The peatonales are hidden by a crush of people. These cobbled pedestrian walkways just south of the heart of Salta are overrun by uniformed students, beat cops, street vendors, capri-wearing tourists, and families with small children darting at vectors across foot traffic. Women carry loaves of bread while men carry kids on their shoulders. It seems like every five feet someone is eating ice cream.
And me? I’m wandering through the throng seeking an entrance to Salta’s central market. You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find a market the size of a square city block, but the entrances are unassuming and not designed to catch the eye of visitors. I eventually locate an entrance amidst the uniform shops bordering the peatonal; perhaps this natural camouflage makes a bit more sense once you consider the riches hiding inside.
I walk through the entrance into an interior crowded by narrow shops, the daylight blocked out by llama wool sweaters, wraps, and blankets hanging from metal bars and the unseen roof high above the market. It’s sensory overload as cumbia, dance, rap, and 80s rock pump out of bootlegger shops. A melange of spices, from cumin to saffron to oregano to scads of spice blends, cover the close air with a thick blanket of scents.
Visually, I can hardly take it all in. I glide past stalls crammed with inkjet-printed DVD covers and cell phones packed in small baggies. Tiendas brim over with jarred and dried fruits, multi-hued woven Andean bags, maté gourds, and seemingly arcane tinctures in a medley of bottles that would make the shopkeepers in Diagon Alley blush. Some shops are little bigger than a telephone booth. I pause in front of one stand that sells Coca leaves in green cellophane bags. Three pesos lighter and I stuff the pungent mass into a side pocket of my cargo pants.
At the end of the crafts section I jaunt up a simple iron staircase for some air and a better understanding of the market’s scale. The market’s second level is dedicated to restaurants serving regional cuisine; the smell of empanadas and the sight of stacked tamales and humitas make me briefly consider an extended bout of gluttony. I recant, though, and look out over the tin-roofed stalls standing beneath the massive arched roof of the greater market as I circle the walkways. Light peeks through the striated ceiling, but the fabricated jungle canopy prevents most of it from reaching the “forest” floor. A low-level cacophony of capitalism echoes up to my perch.
I descend the stairs and enter a maze of meat. Strips of beef and pig skins dangle from hooks and block the view around corners. Whole and partitioned chickens rest under glass next to plastic pans overflowing with milanesas. It smells like a warm meat locker. I turn from a ghastly set of hooves chilling on a counter to see a cornucopia of cow tongues and hearts among other bits of offal so important to a parrillada. A shock of reds, greens, and yellows appears ahead and I speed walk down the cement corridor to the fruit and vegetable vendors.
Wooden crates are stacked upon plastic crates holding carefully built fruit pyramids; it’s like fruit Jenga. A tiny orange cat backs under one of these crates when we make eye contact. Each type of fruit and vegetable is split open to show the quality of the produce. Everything from apples to zapallitas (small green pumpkins often hollowed out and used to cook stew in) blanket the floor space. All of it is grown right here in Salta province and I can’t help wondering why none of it appears in the normal diet. I barter with a vendor and get a sack of bananas, oranges, and peaches for seven pesos.
On the edges of the produce section flower shops explode with color. If only their delightful scents could waft over this windless city. I see more things under glass, this time it’s a stack of queso de cabra wheels – goat cheese. Cement-floored corridors lead off in various directions, all of them lined with vendors selling many of the same goods. After 90 minutes wandering the labyrinth I’m ejected into overcast daylight on Calle Urquiza.
Ana, my guide to Cafayate, mentioned that Salta province produces almost everything it needs and much of what Argentina needs. Nowhere was this more apparent than Salta’s central market. Whether you’re looking for wool sweaters, bife de lomo, Coca, or a full stomach, the central market is a beautiful and affordable way to cover your bases.