Surrounded by volcanic mountains on Mexico City’s high plateau, the footprint of Central de Abasto measures a whopping 327 hectares — making it just slightly smaller than New York’s Central Park.

The traffic jam to enter the world’s largest food market begins around 3 a.m. Trucks of all sizes stream in, heavy with oranges from Veracruz or chiles from Chihuahua, manned by drowsy drivers who left their hometowns the day before to make the trip.

Imported cargo arrives via shorter daily runs from the neighboring international airport, and still other lorries cross several countries via the Pan-American Highway to sell their goods at Mexico City’s Central de Abasto.

At 327 hectares, this is the world’s largest market. Each day, more than 2,000 trailers, 1,500 semitrucks and 57,000 other vehicles provide 30,000 tons of produce to 9,500 stands. The market closes from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily to remove the 1,300 tons of waste produced daily. The distribution network connects to more than 1,500 points of sale around Mexico, including public neighborhood markets, street tianguis (roving markets), 380 establishments associated with 15 chain stores, and other kinds of commercial centers.

Open 365 days a year, this mega-market welcomes over 350,000 visitors daily. It formally employs 70,000 people and informally many more, including over 12,000 cartilleros — delivery men with dollies — each day. The market handles more than 30,000 tons of food daily, representing approximately 80 percent of all the food consumed in the metropolitan area and about 30 percent of the food consumed in the country.

Feeding a city of 21 million inhabitants is no easy task, which is why this market has its own zip code, an independent governing body and even its own 700-man police force, which comes in handy considering more than $9 billion changes hands annually, mostly in cash. This makes Central de Abasto one of the largest economic centers of operations in the country, second only to the Mexican Stock Exchange.

Designed by architect Abraham Zabludovsky, Central opened its doors in 1982 in Ixtapalapa, southeast of the city center. The project grew from necessity: The former wholesale market, La Merced, had overwhelmed the centro histórico with traffic and lacked the necessary infrastructure to deal with the growing demands of the city. Of the market’s eight major sectors, Central’s fruit and vegetable area is the largest. Forty interwoven aisles stretch 140 acres, with 64 interior loading docks. All in all, that’s the length of 105 football fields, each piled high with produce. Most aisles sell mayoreo, wholesale quantities of 5 kilos or more, but several aisles provide menudeo, smaller quantities for the general public.

Hangar-style sections outside boast even cheaper prices. The subasta (auction) area, closed to the general public, hosts the first step in the chain of sale as middlemen negotiate prices for full trucks of produce directly with providers. Giant arched metal roofs top the open-air flower and vegetable area, where growers sell a variety of fresh goods to other vendors or directly to the public in a morning frenzy. Both areas are picked clean of merchandise by 8 a.m.

Enormous plastic bags of processed cereals and snacks can be found in the grocery and supplies section.
A 50 kilogram (110 pound) sack of corn costs costs between 14 and 24 cents in the outdoor flowers and vegetables pavilion. Skilful workers wielding sharp knives quickly clean the ears, allowing customers the option of buying kernels by the kilo.
In corridors I-J, vendors sell retail to the public in small quantities. This service was not available 10 years ago, meaning a customer who wanted to make guacamole would have to walk several football fields to gather all the ingredients.
Towers of huacales, inexpensive wooden crates used to carry fruits and vegetables, are repaired and resold in the Envases Vacíos (Empty Crates) area.
Piles of fresh octopus from the Yucatecan coast await a buyer in the fish and seafood area.
Oceánides sells salmon from Chile, fresh shrimp and mackerel from the Gulf of Mexico, octopus from the Caribbean, shark from Chiapas and farm-raised shrimp from several Mexican states.
The fruit and vegetable section is arranged as a woven tapestry, with five main hallways and eight commercial corridors connected by a series of raised pedestrian bridges that allow lorries to pass underneath. Cars park on rooftop decks, and the metal-roofed bodegas feature loading docks to the back and storefronts along the interior hallways to serve clients.
Poblano peppers from the Mexican state of Zacatecas await unloading. They will be packed into wooden crates and sold from the storefront, but a sign posted in the loading dock gives shoppers the option of buying directly from the truck. Here, one pound of poblanos costs about 31 cents.
Ignacio Romero and his two brothers have been selling Mexican oranges for more than 20 years from this stand, located at M113. Orange prices vary wildly throughout the year, swinging from 26 cents a pound in the summer to as low as 7 cents a pound in the winter, the high season for citrus.
Long morning shadows stretch from the lorries stacked high with onions, carrots, tomatillo and nopales (cactus paddles) as they back into the loading docks of the fruit and vegetable section.

The flow of goods throughout the market and to the points of distribution beyond its walls relies on the 12,000 cartilleros who rush through the corridors daily. Anyone with an ID and $1.20 can rent a dolly, but efficient and reliable cartilleros build a client base and make more money than beginners. It’s tough work, hauling up to half a ton of food in a single trip, navigating the jam-packed aisles during the busiest hours of 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. The elevated bridges connecting the corridor of bodegas to the hallways that lead to the outside parking lots provide a special challenge. Workers run quickly to gain momentum for the steep summit. They pause on top for a rest, then begin an equally difficult descent, with no brakes and a heavy load. A coded language of whistles fills the air and helps the cartilleros communicate with each other. “I’m on your left!” sounds different than “Move over, I’m coming through!”

Carlos Hernandez Reyna runs one of the larger companies that rents dollies to the 11,000 cartilleros at Mexico City’s Central de Abasto. His company rents out their entire fleet of 1,600 diablitos (little devils, the Spanish word for dolly) every single day, at $1.20 a piece. In an attempt to stop the annual loss of about 250 carts, his company is piloting a program in 2016 to install GPS tracking devices that will notify central command when a diablito crosses the market boundaries.
Eduardo Lopez Garcia works as a cartillero for two months at a time, then spends five months with his family in Chiapas. His busiest hours in the market are between 4 and 6 a.m.
Jesús Adonai, 18, has worked as a cartillero in the market since he was 12. He makes around $32 dollars a day during the week and $70 a day on the weekends. Mexico’s minimum wage is less than $4 a day. He stays at the market later than most, until about 9 p.m., as the commute home can take up to three hours if he leaves during the evening rush.
Ulysses Cruz Juárez won’t share his age or his brother’s name. He has worked as a cartillero for the past five years.