more are year round. There’s always something fun and funky in season for you to try! Produce is generally sold by the pound so you’ll find scales hanging around the stalls to see just how much you’re getting. There are no price labels so you’ll have to ask and potentially haggle if you’re new in town. The proprietor may or may not speak English but there will be a younger generation whom they can call over to translate. On market day these permanent stalls remain but they are surrounded by tents, tarps, and poles that make up the temporary stalls.
In the center of the temporary stalls are the food vendors. An alluring aroma draws you in. All sorts of local cuisine are being cooked and served to guests on makeshift tables under tarps. Some stalls have a poster or banner advertising their specialties. At other stalls you have to see what’s cooking and what everyone else is eating. There’ll be some foods with which you’re likely familiar such as quesadillas, burritos, tacos and BBQ. But there are more of which you may not have heard. Take a leap of faith, be adventurous, and try a new food: pupusas, garnaches, salbutes, escabeche, empanadas, panades and of course, fry jacks. These local favorites are whipped up at lightning speed right before your eyes as you wander through the food stalls. Most of them have a table and small plastic stools for you to perch precariously upon as you eat. Try the hot sauces unique to each vender. Beware: test them before you load up your meal! If you want a break from all the hustle, get your food to go and eat it on the bank of the Macal River. The market is situated right next to it. Later on in the day, you’ll likely find locals taking a dip to beat the heat.
Other than the permanent stalls and the food vendor's, there are merchants selling second hand clothes, beauty products, shoes, plants, fresh seafood, local products and souvenirs galore! In the souvenir stalls you’ll find handcrafted jewelry, paintings made by local artists, slate carvings, clothing, handbags, stone figurines, wooden figurines, cloth figurines, hammocks, dolls and much more. It’s an array of bright colors pulling your attention is every direction. People from all over the Cayo District travel to San Ignacio to set up their stalls and sell their products. Common products are granola, jam, honey, salsa, spices, and sometimes when people are doing a spring cleaning or moving, rather than having a yard sale they go to the market and lay out all their belongings on a tarp or table for people to sort through and pick out. You never know what you’re going to find at the market. There are vendors who have been selling every Saturday for over a decade, there are those who come irregularly and infrequently, and there are a few who come once and never return. Every Saturday market will yield a different crowd and different finds.
Your best bet is to allot some time to just wander around. The San Ignacio Saturday market is one of the best displays of our cultural and culinary diversity. Walking through the market is like taking a concise tour of the local life and cuisine. Granted it’s merely a snapshot into the complexity of each culture, but the experience is an excellent representative. Take an hour or two out of your Saturday and head to the market in downtown San Ignacio. It’s not big, it’s not fancy, but it’s ours.
What to Keep in Mind:
- The best time to come is early in the morning to avoid the heat, but there are the most vendors and people around midday. If you’re looking to shop, then go earlier; if you’re looking to people watch and wander around then morning to noon is best. However, there will be interesting people all hours of the day.
- Unless you come before 10am, make sure to have some sort of protection from the sun whether that’s a hat or sunscreen.
- You can find juice and water in the market but it’s wise to carry water with you.
- Since there are no set prices, feel free to ask around at several stalls to get an idea of what the best price for any particular product may be. Belizeans are known for their kindness and hospitality, but there are a few who May take advantage of the lack of set prices.
- Watch out for low hanging poles, tarps, wires, and strings! They’re strung about haphazardly along certain rows.
- Local produce is cheap, imported produce is expensive! Unless you have an insatiable craving for strawberries, buy local! If you’re not sure what’s local and what’s imported feel free to ask the vendor.
- Last, but not least, ask questions! It’s safe to say that almost all the vendors are more than happy to share insider knowledge about their products. If you’re not sure whether that spiky green thing is a fruit or vegetable (is it even edible?), just ask a local what it is and how to eat/prepare it.
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