Located beneath a series of interconnected corrugated metal awnings, in the heart of downtown Santiago, you will find La Vega, the historic and legendary market of the Chilean capital. Home to over five hundred stalls and booths, La Vega is a loud, rambling, messy affair with squashed fruit on the ground, loaded near-to-toppling pushcarts, lounging cats and dogs who’ve staked claim with various vendors, and a whirling mass of people from all walks of life.
Also known as Feria Mapocho, la Vega dates back to Chile’s colonial era in the early 18th century. Farmers residing outside the limits of the growing metropolis would gather here weekly, setting up their carts and stalls to sell their fresh produce. In a commercial venture in 1895 led by a local shipping magnate, the main plaza was built, known today as la Vega Central.
Today, produce is still brought in from the countryside but it is rarely the farmer himself that does the selling to the daytime crowds of La Vega. Instead, we discovered that giant agriculture firms ship in truckloads of goods daily which are purchased by the vendors and stall-owners in the early hours of the morning, most days before the sun is even up. The shopkeeps who arrive early, get the best produce, the freshest meat. They take what they buy to their warehouses or stalls and set up shop for their customers who will arrive later in the day. The bad side of this arrangement, since the vendors still tend to sell pretty cheaply, is that many vendors, when asked, had no idea where their produce came from, what pesticides were used on them, or even if they were GMO products.
On any day, there’s the housewife with her shopping bags, the nanny with young charges in tow, the restaurant owner, the street-side entrepreneur looking for cheap bottled water or crates of fruit, the wholesale vendor, the exchange students, the tourists, and so forth.
A heady mix of aromas fill the nose: ripe stone fruit, gamy sausages, spicy pickles, smoked fish, piquant spices and herbs, freshly baked bread and the occasional trickle of urine as you pass a stray dog. The noise is deafening and you won’t be able to hear much beyond the sing-song cries of the vendors and the occasional crash of merchandise and carts.
Lying luxuriously across mounds of red cherries or spread belly-up along a row of neatly arranged orange yams, cats of all colors will eye you lazily as you reach over them to take proffered bags of produce and pass back crumpled bills and jangling coins. Many vendors will offer you a taste of their wares as you pass, pushing firm grapes or dribbling slices of oranges into your hands.
But La Vega has much more than fruit and vegetables. There are butcheries and fishmongers galore, although a storekeep has warned us to beware overripe meat. He says that you need to find the particular day a fresh shipment of carcasses is due to arrive and ask for only that. The overhead bulbs reflect brightly from the glass-encased counters and it can be hard to see which cuts of meat are browning or shrinking at the edges so you’ll want to ask to see your piece of meat before they wrap it up.
An overwhelming plethora of take-out food containers, boxes, bags, and foil wraps are proof positive of the Chilean’s enterprising nature. Alongside you will find cleaning solutions, sponges, mops, toilet paper charcoal, and across the street, you will find the flower market.
During a recent visit to La Vega, we chatted with one of the shopkeeps in the dried goods aisle. Fernando (we didn’t catch his last name) has worked in la Vega since 1964, first in one stall and then, after the devastating fire of 1974, in his current location. Fernando sells dried goods – beans, pasta, flour, spices, and nuts. His whole family is involved in some capacity, although he regrets that his children have no interest in taking over the business once he decides to retire.
When asked about his customer base, Senor Fernando shrugs and replies, “La dueña de casa, gente que concinan para venderlo. – The lady of the house, people who make food to sell.”
He shakes his head, “But it’s not about relationships anymore. The turn-over among the shop owners is frequent. It isn’t like it used to be. People are just here for la plata – money. And there are a lot of Peruvians moving in but they don’t stay long.”
When asked what his favorite home-cooked meal was, Fernando replied without hesitation, “Porrotos, eso o punta de ganso para asado. – Bean soup, that, or top sirloin on the grill.”
Despite the changes Senor Fernando has observed during his career, La Vega remains an iconic Chilean market. To the extranjero – or foreigner -such changes are subtle, mostly unnoticeable. The Peruvian accent blends with the Chilean and the Argentinian (although never admit this to a real Chilean) and the cats and dogs will always lead you to the most generous shopkeep.