Thursday, April 28, 2016

Valparaíso: The Markets

There is something magical about produce markets -- the colors, the smells, the hubbub. And while the farmer's market in my Seattle neighborhood has received national recognition, let's be honest -- it's so damn expensive! We do nothing in the United States to encourage healthy eating; McBurgers are cheaper than produce! That's why I love shopping at produce markets in other countries.

A vendor at the Valparaíso market on Avenida Argentina. Tomatoes cost 600 pesos per kilo (less than $0.45/lb), five squash cost 1000 pesos ($0.30/ea), and one kilo of avocados costs 2000 pesos (less than $1.50/lb).

On a recent trip to the market in Valparaíso, El Mecánico and I filled both of our backpacks with an array of fresh goodies. While our bodies were weighed down by nearly 30 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, our pockets were lightened by less than $18.

Though fresh produce is available in abundance in Northern Chile, finding fresh produce was a struggle on our bike ride through Patagonia. As the harsh Patagonian environment doesn't exactly lend itself to farming, produce is sourced from other parts of the country. Only by walking through the Valpo markets, though, did we truly come to appreciate the origins of Patagonian produce.

Thanks to a combination of El Mecanico's exquisite culinary skills and Valparaísos bountiful produce markets, we've been eating like kings and queens now that we're no longer in Patagonia. El Mecánico's cooking has assured that all the weight I lost while biking Pataonia has been restored.

In addition to El Mecanico's cooking and wrenching skills, El Mecánico also has a knack for storytelling. Throughout our trip, El Mecánico has been writing stories of our adventures and distributing them via email to his friends and family. One such story explains the aforementioned origins of Patagonian produce. I asked Brian if I could share his story here on my blog. After lots of arm-twisting and bribery, he finally agreed. <Insert hoots and hollers here.>

And now, my dear readers, it's time for you to be entertained by El Mecánico!

The below is authored by guest blogger, El Mecánico (aka Brian).
The story was originally distributed via El Mecanico's private email list.

Good produce in Southern Patagonia (defined here as anywhere south of Coyhaique, Chile) is hard to come by. Produce delivered to the region rides the narrow edge of unappetizing brownness and complete expiration. To make matters worse, stores charge premium prices for a wholly mediocre product that rots once you exit the store.

To be fair, getting goods of any kind to Patagonia is an exercise in complex logistics. If something is moved from up north to, let's say, Punta Arenas, Chile, which lies at the edge of the southern continent, the products must either travel by road over the Andes and through Argentina or by boat through the fjords and open waters off the Chilean coast. Neither is an optimal solution. Both are costly and time consuming. (Flying may be an option, but I doubt it is used much for freight)

So what does that mean for the spotted brown carrot or the head of leather leafed lettuce? Unless it is grown in the glacial gravel of Patagonia, it has likely made a long pilgrimage to get to the grocery store. When you experience the quality of fruits and vegetables in Southern Patagonia, you wonder if the produce had arrived in a dump truck, deposited in a vacant dirt lot, and sorted though by produce vendors in town. It takes a keen eye and a bit of luck to find an apple that is not mealy and battered with bruises. Lettuce dissolves in a brown slime upon contact with your fingers. Carrots are blotted with dark, greasy spots. If you pick up a potato, which has usually begun to sprout, your finger pushes through the disintegrating flesh and emerges out the other side.

Perhaps this is all a bit of hyperbole. Unfortunately, neither Sarah nor I have any pictures of the produce in Patagonia that can display its sadness.

If this happens to give you the impression that all of the produce in Chile is bad, I'd like to show you what the wonderful produce vendors have to offer the citizens of Valparaiso. (BTW these pictures are courtesy of Sarah.)

A beautiful display of tomatoes.
And a beautiful display of greens.
So many colorful goodies!

And, if value is tops on your list, here is a display of a what you can get for 11,500 pesos ($17.25):

A dozen eggs, 3 kilos of apples, 1 kilo of potatoes, 1 head of cilantro, 3 squash, 2 kilos of tomatoes, 1 green pepper, 6 red peppers, 1 kilo of lemons, 1 kilo of carrots, 1 kilo of mandarins, 1 kilo of avocados, 2 heads of broccoli, 3 heads of garlic, and 1 kilo of onions.

You can eat quite well in Chile, for not that much, as long as you don't live in Patagonia.

As we wandered the produce markets, I began to piece together the puzzle of where Patagonia gets its produce. Though it may not get its produce from as far north as Valparaiso or Santiago, it must come from a distant place. But that still doesn't explain the poor quality. A lot of produce travels long distances in the US -- think of Alaska. Even though the shipped produce might not be stellar in Alaska, the produce never looks as bad as it did in Patagonia.

Then, one day, as we walked by the main public street market in Valparaíso, we saw the missing pieces to the puzzle:

Puzzle piece numero uno...
...y dos...
...y tres.

And the true winner was this scene:

Yup, that's a pile of carrots, a dead rat, and dog shit.

THIS is the produce that gets shipped to Patagonia and sold to ignorant and desperate gringos. No wonder the locals only eat meat.

So, to summarize, I offer you a handy list outlining the Southern Patagonian Produce Supply Chain:

  1. Vendors in northern city deposit decaying produce into shopping carts, dirty cardboard boxes, or in piles directly on the street, where the flavor can "age" throughout the day.
  2. At nightfall, small work crews gather discarded produce in dump trucks that were used at construction sites earlier in the day.
  3. Produce is collected at a central point in the city where it is loaded into large, open-topped trailers.
  4. Trucks drive produce down to Patagonia, which takes one to four weeks.
  5. Produce is unloaded in gravel parking lot in Southern Patagonian town.
  6. Produce is sorted by vendors and placed into official-looking bins.
  7. Produce arrives at grocery store and is priced at five times the cost of what one would pay up north.
A man sweeps produce waste into a garbage can.

And in case you were wondering when a person can purchase such fine goods, I present to you the hours of operation for a typical store in a small southern town:

We are open from 10am to whenever, but we close around 1pm for siesta, and we reopen around 4pm, but sometimes we don't bother to reopen. We close when deliveries arrive, which seems to be right after siesta, so don't bother shopping until 6 or 7pm, but we might not be open, so forget it.



  1. Colorful description of the distint differences in regions. Good thing you decided to spend your last month in Valparaiso. Looks like from this and the previous blogs that it has been educational, and culturally entertaining. A world into itself...

  2. That is some good looking produce and one HUGE rat!!

    Glad you are pampering yourself after the hard ride lady you deserve it!


I would love to hear your comments on this post!