SANTIAGO – In every neighborhood, in every commune in Santiago you’ll find markets, mercados and ferías. The markets are a great place to get to know real Chilean culture. Chile Today reviews some of Santiago’s best markets. Today part III: La Vega Central.
La Vega Central, isn’t just an immense fresh produce market in Santiago, it is an experience in its own right. Located in the center of the capital, La Vega is the epitome of Santiago markets. With over 500 stalls it is the city’s one-stop-shop for anything grocery related.
The variety of fresh produce on offer is immeasurable and the prices are unbeatable. La Vega is constantly surrounded by a buzz of activity – hurried traders push their overloaded carts, customers shuffle down the aisles with another week’s worth of groceries while countless resident cats and dogs lounge around seemingly oblivious to the fast-paced life around them.
Almost daily visitors are treated to some form of a performance, which more often than not is a man rolling around an old speaker while crooning into a microphone. Several cozy local restaurants and fresh juice stalls offer affordable refreshments and a place from which to observe the fascinating market life.
From Rural to Urban
The 60,000 square meter area upon which the market stands was once an agricultural area where merchants conveniently gathered to sell fresh produce due to its accessibility to the Mapocho River. As Santiago grew in the 18th century, the Cal Y Canto Bridge was constructed uniting the urban center to the rural areas on the other side of the river.
In the 19th century, store houses were built to hold the growing amount of merchandise sold. In 1895, Santiago mayor, Agustín Gómez García, led the construction of what is now La Vega Central, a permanent, official and definitive structure containing all the stalls and warehouses.
Today, La Vega is an iconic institution consisting of more than 600 owners organized in three communities and a cooperative. The market needs no promotion as it receives thousands of visitors and produces daily sales of about five billion pesos. Sellers take their work very seriously as the stalls are often passed down generation to generation.
Furthermore, a large amount of the stalls is leased to foreigners, such as Peruvians, Colombians, Dominicans and Ecuadorians. The atmosphere at the market is one of inclusion as it is a place, not only where individuals of many nationalities work together, but also where Chileans and foreigners from all socio-economic backgrounds come to shop for their weekly fresh produce. It is extremely rare to witness any altercation between sellers or customers at La Vega.
From Farm to Table
It is well-known that La Vega supplies fresh produce to most restaurants, hotels and even other markets around Santiago. Thus, shopping at La Vega is equivalent to going straight to the source, as farm fresh as one can get in a massive urban area such as Santiago. The prices here are always 35% cheaper than in supermarkets and the selection is immensely greater.
While La Vega is mostly meant as a produce market, one can still find a wide variety of non-food related items under its roof. Several shops sell plants, household goods, pet supplies, seasonal decorations, small electronics and clothing (usually cheap reproductions of international brands).
Surrounding La Vega there is also a sprawling street-side flea market where one can find almost anything and everything, including cheap suitcases for travelers who need more luggage to haul all their Chilean gifts back home.
Where and when to go
La Vega is located just across the river from the Santiago center and can be reached on foot from Plaza de Armas in about 10-15 minutes. If taking the metro, then station Patronato on the Yellow Line 2 will bring you right to the market. Parking is also available on sight.
When visiting for the first time it is best not to let the chaotic nature of such markets get the best of you. During weekends, the market becomes exceedingly crowded and walking along its narrow lanes is almost impossible. The best times to go are early weekend mornings, or best of all, weekdays when the market comes to a calm lull around early afternoon.
Prices from stall to stall do vary as does the quality of the produce. Weekend shoppers may also encounter slightly higher prices. Finding the best quality and lowest price can be a lifetime mission, and yet even a first-time shopper can manage to find great produce at an affordable price.
A matter of integrity
Foreigners should also not be discouraged by the fact that English is not widely spoken by the merchants. The prices at La Vega are all clearly labeled, and the merchants are very honest when it comes to their trade. In most instances, even the most foreign and disoriented customer will not be overcharged. This is because they value their reputation and a steady base of returning customers.
When selecting the shiniest apple or the supplest peach it is also important to keep in mind that while the majority of vendors allow the customer to select their own produce, others will get very upset if their merchandise is touched.
When visiting for the first time it is best to make eye contact with the vendor and indicate the item you would like to purchase. Usually they will hand you a plastic bag and allow you to make your own selection. It is also worthwhile to note that bargaining is not common practice in Chile, especially for small grocery purchases.
While it is not recommended to bring any personal valuables to the market, La Vega is actually a very safe place. Police constantly patrol the premises and there are more than 200 security cameras in operation, so visitors can shop at ease.
Visitors to La Vega can also eat in at one of many small restaurants on the market premises. A wide variety of Chilean food, as well as fresh juices and pastries, can be found here for very reasonable prices. Recommended restaurants are Mamita and Ta Madre Sangucheria, where vegetarian options can also be found.
During winter months the warm cazuela soup, made of chicken, pumpkin and vegetables, will make any wearied shopper feel invigorated. Coffee lovers will also appreciate a stop at Café Altura as it is one of the best in Santiago.
For anyone in search of a true market experience, a cheap Chilean meal, a glance at one of Santiago’s liveliest places, or even an unusual afternoon activity, La Vega will not disappoint!
Born in Ukraine but raised in Canada since a young age, Kateryna Kurdyuk has since acquired a Masters of Media Studies and Communication from University of Melbourne in Australia and worked in the education field in Dubai, UAE. While currently working as an English Professor in Santiago, Chile, Kateryna is using her extensive experience living and travelling abroad to contribute as a writer to the emerging independent English-language media in Chile.