Santiago’s city markets offer a fresh pick of tradition in Chile

The capital is dotted with hundreds of ferias libres hawking fresh vegetables, meat, and household items to Santiaguinos as they have for centuries.

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Santiago is home to a network of nearly 400 ferias libres (free markets) spread intermittently across the city. These weekly markets are a great way to meet neighbors, participate in Chilean culture, and stock up with fresh veggies at rock-bottom prices.

Cultural and historic relevance

A recent study by the Universidad de Chile examined the role of the feria in the urban fabric of Santiago neighborhoods, traditionally an important source of fresh food and employment. The study found that 70 percent of households still buy their fresh fruit and vegetables from their local feria, despite inroads by modern supermarkets.

According to the study, these markets host 60,000 stands and another 50,000 vendors who arrange their wares on blankets along the street, employing about 200,000 people in total. Unlike the capital’s permanent market at La Vega Central, the free markets require neither rent nor fees from their vendors.

Though free markets once took place throughout Santiago, today they are most common outside the center, and particularly in areas less thoroughly served by the Metro. The districts of Puente Alto, La Florida and Maipú share the distinction of hosting the most markets. Notably, these are all fairly autonomous suburban districts on the southern edge of the city and unlike the wealthier districts to the northeast, these areas have not had the same influx of large, North American-style supermarkets.

The feria libre in Peñalolen

Peñalolen is a district in eastern Santiago, easily accessible from the Grecio Metro stop on Line 4. The Saturday morning feria libre spreads through a network of streets leading to the Andes, which loom over the neighborhood like a white fortress. Stalls selling virtually any item imaginable attract hundreds of shoppers, but the fresh-fruit-and-vegetable section of the market is the most vibrant.

Prices at the fruit, vegetable and seafood stalls that line the market’s busiest streets cover a wide range, from prices comparable to those found at La Vega (already quite a bargain) to rock-bottom deals. Though prices change regularly with demand and the seasons, a recent visit found one stall selling three kilos of grapefruits for around US$2.

But you don’t need to be stocking up your kitchen to come here. Anything from old magazines and books to used clothing to hardware and appliances is on offer in the stalls, much of it for next-to-nothing. You won’t find handicrafts here, nor fancy antiques, but browsing through the goods may reveal something as strange as a mechanical toy monkey or as delightful as a cheap English book.

Street food is also an important – and delicious – element of the ferias, where you can find homemade empanadas, meat skewers, fried potatoes, Peruvian-style ceviche and the popular summer drink, mote con huesillos.

Never quite the same from one day or one market to the next, Santiago’s ferias libres are nothing less than monuments, an essential part of Santiago’s economy, culture and history.

This post is also available in Spanish