Mexico City’s Plaza de Belleza, or Beauty Square, has the trappings of any other Mexican market: Vendors peddle small electronics, cheap clothes and fresh-cut mango drizzled with hot sauce.
But this market is dominated by a very different kind of commerce.
People come here to get pretty.
Sitting in chairs on the sidewalk or inside stalls divided by plastic tarps, customers get their faces waxed, eyebrows threaded, teeth whitened and the calluses scraped off their feet.
The services — as diverse as acne treatments and application of 4-inch-long acrylic nails — are performed right there in the open, in full view of strangers hustling by.
With hundreds of aestheticians competing for business, the plaza may be the world’s largest open-air spa.
Tucked behind a looming 16th century monastery, it’s a paradise for those who can’t afford the expensive salons offering tea and cucumber water in snootier parts of the city.
It’s not a place for the shy.
People come from far and wide to beautify before all sorts of occasions: quinceañeras, baptisms, hot dates.
Nail stylist Habib Mansur’s favorite clients are brides preparing for their weddings.
“It’s a total thrill,” said Mansur, a 22-year-old man with dark hair and bright green eyes. “You get to be a part of the most important day of their life.”
Mansur, who started out a few years ago as a hairstylist but who switched to nails “because I hated having all those little bits of hair all over me,” works at a stall called Antology Nail. It’s one of perhaps 70 nail stalls that crowd the west side of the plaza.
The smell of acetone is overpowering, and the design aesthetic borders on the frightening: Each stall features racks of disembodied plastic hands affixed with acrylic tips that advertise the stylists’ work.
The plaza is more than just an outdoor beauty salon, he said on a recent muggy afternoon. It’s a place of healing.
“We don’t just do nails, we’re also psychologists and counselors,” he said. “Sometimes people come here just to get stuff off their chests.”
When customers get really deep, it’s usually about one thing, his boss, Sofia Villanueva, said with a laugh: “Their love lives.”
Villanueva started working here as a teenager more than a decade ago, back when there were only four nail stalls in the plaza. The market grew organically from there, she said.
The Plaza de Belleza was right at home in Mexico City’s historic center, a warren of narrow streets lined with colonial-era buildings and teeming with all sorts of trade. After all, what isn’t for sale in these streets?
The blocks surrounding the Zocalo, the country’s magnificent main square, are where you go if you need a trophy made, or a cheap tattoo, or personalized slippers. They’re where you’ll find the city’s most heavenly tlacoyos — torpedo-shaped disks of masa, or corn dough, stuffed with fava beans — and knockoff Nikes, knockoff Versace and the perfect winter coat for your pet Chihuahua.
There is Francisco Madero, a pedestrian walkway lined with shops that sell only eyeglasses, and Bolivar, a pulsing street of stores that sell only speakers and musical instruments. In nearby La Merced market, you can buy heirloom corn, chile peppers and even sex: Prostitutes linger in short dresses and towering heels.
If all that is happening on the street, why not sit back and have your eyelashes permed while taking a break from your shopping?
One woman’s lashes, which had been curled around tiny foam rollers, were covered in white plastic. The eyelash perm had cost her about $4.50 — roughly Mexico’s daily minimum wage.
The woman, a seamstress, said she can’t afford to come to the market more than once or twice a year. But this was a special occasion: Her nephew’s wedding was a few days away. “I’m here to look beautiful,” she said.
As she waited 30 minutes for her lashes to set, she joked with other patrons and the technician who was treating her — and trying to upsell her on other services.
“I’ll take a michelada,” she said with a laugh, referring to the classic Mexican libation of beer, salt and lime.
Part of the beauty market’s success may be Mexicans’ comfort with performing their lives in public.
This sprawling mountain capital is one of the most heavily populated areas in the world. It’s not easy to find privacy here. So couples canoodle without shame in parks, and tacos, tortas and quesadillas are eaten standing up on the side of a street.
At a stall that offered hair extensions and hair braiding, Cintia Texon and several other women sat watching action movies on a flat-screen TV while stylists busily worked on their heads.
One of the more expensive items available — a full set of artificial, rainbow-colored braids — ran $150 and took six hours to weave in.
Texon, 28, had opted to have her own hair woven in thick braids for about a tenth of the cost. Her toddler squirmed in her lap as she chatted with the 16-year-old doing her hair, Silvia Robles.
Beauty treatments, whether in an expensive parlor or here on the street, “are therapy,” Robles said.