Business & Economy

La Vega, the Santiago market resisting world tourism trend

By Iñaki Martinez Azpiroz

Santiago, Dec 29 (EFE).- Santiago’s La Vega Central market is resisting two global trends – the expansion of gastronomy tourism and restoration – and it keeping itself a nerve center and traditional hub where fresh food products can be had for low wholesale prices and which then wind up on the shelves of grocery stores and homes all over the city.

The Mapocho River divides the two most emblematic markets in the Chilean capital, although they operate very differently: the Central Market, on the river’s southern bank, and the La Vega Market on the northern one. The former is filled with seafood restaurants where tourists visiting the city abound, and the latter is jammed with merchants buying product wholesale which they then sell retail at their stores.

Aromas of cilantro, strawberries, fresh cheese and many other delectable scents fill the passageways of La Vega Central, where kiosks offer food of all kinds, mixing traditional Chilean fare with imported food loved by who have migrated to Chile from all over Latin America.

“We decided (at) La Vega, (not to) lose the traditional and homegrown, so we don’t fall into the same position as other European markets, which have transformed themselves into something (exclusively) gastronomic,” the market’s manager, Manuel Caro, told EFE.

La Vega’s hallmark, Caro said, it its patio area where buyers and sellers meet amid the flood of people and pickup trucks loaded with products. “We don’t want to lose our identity and transform ourselves into a mall” or shopping center, he said.

Some 7,000 people work at the La Vega Market, he said, and more than 45,000 customers come there each day to buy from the shops and kiosks.

The market’s rhythm is very much in contrast with Santiago’s other oldest market, the Mercado Central, located 400 meters (yards) from the central Armas Plaza. That market has been restored to cater to tourists and now there are very few fish and seafood sellers left plying their trade there.

“Before, at the Mercado Central you would find fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, seafood, meat – it was the supply nucleus within Santiago’s historic old town,” a translator for tourists, Luis Pezoa, told EFE, adding that he has worked in the area for 34 years for a restaurant that, over time, expanded to be a local chain.

“Over time, the Mercado Central has become a gastronomic center,” he said.

The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the tourism trade drying up at the market, forcing various restaurants there to close. But now the businesses there are recovering little by little, said Pezoa, but a number of shops and restaurants are still closed and activity is far below the levels of 2019.

Prices at La Vega are, for the great majority of products, lower than in other places around Santiago. “We are marked by the difference between us and the supermarkets, which are raising their prices,” Manuel Caro said.

For example, at La Vega, cherries cost less than 1,000 pesos per kilogram – that is, a little more than $1 – while at the big grocery stores the same amount costs five times as much.

La Vega’s fame has made it a regular tradition for many sellers in the Chilean capital, who come there each day to buy food for their restaurants and retail outlets. “Here, I’ve been buying products at wholesale for the past 20 years, and I can find everything,” the owner of a Santiago grocery store, Alvaro Campos, told EFE.

People walking through La Vega know the faces that they see there each day, Campos said, and that creates a mutually trusting community.

Before being interviewed by EFE, Campos was helping the clerk at a vegetable stand attend to several customers waiting in line. They knew one another and he was giving the clerk a hand, saying “Someone will always help you here. That’s just how we do it here.”

EFE ima/bp

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