I arrived in Santiago late on Friday night after the long bus trip from Mendoza through the Andes. It is fascinating to see such arid country but still, even during this hot weather, to see the snow caps on some of the mountains.
It was nice to arrive at my apartment and find that it was exactly as the pictures promised, if not better, and I set about unpacking and settling in.
My priority the next morning was to explore the local market, not just to stock the house with food, but also because it’s one of my favourite things to do and a nice way to get to know a new place. La Vega is HUGE, and only a few metro stops from my house. The selection of fruit, vegetables and other produce is amazing and the place was full of people. Despite the odd “gringo” here or there, it was really mostly locals shopping. There are a number of very happy stray cats around the place, who obviously don’t lack something to eat.
The market is full of colour and activity, with the smallest glance at a vegetable resulting in the vendor greeting me with a cry such as “que va a llevar, mi reina?” – “what are you going to take my queen?”. I could barely contain myself and before I knew it, my two shopping bags were full and weighing me down. There is so much interesting produce, like small red Andino potatoes, black corn, huge cobs of corn almost the size of a footy, white sweet potato, colourful chillies, plus a range of ready-to-eat sauces, pickled vegetables, tamales, etc.
As I wandered through the aisles, in awe of more and more at each turn, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a dining area, a jumble of tables where it’s almost impossible to tell where one “restaurant” finishes and another one begins. I was greeted with cries from the ladies, all spruiking their specialties and trying to shepherd me towards the nearest chair. Although I had copious amounts of fresh food I’d just purchased, I decided to seize the opportunity and somehow found myself seated at a place run by some ladies from the Dominican Republic. For just a couple of thousand pesos, between 5-6 dollars, you end up with a complete meal, starting with a broth, then a meat dish and accompaniments, and all washed down with a Tang-like “juice”. I chose the oven baked pork ribs and, although basic, they were delicious.
The next day was Sunday, and I had read that Santiago is pretty quiet on Sundays so I took off to explore a couple of neighborhoods local to me that I’d heard were a little more lively. Both Barrio Brasil and Barrio Yungay are centred around their own plazas, and within walking distance of both my house and each other. Maybe because it was early in January and it’s a quiet time of year, but neither of the plazas had the flea markets or music that I’d read about. Still, the plazas had a gathering of people, friends having a picnic on the grass, families with kids playing on playgrounds and cooling off in fountains, couples kissing under the shade of a tree. It’s an aspect of South American life that I love, when people come out of their houses on Sundays to spend time together and enjoy the public spaces.
It was fascinating to walk around the area and look at the architecture and especially the street art, of which there is a huge and talented selection. Some of beautiful old buildings are completely is disrepair and it’s hard to know which are earthquake damaged and which are due to general dilapidation and age.
As I was walking, I came across the tail-end of a street market where people were packing up their stalls. What shocked me was how rubbish was just getting thrown into the streets, with piles of useless vegetables, fish carcasses and other general, smelly substances discarded in unruly piles along the street. I stayed to watch a while, hopeful that it wasn’t how things would be left and, sure enough, before long the cavalry arrived. At first the foot soldiers, with their brooms, sweeping the waste into orderly piles, then the “tanks”, the garbage trucks to shovel it all up and cart it away. So much is still done by hand, and I guess labour is cheap, but I was glad to see that, despite all the waste, the streets were soon back to normal and the market had not left a negative aftermath.
As I walked back towards home, I stopped again by Plaza Brasil, this time to have my first Pisco Sour since arriving, Chile’s national cocktail made with a grape liquor of contentious heritage – they say they created it and Peru says they did! I don’t mind, I’m just glad someone did!
Around me, people were eating plates piled high with one of the popular street foods – Chorrillana. Not a single healthy thing about it – it’s a large dinner plate piled high with french fries, topped with pieces of chopped up hotdog, pieces of steak, onions, cheese, and a fried egg or two. I’m sure there’s probably mayonnaise in there as well, since it seems to be on everything else! It’s apparently good beer food but it’s one street food I’m happy to observe and really don’t need to taste. I was happy to go home and cook in my well-equipped kitchen with all my lovely fresh market produce, and enjoy a glass of Chilean red to see out my first weekend in Santiago.