Santiago is the heart of this nation – all foods end up here – and nowhere is this more obvious than the ubiquitous feria, or market.
The feria is my favorite thing to do here in Chile because there is no other place where you can delve right into the culture and discover what it really means to be a local. They are a lifeforce for the people in the suburbs who use them everyday (except Monday) to stock up on almost everything they might need, from fruit and vegetables to medicine, fresh fish or clothing. Stallholders begin in the wee hours, receiving deliveries and then setting up their spot for the day, of which aesthetics are key. Effort is put in to ensure their produce looks fresh and better than the neighbor’s offering, with everything from fake grass, realms of hanging garlic to delicious preparations of ceviche (seafood marinated in lemon juice) or pebre (a spicy tomato salsa mix) made to show off their ingredients to the max.
Food plays a key part in Chilean life. The indigenous of both northern and central Chile had a diet rich in potatoes, quinoa and meat from sources such as pudues, alpacas and llamas, well before the arrival of the Conquistadores. The Spanish then brought with them domestic livestock and ingredients that today make up traditional comida chilena, the very best of which is known as comida casera (homemade food). Many of the dishes are simply prepared, which reflects Chile’s peasant past. Dishes include the cilantro-heavy cazuela stew or lentejas (lentils), while the hugely popular Corn Pie (Pastel de Choclo) mixes both meat and chicken. Beans (porotos) are so frequently consumed and traditional that there is a saying – “mas chileno que los porotos!”
Chile is also blessed to have the Humboldt Current drifting past it’s Pacific Ocean coastline, which brings a huge variety of sea dwelling creatures up from Antarctica. All year round you can enjoy seafood in delicious dishes, my favorites of which are Chupe de Jaivas and crab/prawn empanadas. You know it must be good if it has been immortalized in poetry, which Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda actually did in his Caldillo de Congrio (Kingclip Chowder) poem.
I also find the feria to be a place where you can see real artisans at work, from the man who quickly wraps up the carton of eggs to the elderly gentlemen who will rapidly explain the medicinal or culinary uses of strange ingredients. Remember to shop around for the best prices (cheapest in the centre), watch your belongings, take small change (no big notes!) and use a portable shopper to cart your purchases (not just for nanas!). Finally, stallholders will give you about a million small plastic bags for your purchases so it can be a good idea to take along a reusable bag or simply place things directly in your trolley – and therefore baffling them all!
Ask the locals where the day’s feria is when you are in the suburbs – they will likely be able to tell you! For a unique Santiago experience head to the bustling La Vega market in Recoleta wbere you can try comida chilena in La Vega Chica, or go for huge portions in the Tirso Molina.
With our pull-along shopping cart laden with berries, nuts and vegetables, I am walking with my family along Avenida Recoleta on a particularly smoggy Saturday. We had just been to La Vega – Santiago’s biggest indoor market – to do a long overdue shop (I DO NOT recommend going there on a Saturday and certainly not with a pushchair). We’d stopped at my favourite eating spot in Chile, the Tirso Molina, which is in front of La Vega Chica, and lunched on an overflowing plate of mixed crumbed seafood called Jalea Mixta. It’s always an enjoyable experience going there and especially for natural juices, but this time our strawberry juice was swimming in so much sugar that we literally had to do away with the straw and eat it.
You can buy almost anything in La Vega, and what you can’t find there you can usually get somewhere else in Patronato. I found a gorgeous straw hat for only 1500 pesos which would have been four times that at least in New Zealand! It was suffocatingly busy so, naturally, when we returned to the fresh air we decided to walk home.
There are three metro stops between Patronato and our home close to Dorsal, and the bus takes a good 20-30 minutes so it’s not a short walk. Around Cerro Blanco in particular there is a lot of character, particularly when you walk towards and around Avenida Peru.
There is an old rather Arabic looking blue church with walls partly falling away from so many years of earthquake damage that is locally called “Church of the Chorizos“. This church was originally ordered by Ines de Suarez, the lady of Pedro de Valdivia, but over the course of several hundred years (and earthquakes!) it has fallen down and been rebuilt. This is where the patos malos go to pray, and they do so outside in front of a shrine with hundreds of candles. I didn’t really get it but after observing it many times it is true – every single unsavoury-looking person will stop in front of those shimmering lights and pray while everyone else just walks past. Maybe they were praying for a nice rich gringo to walk past – which unfortunately would not be me!!
There’s a huge church that was originally built for the Los Recoletano sect of Christianity, and which Recoleta was named after. This is also the church where Chile’s only winner of Miss Universe, Cecilia Bolocco, had a showstopper of a wedding in 1990 that saw the Avenida in front closed and was broadcast on television. Luis remembers the chaos of the moment fondly, saying “she was more famous than anyone else in Chile for winning that competition!” She went on to have a strong television career after that, I suppose because she was blonde (I couldn’t resist sorry!).
Before the Cementeries there is a grey, derelict building that I had always assumed was empty but as we walked past some older women came out and I got to peek through the open door. To my surprise it was like looking at a picture of the Middle East or Spain – there was a big courtyard filled with plants with lots of doors coming off of it. I wish I could have taken a picture because I have not seen anything like it in Chile. Luis laughed when I said that I’d thought first it was the Catholic Cemetery,
“Can’t you see all the balconies and the washing?”
The answer is yes, I can see them now. He also told me that the building is very, very old and is typical of the flats that were originally built to house migrants from the country who wanted to live close together. One day I promise you I shall go inside and take some photos because it really was like a glimpse into another world.
Speaking of the Cemetery, most people don’t realise that directly opposite the General Cemetery is the Cementerio Catolica (opens on the side street). This is just as interesting as the bigger one but maybe more so because many of the rooms are pitch black and underground – it’s like the catacombs of Lima – and worth a visit if your not scared of spooky places (or stumbling upon a homeless person in the gloom).
We walked down Cuccuini to Luis’ brother’s house where we were going to a party. It must be the day for seeing into other world’s because FINALLY the famous drug lord of the area had opened his front doors and was even standing outside. This was exciting because he lives in a completely window-less house that is always dark, and is used on the street as something akin to an opium den. I’ve also heard so many stories so it was good to put a face to him. He said hello and to be honest looked so completely ordinary albeit for his clothes. He just looked a bit bored and sad.
And so has passed another day, another adventure in my comuna!
The Andes mountains loom like unforgiving sentinels over Santiago, their icy tops glistening with fresh sunlight. Beneath them, I see pole after pole of Chilean flags flying high, their blue, red and white colours flapping listlessly in the biting winter breeze. They stand perched above the haphazard houses that line Emiliano Zapata, my street in Recoleta, for no reason other than that Chileans love their nation.The homes here have no uniform standard, so you may just as easily find a bungalow painted pink as you would a three-storey beast of modernity, or a property that has grown substantially from its humble beginnings as occupied land. This is a place where the middle-class rub their shoulders with everyone. The streets come alive on Dieciocho (18th September national holiday) when neighbors enjoy the cueca together or during a televised football game during summer when couches and TV’s are brought onto the street. The elderly sit on their front steps for their daily cahuin (gossip) and visits to the local corner store involve long waits while the store owner checks up on the latest happenings in the neighborhood.
I have lived in Recoleta for two years, down Zapata and also in El Salto, an area close to the hills with tiny brightly colored houses . When I first arrived I saw only the potholes in the roads that caused the traffic to constantly stop and start, and the broken pavements that made walking with a pushchair more like a lesson in off-roading. I saw the street dogs -the real Don’s of the barrio – dictating the passage of both cars and pedestrians by either refusing to move or by chasing and biting holes in the tyres of cars they did not like. I saw the flaites on the corners with their baseball caps and Nike knock-offs, lolling about purposelessly until their after-dark misdemeanors began. In short, I felt dirty and more than a little scared here, particularly because then I could not understand a single word anyone was saying …
But there is more to Recoleta than just the modification of a Spanish that is already difficult to understand.There is also much more than the street dogs and the rather enthusiastic bureaucracy of the Recoleta municipalidad. Recoleta is a place with a long history, from being an early settlement of indigenous (Mapuche and Inca) to the growing district of La Chimba under Spanish rule, through to today where it thrives as a residential area that is dominated by migrants. Patronato, where you will find the La Vega market and an assortment of imported-from-China clothes shops, is said to be home to the largest population of Palestinian’s outside of Palestine, along with people from many other nations. It abounds in stores selling foodstuffs from Korea, takeaway kebab restaurants, and even high end dining experiences (such as Vietnam Discovery).
Recoleta is also home to the national cementary, both of which make wonderful ways to while away a few hours (and a good place to buy cheap flowers!). There is a top-quality park (lovingly maintained by workers who have done an excellent job) known as the Parque de la Infanciathat will delight children of all ages thanks to its water fountains, train ride, tree huts and ginormous slides.
Even the local council, despite it’s difficulties, is going the extra mile by developing its Escuela Abiertaprogramme to offer more opportunities to the Recoleta youth. They constantly organize events in the local estadio, such as the recent Indigenous Festival, and they have also implemented a small recycling centre and worm farm.
Bellavista is also (mostly, as half is technically Providencia) in Recoleta, an area famed for it’s nightlife and restaurants. My favorite eating spot here is “Como Agua Para Chocolate” which is a restaurant so dripping with romance it has a flower-filled fountain.
However, my number one place to eat is not in Bellavista, or in Patronato’s Tirso Molina. It is, in fact, close to my home and so tiny that sometimes you knock your chair against the next table’s. It’s staffed by the same people everyday who live above and it really feels as though you are eating in their dining room (because technically you are!). “Santa Rosa de Lima“ is a Peruvian restaurant that offers an all-day week-day colacion for 2.200 pesos that includes breads, starter, main and side dish. The food is Peruvian and delicious, but the desserts – especially the suspiro Limeno – are truly heavenly. This is not a five-star experience, but in my opinion sometimes the best food spots do not have menu’s containing trout and foie gras or lots and lots of numbers at the bottom of the bill.
I do not see the poor side of Recoleta now. This is not to say that I am blind, because it exists here as it does everywhere else. I know that my neighbors struggle and that many sell drugs. I know that many people here work long hours and gain little monetary rewards. I also know that some cause problems and that my window that faces the street sometimes witnesses knife fights and even gun shots. But I also know that people often throw meat over our gates for our dog – just because they care – and that my tattooed neighbor has cleaned himself up completely for his new daughter, who is Emilio’s age and lovely. Every house here has a personality and many are well-tended to – even though there is no grass I watch my neighbor get up every morning in the freezing cold and fastidiously sweep the area in front of her house. This is also the place that bred my partner Luis and that, despite everything, helped him to grow into the incredible man he is today. And it is for these reasons that I refuse to condemn the people here – many of whom are victims of circumstance – or eagerly wait to move away. There are many things I do not like but there are many that I love, and it only takes a moment to find something wonderful (just sometimes takes a little searching for, that’s all). I am proud to call Recoleta my home and it truly is – my blood is English, my memories kiwi but at heart I am Recoletana.
See my pictures on Instagram: @helen_luise #queridarecoleta