The very word “souvenir” evokes visions of cheesy trinkets destined to fall apart before you get them home. The Spanish word, recuerdo, is an improvement. It translates to “reminder” — what a souvenir ought to be. The best are specific to the place you visited and, ideally, made by local people.
You can still find gaudy shot glasses and donkey figurines dressed in serapes and sombreros, but U.S. travelers have become more sophisticated about shopping in Mexico. Once you delve into the country’s rich artisan traditions, the problem becomes how to choose (and maybe how to get it home). But somewhere between the decorated margarita glass and the hand-carved wooden bed lies the recuerdo for you, or for your friends and family at home. If you’ll be south of the border in the next month or two, you could even whittle that Christmas list down to size.
Here are some of our favorite candidates for souvenirs you’ll still love just as much when you get it back on home soil as you did when it called to you in the plaza or market:
Food and drink
•Tequila: More and more tequilas are available in the United States now, but there are still plenty of inexpensive and often very good ones that don’t make it north (look for “100 percent agave” on the label). And you should be able to find the astronomically expensive Herradura “Seleccion Suprema” for a more manageable price than you’ll find it here.
•Xtabentun: The honey-anisette liqueur based on the ancient ceremonial drink produced by Maya beekeepers is more of a novelty. Made in the Yucatán, it is becoming more popular in other parts of the country.
•Coffee: Mexico is the world’s largest producer of certified organic coffee and a leader in fair-trade coffee. Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Coatepec region of Veracruz are the prime growing areas, with Oaxaca’s Pluma coffee considered the best; look for Tres Flechas, Loxicha or Tres Oros brands.
•Dulce de leche/cajeta: A first cousin to caramel, but made with sweetened condensed milk rather than sugar, cajeta is widely used in candy bars and cake fillings, but if you can resist eating it right off the spoon you’re less than human. Large quantities are sold in plastic jars, but go for the little wooden boxes (cajetas) — the cajeta is aged in the wood for a unique flavor, and you can buy it inexpensively in parks, especially on Sundays.
•Achiote: The piquant, earthy spice made from ground annato seeds gives Yucatecan cuisine its distinctive taste and is a joy for any cook to experiment with. It comes in packets of pre-mixed paste, but the mountains of fresh ground seeds in local markets are best.
•Chocolate: The gold standard is criollo chocolate, grown today mostly in Chiapas and Tabasco states but used all over Mexico. “Mexican chocolate” is synonymous with Oaxaca’s version, typically ground with sugar, cinnamon and almonds. A molinillo, the rattle-shaped tool used to whip hot chocolate, also makes a unique and useful souvenir.
•Coral: Sold in much of Mexico but originating in coastal areas, especially along the Caribbean, coral jewelry is a specialty in Cozumel. But no matter how tempting, and no matter how many government permits sellers wave at you, don’t buy black coral — it’s endangered and subject to confiscation by customs (need we say the same goes for tortoiseshell?).
•Silver: No matter where they are sold, most silver items come from Taxco, which has something like 200 silver shops. The Saturday-morning silver tianguis (marketplace) sells all things silver at bargain prices that can be negotiated down even further. Quality ranges from cheap mass-produced trinkets to exquisite hand-crafted pieces. Look for the .925 stamp indicating durable sterling silver. For true collectors items, head to the Spratling workshop in the historic center.
•Alebrijes: These brilliant wood carvings in the form of animals both real and imagined are made in Oaxaca and are least expensive there. Price varies with quality and artist, but small versions go for a few dollars. Better still, visit wood-carvers’ studios in the villages surrounding Oaxaca City, where you can watch the artisans at work and buy your souvenir directly from its creator.
•Talavera: The bright blue-and-white ceramic originated with the Moors and came to Puebla with the Spanish. Traditional Talavera tiles, still made by hand using 16th century techniques, define the city’s architecture, but the glazed earthenware is also made into vases, bowls, plates and mugs. A quite handsome but less expensive version is made in Dolores Hidalgo. Many workshops in both regions are open to visitors.
•Clay: Mexico’s diverse geology produces many types of clay; the most common is red clay. For a rarer souvenir, look for barro negro, the distinctive pearly-black pottery from Oaxaca that is made into everything from children’s whistles to small bowls and dishes to large, elaborate urns. The village of San Bartolo Coyotepec is famous for its black clay, made as the ancient Zapotecs did.
Clothing and textiles
•Panama hats: Far better than an unwieldy sombrero, Panama hats are made not in Panama but in Ecuador and, less well-known, in the humid caves of Campeche state’s town of Becal. Closeness of the weave and fineness of the fibers determine price. Besides looking cool and making an effective sunscreen, well-made, close-weave hats spring back into shape no matter how much you punish them.
•Traditional Yucatecan garb: Guayaberas, comfortable tropical men’s shirts decorated with subtle embroidery, translate surprisingly well to everyday wear north of the border. Skip the newer polyester versions and stick with traditional linen or cotton, which are the coolest. Women’s huipiles, simple white cotton dresses with bright embroidered flowers around the neck, won’t do for the office but are fun, and beautiful, for casual wear. Hand-embroidered designs are expensive, but attractive, less-expensive versions are also available in markets. Rebozos (shawls) are another good buy that will see plenty of use.
•Leather: For the best quality and prices on leather goods, head for cattle country. After embroidery, leatherwork is Valladolid’s most important craft. Inexpensive sandals, belts, purses and wallets are sold in the Mercado de Artesanias, or you can poke into workshops around town.
•Wool rugs: The Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle is the best known of a string of textile-producing towns outside of Oaxaca. Its intricate rugs and other wool weavings are hand-loomed and dyed with indigo, insects, molasses and other natural sources. Seek out the weavers’ homes on the town’s main street, and you’ll be able to get a better deal than in the local stores.
•Classic children’s toys: Marionetas (puppets), maracas and other noisemakers, wooden flutes and small dolls wearing typical dress of different regions are inexpensive and widely available from street vendors and markets. For older girls, accessories such as a sarong or a small hand-woven bag, coin purse or wrist or ankle band are less likely to abandoned when kids reach their teens.
•Toys for macho macho men: They’re not for everyone, but lucha libre fans can get authentic masks for less than the imports sold here. They’re easiest to find at the arenas if you attend a match. Hand-rolled Cuban cigars are widely available in Mexico, especially in southern states. (So are cheap local knock-offs, so know your source.) Just remember, we did not advise you to smuggle one past customs agents.
Former Chronicle travel editor Christine Delsol is the author of “Pauline Frommer’s Cancún & the Yucatán” and contributor to “Frommer’s Mexico 2011″ and “Frommer’s Cancún & the Yucatán 2011.”