Why Santiago’s La Vega is a Market Like No Other
One thing I make sure do every time I visit a new city is to look for a market. Whether it’s artisanal handicrafts, food kiosks, fresh produce, or a hodgepodge of random odds and ends, the markets call my name. I think they’re the best (and most fun!) way to observe the local culture.
You can’t help but immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of the marketplace hustle and bustle. That’s why La Vega, the massive fresh produce market in the middle of the city, is my favorite thing about living in Santiago, Chile.
Since it’s located smack dab in the city center and open 365 days a year, I recommend that everyone traveling through Santiago visits La Vega. It’s here that one will find vendors hawking their zapallo Italiano (zucchini) for rock bottom prices, each one shouting promises that his are a much better value than his neighbors’.
It’s here that one will meander down the fruit aisles and be overwhelmed with tropical scents—peaches, bananas, grapes, and every kind of berry, all at their highest quality for the lowest price. It’s at La Vega that one will find the best avocados in all of Santiago.
I always buy my tomatoes from a man near the back of the market who refers to himself as “El Rey” (the king) of tomatoes.
But you won’t just find fruits and vegetables at La Vega. Oho! No, ma’am. Sprawling over nearly two square kilometers, you could conceivably obtain all the necessities for a multi-course feast! There are vendors selling everything from pots and pans to rags and brooms.
You’ll find every kind of spice available in Chile, and you’ll find the meats and fish and sugars and creams as well. You’ll find toiletries like toothpaste and shampoo, paper products like serviettes and paper plates, and heck, even dog and cat food!
Or, if you can’t be bothered to gather all the ingredients for a home cooked meal, you can get one at La Vega! Tucked away in dimly lit, grimy nooks and crannies are many little restaurants run by women eager to serve. One cold afternoon I filled my belly with a warm bean soup and a pancito (little bread) for just $1,000 Chilean pesos (about $1.50USD)! I couldn’t have hoped for a better lunch.
So yes, from utensils to full meals, you can manage to procure just about anything at La Vega, which certainly comes in handy when living as an expat. Sometimes it’s hard to find the goods we’re familiar with back home, but if the product is to be found, it will be found at La Vega.
That being said, this colossal market isn’t necessarily easy to navigate. If you’re just going for a look, then you’ll be fine. I encourage you to let yourself get lost in the bowels of the bazaar. Let the crowd jostle you through the aisles and take in all that there is to see; you won’t be disappointed!
If, however, you are looking for something specific, I wish you luck. I go to La Vega weekly, so I think I know it pretty well; yet I’m constantly coming across something new. I thought I knew where the best value for oats could be found, and then I went with my friend Abby.
I followed Abby down an aisle I’d never noticed before and lo and behold, there were the oats, at a much lower price than I’d ever seen them. My friend Kate told me about a stand that sells tuna fish super cheap, but even with detailed directions, this stand eludes me. I’ll just have to get Kate to accompany me sometime.
Of course, if you’re searching for something particularly rare such as Ziploc bags or real brown sugar, I’ve found that it never hurts to ask the vendors to point you in the right direction. A major reason I love doing my shopping at La Vega is because everyone is so gosh-darn nice there!
Sure, people will push and shove, just like any crowded place on Earth, but the vendors are usually very genial indeed. And as they’re mostly country folk who speak little to no English, it’s a perfect opportunity to practice your Spanish.
Now that I’ve been in Santiago for two years, I’ve developed a routine at La Vega. Over time I’ve come to learn not only where the best deals can be found, but also where the kindest shopkeepers are. I always buy my tomatoes from a man near the back of the market who refers to himself as “El Rey” (the king) of tomatoes. Hanging above his stand is a giant photo of himself beaming at his pyramids of tomatoes. While he doesn’t have the cheapest or even the prettiest tomatoes, the man is incredibly friendly, and his tomatoes are the tastiest I’ve found.
Then I go to La Vega and my cheese man, as I affectionately refer to him, offers me a free sample and asks how I’ve been.
I make sure to buy my cheese and cold cuts from the same deli stand every week because it’s a fair price, but also because no matter how busy the guys who work there are, I can always count on a smile from them. The older gentleman in charge remembers me and makes a point of asking after me.
My first shopping trip following my three week Christmas holiday, the man greeted me warmly. “¡Hola, mi reina! ¡Pero cuanto tiempo sin verle!” (“Hello my queen! But it’s been so long without seeing you!”) It’s the small gestures of familiarity like that that carry the most weight when living in a foreign country. Sometimes the rat race gets a bit much and homesickness starts to set in. Sometimes I’m on the verge of packing up my bags and leaving the city. Then I go to La Vega and my cheese man, as I affectionately refer to him, offers me a free sample and asks how I’ve been.
I’m reminded in that moment what I love most about Santiago. La Vega is like no market I’ve ever seen—and I do consider myself somewhat of an authority on the matter. When the time comes for me to leave Santiago, I’m certain that it won’t be the churches or the food that I miss. I won’t ache for the smog or the traffic jams. No, when I leave Chile it will be La Vega that I’ll yearn for.
Why Santiago’s La Vega is a Market Like No Other