There are two major options when buying fresh vegetables, meat and other groceries in Santiago – supermarkets, and the open air markets. However, there are also two other options that are lesser-known – Las Ferias Libres and various organic markets that are sprouting up in Santiago.
If you haven’t ventured away from the supermarkets to the other options in Santiago you are definitely missing out, and I’ll explain why. I’ll cover the supermarkets first (skip to the end if you’re more interested in where to find organic food).
Supermarkets in Chile
For the most part, Chilean supermarkets are very similar to those you might find anywhere in the world. The difference is in name only – in place of Walmart, Asda or Sainsbury you will instead find Líder, Ekono, Jumbo and Santa Isabel.
There are a few things to watch out for though, which I will cover briefly here.
Jumbo and Santa Isabel are both owned by South American retail giant Cencosud. Jumbo is bigger and generally stocks the widest variety of produce you are likely to find in any Chilean supermarket.
Líder is Walmart’s Chilean branch and has a poorer selection than Jumbo. They are slightly cheaper however, even though most of their produce is shipped from overseas. Walmart also operates an outlet called Ekono which offers particularly low prices. I will leave judgement of the quality of the produce they sell up to you.
Do not expect Chilean supermarkets to have a selection equivalent to what you might find in the US, the UK, Australia or any other developed country. They cover the basics well, but selections of niche items are usually limited. To take some random examples, hard/impossible to find items include coconut milk, some spices, marmite, canned chopped tomatoes and various sauces.
Prices for essentials such as bread, milk, meat and vegetables are usually quite reasonable and on the same level if not slightly cheaper than in western countries. Niche items can get quite expensive though, so be prepared. Additionally I have been informed by my female friends here that tampons are outrageously expensive, and I can confirm from my own experience that supplements and protein powder are also extremely overpriced (about three times what they should cost).
One word of warning: There are two types of canned tuna in Chile, ‘lomitos’ and ‘desmenuzada’. Never make the mistake of buying ‘atun desmenuzada’. Upon opening the can you will be rewarded with a greyish soup of shredded garbage that looks, smells and tastes like rotting fish. Always make sure to get ‘lomitos’ which are the tuna chunks you are probably familiar with.
Supermarkets can be found everywhere in Santiago, there will most likely be one within ten minutes walk from your location wherever you are.
La Vega y El Mercado Central
Here’s where things get a bit more interesting.
In my opinion, Santiago’s open air food markets are one of the best-kept secrets in Chile. I’ve lived in five countries and travelled through more than 15 and I have never seen such an abundant and cheap selection of fresh produce in my life.
La Vega Central is the King of the open air markets. It is found near Metro Cal y Canto (see map below) and it probably represents one of the most bountiful collections of fresh produce on the planet.
Picture hundreds and hundreds of stalls, sprawled across three city blocks, bursting with piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, artesanal cheeses, fresh cuts of beef steak, chicken breast and pork chop as well as liver, kidneys and various other animal parts you may not even have heard of, herbs, spices, dried pantry goods such as oats and rice, along with thousands of assorted nicknacks such as tools, knives, tupperware boxes, shopping carts, padlocks, bike tyres and other random pieces of hardware.
Chile also boasts what is probably the widest variety of fresh seafood in the world, and this can be found in La Vega’s sister market, El Mercado Central, which is just across the road and south of the river from La Vega.
And it’s all very cheap. If you like fresh, high quality food, you just found paradise my friend.
Vegetables and fruit are abundant and fresh (most is right off the truck from the farm and still has dirt on it). Just be sure that the seller gives you the correct change.
Chilean beef cuts are a bit of an oddity, and something I will cover in more depth in a future article. Suffice to say for now, butchers will have various lumps of cow, and you have to specify which type of meat you want (Bistec is steak, para la parilla is to grill/bbq and para el horno is for roasting). Then they will slice off the amount you want from a large hunk.
Some people don’t like the idea of buying meat from the meat sellers in La Vega. I think this is mostly just gringo squeamishness. Personally I prefer to see where my meat is coming from, as compared to the pre-packaged shrink-wrapped offerings from the supermarket, where you have no idea in which abattoir or in what conditions it was chopped up in.
For what it’s worth, I’ve probably eaten about 100kg of meat from La Vega and have never once been ill from it. Quality is usually excellent and prices are about 30%-50% less than what you would pay for the exact same meat in the supermarket.
You can also rest assured that all the produce in La Vega is sourced from Chilean farms. There’s no frozen beef imported thousands of miles from Australia or America to be found here. Chilean beef is of a very high quality, almost all of it is grass-fed and quite lean.
The first time at La Vega can be a little overwhelming. There are hundreds of different stalls selling the same thing, but most will tend to have very similar prices. My advice is to find a seller you like for certain products and go back to the same one over and over rather than obsessively searching for the lowest possible price.
This way you can build up a trust relationship with one particular seller and you are less likely to be ripped off. Sometimes I have even gotten freebies and special deals this way.
The best times to go to La Vega are weekday and Sunday mornings from 9am until midday. The stalls tend to get busy very early in the morning with many restaurants choosing that time to stock up for the day. Some stalls start to close after about 1pm as well.
Saturdays are very busy and you will most likely be dealing with a few stressed out merchants, the best time to go is Sunday morning. Most of the stalls open on Sundays – everything is much more relaxed and if you are taking the metro or driving there will be relatively few people around in the city. Buy one of the cheap, colourful shopping carts and go to town.
A map of La Vega Central itself can be viewed here.
La Vega and Mercado Central location:
Las Ferias Libres
One other option for buying groceries and other trinkets in Santiago are the Ferias libres. These are smaller open air markets that usually open on Sundays. You can find local produce, vegetables, fruits, eggs and sometimes meat of fish.
Ferias can be found in many different locations in Santiago, but one of the best known is the Santa Maria Market in Providencia. You will find it on Avenida Santa María, Providencia, on the north bank of the river near to Metro Salvador between calle del Arzobispo and Los Piñones.
This open air market has been running for over 70 years and opens Thursdays and Sundays from 8am to 3pm. It mostly consists of produce bought at La Vega Cental and resold at a slightly higher price. If you are located near to the market it can be convenient, and certainly better quality than the supermarket, but for a large shop La Vega is probably a better option.
Other, smaller markets near to you can be found either by word of mouth, or by googling “feria en XXX”, where XXX is your province e.g. Providencia, Las Condes, El Centro etc.
El Mercado Santa Maria Location:
The Chilean population unfortunately is not particularly conscious about organic food, and you will be very hard pressed to find any organic food at all in Chilean supermarkets.
As for the open air markets, while the produce is certainly fresh, there is unfortunately no way of knowing where most of it came from or how it was grown.
All is not lost however, as there are multiple locations in Santiago that sell certified organic food.
La Chakra is one such place. Although their website sucks, the actual location is well-stocked if a little small. They also have a restaurant on-site that serves great organic food.
Location is a few blocks walk south of Tobalaba metro at Av Mariano Sanchez Fontecilla 534, and can be found easily using google maps.
Mercadoorganico is another option, and probably the most well-known with several locations around Santiago. You can find locally grown organic fruits and vegetables, as well as dry goods such as organic rice, coconut oil, bread, eggs, milk and oatmeal. You might also find some other oddities such as organic soaps or juices. The most popular locations are Plaza Perú and Vitacura. Details on how to get there are below:
Location: Plaza Perú, Agusto Leguía Norte esquina Isidora Goyenechea, Barrio El Golf, Las Condes.
Opening hours: 9am – 3pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Directions: Take the metro to Tobaba, walk east (towards the mountains) two blocks then take a left on Carmencita. Follow that north for two blocks and you’ll reach the park at the corner of Isidora Goyenechea.
View Larger Map
Location: San Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer 5600, opposite the Polo Club.
Opening hours: 9am – 2pm, Saturdays only.
Directions: Take the metro to Escuela Militar, then take a number 425 bus north for about 10 minutes and get off at the corner of Vespucio Norte and Francisco de Aguirre. Walk east along Francisco de Aguirre until you reach, Luis Carrera. Take a left, then right on Escrivá de Balaguer and walk about 50m, you should see the market on your left.