Back in 2010, when I made my first trip to Playa del Carmen and fell in love with the area, food shopping was not on my list of things to do in Playa Del Carmen. Instead, meals, snacks, and treats were all part of the street scene near 5th Avenue- Playa del Carmen’s most transited street.
In 2014, I bought my Condo, and all that changed. My new lifestyle allows me to eat out often at my favorite local restaurants, but I had to learn how to fill my “despensa,” aka the pantry at home. There were big questions about where to go, when, and what types of foods I would find.
By the end of this article, you will have a leg up on newcomers to the area. Let’s start with the types of supermercados or grocery store options in Mexico.
Here in Playa Del Carmen, there are over 90 Official neighborhoods. Supermarkets are located all over the City for convenience and include Chedraui, Soriana, Mega, Super Aki, Aurrera, and Walmart. Many of these stores have multiple locations, mostly located in the Centro (downtown) area.
There are also wholesale stores such as Sam’s Club, City Club, and Costco.
In addition to big-box supers, we have a variety of convenience stores, OXXO, 7-11. Circle K, and Europea. You can find a convenience store just about on every block and sometimes in sight of each other. Here you can buy snacks, beer, liquor, and various things you seem to run out of at the last minute. Europea is a little higher-end of all the convenience stores, with a large selection of wines and liquors.
Multiple Trips for Multiple Things
There are a few significant differences to shopping in Mexico. First, you’ll generally visit more than one store as not every supermarket will have everything on your list. At times you’ll need to go to the local Fruterías (veggie and fruit stores), Panaderías (bread store), Queserías (cheese stores) or Cremerias (milk, cheese, and cream stores) or Pescaderías (fish stores) to find some items.
The other major difference is the type of products which cater to the local population. Supers (Spanish for grocery store) here in Mexico have large areas dedicated to beans, rice, fresh produce, chiles fresh and dried, local herbs, local fruits, seafood, meats, juices, sodas, Coca-Cola, and beer. I specifically mention Coca-Cola and Beer as those two items are highly consumed in Mexico and truly a part of daily life. But don’t worry, in the Centro area, the big Supers have not forgotten about the massive amounts of tourists and expats.
And they go to great lengths filling the shelves with many of the brand names and food items we know and love from all over the world. Although specialty items like gluten-free, vegan, and organic items are available, they can be difficult to find at times. But there are local options at specialty stores that cost more.
When is the best time to go shopping?
Back home, most will generally wait until Wednesdays when the local supermarket flyers hit our newspapers and mailboxes to plan a trip to the market. Not here in Mexico. Since you won’t have the equivalent of the US Postal Service, there are no flyers to tell us what’s on sale.
Instead, savvy locals will generally shop Tuesdays and Wednesdays when fresh shipments of items arrive in the stores. On Sundays, in some neighborhoods, there are local street markets called Tianguis. You can find veggies, fruits, and inexpensive household items in these markets. These open-air markets are nowhere nearly as extensive as their counterparts in Mexico City or other major cities but are always fun to shop at.
Another thing you’ll quickly learn when you live in Mexico is to avoid shopping on the 1st and 15th of each month. Those are paydays here in Mexico, and stores are crowded with longer than usual lines. Another interesting fact is that locals shop more frequently, only purchasing what is needed for a few days and then returning to shop again later in the week. In most traditional Mexican houses, the main fridge is tiny. So shopping for 2 weeks or more doesn’t really make sense.
Local vs Imported Items- Costs
I purposely didn’t mention prices as a significant difference between US shopping and Mexico, but it is a major factor. Generally, your dollar will go much farther shopping in Mexico, depending on how you shop and what part of Mexico you live in.
Local items will tend to be less expensive. Whereas imported items can cost as much as 1.5 to 2 times more than back home. For example, you like Lay’s brand Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips. They are available at about $130 pesos which is about $6.77 USD.
Your cost of living in Playa will be a bit higher than in other parts of Mexico.
One reason is that the Riviera Maya, which encompasses the entire coast from Cancun to Tulum and beyond, is a central tourist area. Take a look at a good map of the Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico. The Peninsula has very few major roads, no railroads, and little agriculture due to the dense jungle, limited soil, and limestone base. All of our goods are trucked in from the western ports. So choosing your products locally will help your food budget. However, if you love tropical fruit, this will be a paradise for you.
Tips To Maximize Your Shopping
- Plan your shopping trip in advance, make a list of the items you need. Then, be prepared to visit a second or third store to complete your list. If you see a familiar product that is one of your comfort foods, buy it. In fact, go ahead and buy a few extras. Chances are it will be sold out the next time you go and will not be available until the next shipment, which could be weeks or even months.
- A conversion app and Google translate will be your best friends until you become familiar with the Metric System and Spanish food names. Here are a few conversion tips. 1 lb equals 2.2 kilos. 500 ounces equals 1 lb.
- Write down your grocery list in Spanish before you leave your house. That way, you can start memorizing the names of things in Spanish. And if you get stuck, you can always point to your list. Also, learn the names and uses for the different cuts of beef and pork available.
- At the big-box supers, you can pay in Pesos, Dollars, or Credit Card. Now, keep in mind this only applies to the Riviera Maya and won’t be the same across the whole country. The cash registers are electronic and automatically figure the conversion. This is one of the few times it can be beneficial to use dollars or your credit card if you have a no-fee credit card for international purchases.
- Bring a small cooler or insulated bags for your cold or frozen items. You now live in the tropics. It’s HOT, and things melt or spoil quickly in the heat, especially if you have multiple stops or rely on public transport.
- Bring your own shopping bags because plastic bags are no longer provided. Or you can buy a reusable bag at checkout.
- Last but not least, support the locals. Please tip the grocery baggers and any parking lot attendants. They are independent contractors and rely on your generosity to earn their living.
Let A Local Show You How to Shop!
If you take a 3 Day Relocation Tour of Playa del Carmen, you’ll get to explore the entire cultural aspect of shopping and your tour guide will take you to visit local mercados and supermarkets.
What you will learn touring the aisles will teach you what Mexicans eat, how they clean their home, and how they prepare their food and entertain their friends differently. It’s not only educational but also a lot of fun!
Remember, you’re now in a Spanish-speaking country, so most goods will be labeled in Spanish, and weights and volume are in kilos and grams. During the tour, you’ll also learn how to quickly convert these in your head.