aka More Fun than I thought I’d Have at Markets.
We’ve always enjoyed Free Walking Tours in the cities that we visit. Firstly, it’s one of the best ways to get to know a place that is totally foreign to us through the eyes of a local. It’s nice to have someone explain the significance of places and tell us about events that shape the cities. It kind of puts everything into context when we are wandering the cities on our own. Secondly, it’s FREE? What’s not to like about free?
Anyway, for our first day in Santiago, instead of going for a generic city tour, we went with Spicy Chile for their more specialized “Popular Santiago” tour that brought us through the major markets in Santiago.
I know… I don’t normally like markets too. Most of the time, they are wet, dingy and smell just a shade nicer than our week-old socks (don’t ask).
Sure enough, the first market that we went to, La Vega Mercado was just that. It was a sprawling assault on all our senses. The narrow aisles of the market were crammed with an assortment of produce from vegetables to fruits to intestines to pickles and cheese. Watch makers and shoe repairmen lined the side of the market while little old ladies peddled Peruvian/Chilean cazuela in a corner cordoned off for cooked food at al fresco “restaurants”. Vendors shouted at each other across the dim passageways, trying to agree on the best price for their wares.
The 100++ year old La Vega is probably the oldest market in Santiago and locals flock to the various family-run locatarios for their daily grocery needs… and when we were there, it seemed like it was shopping day for all 5 million of them.
It was a good thing we had the lovely Francesca to guide us around. Tour guide by day and theatre actress/director by night, Francesca was charismatic and really sweet. She expertly navigated us through the mazy corridors of La Vega, knowledgeably pointing out all 20 different types of Peruvian potatoes and charming the gruff store owners into letting us sample their impossibly fresh avocados and tomatoes.
For the rest of the tour, she brought us through other major markets in Santiago, each with its own unique produce and personality. This included La Vega Mercado Chica (the bastard offspring of La Vega situated just next door), the Tirso de Molina Mercado (where craftsmen of dying trades such as basket weaving and leather tanning sell their wares), the Flower Market (La Pérgola de las Flores) and the biggest (and most touristy of them all) the seafood market, El Mercado Central.
The Mercado Central was the one place where we were really glad we had Francesca with us. Built in 1872 by President Federico Errázuriz Zañartu for the unlikely purpose of housing the Arts Exposition at that time, the structure of the Mercado Central is considered to be an engineering/architecture wonder of its time.
These days, the Mercado Central (or Central Market) is essentially a seafood market. Creatures of the deep, both familiar and unfamiliar ones are hawked at every store.
The lethal combination of fresh seafood and great architecture makes the Mercado Central one of the biggest tourist magnets in Santiago.
Banking on the literally “fresh from the sea” freshness of the seafood on sale at the market, numerous restaurants set up shop in the Central Market. Touts stand at every corner of the market, waiting to assault you with offers of cheap locos (abalones), sea urchins and whatchamacallits. Some were even prepared to go the extra length and tried to hug these two smelly backpackers.
Francesca was unfazed. She was like a linebacker and blocked off all the touts with her disarming smile and some friendly banter. I’m pretty sure our foray into the market would have been a lot less pleasant without her around.