Santiago’s Mercado Central, South America’s Best Seafood Market
It's mouth-watering stuff.
Santiago‘s Mercado Central is an historic landmark, famed for delicious seafood and other traditional Chilean dishes. Hundreds of tourists and locals alike pour through its wrought-iron arches each day.
Opened in 1872, the Mercado Central features impressive neoclassical architecture, but the real treat is the mouth-watering food you can find inside. Combining traditional Spanish dishes, the indigenous Mapuche culture and, later, other European cuisines, food in Santiago is an essential part of any traveller’s itinerary and the Mercado Central is the perfect starting point.
Chilean seafood (or mariscos in Spanish) is among the world’s best, thanks to the country’s long coastline and diverse geography. The Humboldt Current carries oxygen-rich water along the west coast of South America, bringing with it the species of fish, molluscs, crustaceans and algae that make Chilean cuisine unique.
Amongst stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meats, as well as handicrafts, you can find established (and more tourist-oriented) seafood restaurants and smaller, less conspicuous stalls around the outside. A full lunch and a drink at one of the restaurants in the centre of the market costs around $30 per person, while snacks at the food stalls can be found for $5 to $10.
Yiyi Marisquería Restaurante at Local 105 is a local favourite, serving traditional dishes, while San Antonio Lalita Marisquería Restaurante at Local 56 is about as Chilean as you can get. San José Marisquería Restaurante at Local 23 is another affordable option for local seafood.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is rumoured to have favoured caldillo de congrio, a delicious tomato- and potato-based fish stew that should be on every foodie’s bucket list, and an empanada de mariscos (a type of seafood empanada) is a great option for something lighter. You can also try paila marina, a shellfish-based stew, or just check out the barnacles and giant squid available for purchase in the market to cook at home.
Cazuela de mariscos is another classic Spanish/Chilean dish, filled with every type of seafood you can name (and some you can’t.) Adventurous eaters shouldn’t miss the pastel de jaiba, or crab pie, which is actually more like a casserole. Seafood lunches are the staple of the Mercado Central (although lunch in Chile could be anytime from 1pm to 4pm.)
Wandering around the market during summer, you’re likely to spot Chilean abalone, or locos. These sea snails are fat, squishy and delicious when served with mayonnaise. Based on evidence from archaeological sites, locos have been part of the Chilean diet for over 8500 years, but the madness for locos began with the opening of the export market in the 1970s. The subsequent boom lead to international demand and rapid commercialisation, followed by a huge drop in numbers.
In the ’80s, loco harvesting was banned altogether and the shellfish became a protected species. Today, fresh locos are only available from December through April, and are protected from overfishing by a permit system.
The Mercado Central is located just north of Plaza de Armas in Santiago’s historic centre, and a 20-minute walk from the bohemian neighbourhood of Barrio Bellavista through Parque Forestal (home to notable museums and sculptures). The food stands and restaurants are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, and 7am to 3:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
For a guided experience, Tours4Tips runs a pay-what-you-like walking tour that visits Mercado Central (among other destinations). Or, the Offbeat Walking Tour meets in front of Museo Bellas Artes at 10am daily.
But, whether with a tour group or as a solo traveller, the best way to explore Mercado Central is simply to follow your nose!
(Lead image: Germán Poo-Caamaño / Flickr)