Santiago: Mercados Vega, Vega Chica, and Central

Markets are always a must see for us, so our Monday itinerary while in Santiago started with a visit to Mercado Vega and the nearby Mercado Central. It was mid-morning when we moved out into the bustle of public transportation of a workday in Santiago. With our highly refined Santiago Metro navigation skills working their typical charm, we somehow could not figure how to change Metro lines and instead left the system at the Los Heroes station, a good distance from our destination. No problem, we figured…we would just see more of Santiago on foot.

One of the advantages of not knowing where you are going is that you find things that you weren’t looking for in the first place. One of the disadvantages is that you often don’t know where you have been. In our case, we toured what I will call the “Used Garment District”, a neighborhood that featured numerous second hand clothes stores and a few fabric shops. I suspect that it is highly unlikely that the locals use this name for this area of town. But, if you ever wondered what happened to that used Jethro Tull concert tee shirt that you donated to Goodwill a few years back, it seems like you might find it for sale in the Used Garmet District for about 70 cents. These shops seemed to be clustered along Bandera near Plaza de Armas, but, if we knew for sure where they were located, we likely wouldn’t have been there in the first place! There’s nothing like defending ignorance.

From the Used Garment District, we headed across the bridge over the fast flowing, dirt brown colored Rio Mapocho and then a short ways to the east to Mercado Vega and Mercado Vega Chica. As we were entering the market, a merchant came over and warned me to be careful to keep a tight hold of my camera. This was the second time that we had been warned by locals to keep a close hold on our personal electronics, so there was likely something to the warnings. Moving into the tightly packed chaos of sounds, colors, and smells of Mercado Vega Chica, the warning added to the edge and focused the senses on the experience. The Mercados were roughly divided into areas with different food specialties. In one area, cuts of meat that included all conceivable parts of the animals from nose to tail were on display in refrigerated cases. Other areas specialized in Chile’s late summer plethora of fruits and vegetables and especially the omnipresent avocados. As near as we can tell, avocados seem to be a requirement on all plates served at Santiago restaurants. In other areas, fishmongers are encamped with their diverse array offerings from the sea (we only looked casually, but did not see some of the more exotic offerings such as barnacles, that the market is known for). In the order there is disorder—the random meat vendor amongst the fish sellers, the single vegetable stand amongst the fish stalls, and the tee shirt vendor tucked in between the produce stands, in case you have an emergency need for an Iron Maiden T-shirt while avocado shopping.

Prepared food is also available at the markets. Somewhat more upscale sit down restaurants are clustered under the filtered sunlight passed in by the wrought iron lace and glass of Mercado Central. Vega Chica houses basic street food in a cluster of much smaller, tightly packed, working man restaurants and food stalls. Walking through Vega Chica, the insistent, universal sounds of the proprietors pushing their menus filled the air. The food in Vega Chica is cheap. Complete meal plates were available for less than two USD.

We ate in a typical small stalls, packed elbow-to-elbow with the other patrons. I enjoyed a simple, tasty meal of chicken, rice, mashed potatoes and a salad and Becky had the same meal with fried fish replacing the chicken. Good, solid family style food with a price that is hard to beat.

As we continued our way around the market after the meal, restaurant proprietors urging us into their eateries frequently engaged us. The easiest response was to pat my belly. There was no need to use words.

Mercado Central was the last market we visited on our day’s tour. Central was the most upscale of the three markets and the only of the one of the mercados where we saw other obvious tourists. Perhaps this was a result of being closer to the Centro. Compared to the Vega markets, it felt like we had moved back to the beaten path.

Using the Metro, we returned to our base in upscale, modern Providencia. The contrast in affluence between the Vega markets and the shopping and cafes of Providencia is dramatic. And there is also a contrast in energy. The mercados are bustling with activity while life in Providencia eases along at its own gentle pace. For us, it was good to see both worlds.

By: Dave Oare

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