There are several long paseos around the Plaza Las Armas. With their malls and shopping galleries connecting them, these pedestrian streets in the heart of the city are very crowded during the day. But after the metal shutters of most shops are rolled down for the night, the streets are still busy with the unofficial vendors, people selling goods on a piece of fabric on the pavement or food from a cart, a cooler or a BBQ. You can find socks, watches, earrings, nail clippers, plastic dinosaurs and buy empanadas, sandwiches, salad in a plastic bag, deep-fried chicken and fries, peanuts or ice cream.
Santiago is a giant open-air market. Everywhere you go, there is someone selling something. Watermelons. Fruit salad in a cup, plastic fork included. Lottery tickets. Shoeshine services. Fortune-telling or tarot reading. Bags. Calendars. Bandages. The only thing that isn’t for sale is the answer to the “what’s the meaning of life?” question, although come to think of it, the fortune tellers may have something to say about it.
Barrios also seem to specialize in some kind of market: Bella Vista has all the clothing shops, both brick-and-mortar and in the street, Bella Artes has artsy and cutesy stuff (plus snacks for the late-night crowd), Avenida Provincia has arts and craft, there is a “Chinese mall” etc.
At lunchtime or late at night, vendors sell food right in front of supermarkets for those who don’t feel like queuing at the cash register. You can buy a to-go serving of rice and chicken at the cafeteria or get the exact same meal from a guy and his cooler at the supermarket’s entrance. I highly applaud the ingenuity and resourcefulness, plus I like the way these vendors and their stalls make the city more lively.
Then there are the official markets. The most famous one is the Mercado Central that specializes in fish. Nowadays, it mostly offers fresh seafood and meals at the many restaurants at the centre of the building. It’s very touristic and while the fish is fresh and cheap by world standards, it’s a bit annoying to stroll around because every two seconds, someone will try to hand out a menu and get you to sit in their restaurant.
There is a small fruits and vegetables market nearby, and behind, there the Vega Central, the much bigger version with tons and tons of produce. We strolled around the packed alleys, smelling everything. Giant corn cobs, oversize carrots, exotic fruits and spices, perfectly ripe avocados. If only the local delicacy wasn’t hot dog… Yes, this is the paradox: finding a good restaurant in Santiago is harder than it seems. There are Peruvian and Japanese restaurants specializing in seafood (a bit expensive and touristy), many Chinese restaurants that offer the standard way-too-salty Westernized menu you can find in any big city, and local places that have variations on hot dogs, burgers and sandwiches. I think I would eat better if I could invite myself at someone’s place in Santiago, judging by the food Chileans buy at the supermarket!