How to Shop for Groceries at Lake Chapala, Mexico

June 6, 2012

Please click the far left arrow point to listen to an adio version of this article.

When I was doing my research on Lake Chapala, Mexico, prior to moving down, I had spent considerable time checking out the cost of living and looking at comparisons of food prices on various websites. 
One of the things that surprised me when we first got down here was the experience of shopping. It was a little daunting and initially very frustrating for my wife. It took a while for us to learn the ropes, but now have no problem shopping here.
Keep reading so you can avoid the problems we encountered and so transition to shopping here at Lake Chapala.
Lake Chapala in a way is like living out in the country in a small town where there isn’t a wide variety of places to grocery shop.  
There are essentially four larger grocery stores, a whole lot of little abarrotes (small corner stores), and several large markets. 
Let’s concentrate on the four main stores where most North Americans shop. In Chapala there’s Soriana’s, then there’s Wal-Mart and El Torito in Ajijic, and Super Lake in San Antonio.
Soriana’s is a Mexican grocery chain, Wal-Mart is Wal-Mart, El Torito is an independent small supermarket and Super Lake is an independent grocery store geared to North American preferences.
This store specializes in carrying products that you won’t normally find in Mexico, but are desired by many gringos. 
When we first arrived one of the very first things we had to do was go grocery shopping and stock up the house. So, down the hill we went to the Wal-Mart. The sign on the outside looked the same as up north, but once we got inside we struggled. 
First off, all the products are labeled in Spanish, big surprise huh? Next challenge, where are things? The signs over the aisles were in both English and Spanish, so you could find the cookie aisle pretty easy, but where were the bread crumbs, where was the flour, where was the ketchup? 
We stumbled around the store for probably an hour searching for groceries we needed aided by our list. By the time we left, my wife was frustrated and we only had about 60% of the things we had on the list. 
So off we headed to Soriana’s for hopefully a much more pleasant shopping experience. Not ! 
Soriana’s is a very nice store, but we ran into the same problems that we did at Wal-Mart, we couldn’t find the products that we needed, the store clerks didn’t understand English, and we ended up getting another 10% of the items on the list, but still came up short.
Super Lake and El Torito are quite a bit smaller than either Soriana or Wal-Mart, so it was a little bit easier to find our way around at those stores. 
After having visited all four stores we were still short on our list, but we were getting close to finding everything we needed.
Another thing that we found in shopping at all four stores was that the selection here is a whole lot smaller than what you have up north. Instead of having 43 different varieties of ketchup, there were two, maybe three.
It’s like that with most products and you’ll really notice that you don’t find a lot of the low-fat, sugar free, gluten free, etc. choices. That’s not to say that you can’t find sugar free, or low- fat products, but not for as many products.
So what’s it like today for us now? No problem. We’ve adjusted our shopping habits and we’ve learned where to go to buy the different things we like. 
We’re no longer frustrated with any of the stores, because we know where to look for things now. We also know now how to find the more difficult products to find.
For example, finding cool whip was a challenge until a friend told us that Super Lake carries it in the freezer section. Salted butter is another difficult item to find, but it is available.
We’ve also learned a few other secrets, like the selections improve during the busy season (November – April). All of the stores know what the gringos like and lay in those products during the busy season and revert back to the local market selections during the off season. 
Want Chips Ahoy cookies, they carry them at Wal-Mart during the busy season, but during the off season you’re probably going to find “Choki’s” brand, which is just as good.
So, be prepared to get a little frustrated when shopping at first. But, like anything, once you get the lay of the land it becomes easier, and after you’ve been here for a few months you’ll wonder why you were every frustrated in the first place. 
Hopefully, this article will help keep your frustration to a minimum.
Oh, and one last tip, don’t be afraid to ask any other gringo in the store where things are. Most everyone down here is friendly and they’re always willing to share their knowledge of where you can find what you’re looking for.
John King
  • Sophia

    Thanks for the tips! How about wheat or dairy free stuff? While traveling all over Mexico i found none, except for lactose free milk. But soymilk at the “health food ” store was beyond outrageous in price. How about the price of almonds and walnuts? With a walmart there now can you get things like different kinds of olives, artichoke hearts, things that would be called “specialty items”, and of course, very high priced. Pesto? Have to make your own, i imagine? 

    One can eat fresh abundant produce and protein sources but if you’re sensitive to gluten and dairy a lot of cheese and tortilla dishes (even corn for some folks) aren’t going to cut it. Would Guadalajara have a larger selection of affordable “health foods” and allergy free items?

  • Sid Grosvenor

     Hi Sophia, Thanks for your comment. Super Lake likely has what you’re looking for in the way of wheat and dairy free products.

    Both Wal-Mart and Super Lake stock a variety of olives, pickles and the like. Not sure how the prices compare with
    North America, but each time I visit Texas I get sticker shock
    at the supermarkets prices there.

    The selection at the larger Wal-Mart stores in Guadalajara is as far as I can tell about the same as here.

    Hope this helps. Perhaps another poster will have more info.

    Tu amigo, Sid

  • Heather

    I’m impressed that you were able to find such a high percentage of items on your list the first time shopping… I think we only hit about 30%. We’ve only been here a couple of months, so we’re still learning the ropes. One “advantage” we’ve found is that some less healthy items we purchased up north are either not available, or substantially more expensive, which encourages us to make healthier food choices. That, plus all the walking around grocery stores and markets to find things has helped me to lose weight!

    Since we have a car and a sense of adventure, we’ve been into Guadalajara several times to shop there as well. The two Costco stores are great for stocking up on some familiar items, plus many things are labeled in English. An added bonus is that each Costco has a “Mega” store (that’s the name) right next door. As it’s name implies, Mega is a HUGE, very modern grocery store with large aisles and a fantastic selection.

    Between every-day shopping Lakeside, getting fantastic fresh produce at the outdoor markets here, and supplemental trips to Costco and Mega, we’ve become fairly comfortable with grocery shopping in a fairly short time.

  • Sid Grosvenor

     Hi Heather,

    Thanks for taking time to share your shopping experiences with everyone.

    We too go into Guad. from time to time and stock up on the giant jars and
    boxes of the things we like that will store well for a long time.

    Please continue to keep us informed as you learn the ropes of being retired here.

    Let me know if you run into problems, Tu amigo, Sid

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