Salta’s Central Market: The City Within the City

by Keith Savage · 20 comments

Fruit stand in Salta's central market

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.

KelseyNo Gravatar December 3, 2010 at 10:02 AM

Great photos! Looks very colorful!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 9:01 AM

Thanks Kelsey, that means a lot coming from a photographer like you.

Phil PaolettaNo Gravatar December 2, 2010 at 8:50 AM

Fruit Jenga!!!!!! I love this. Thanks for such a vivid account of this market Keith! B well, Phil

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 9:01 AM

Seriously, it looked like one wrong pull and the entire fruit stand would collapse.

AndiNo Gravatar December 2, 2010 at 8:34 AM

I heart markets!!! Best way to understand a city and its locals. Love your descriptions and pics.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 9:00 AM

I totally agree, Andi. Glad you enjoyed this.

AbbyNo Gravatar December 2, 2010 at 8:01 AM

Ohh, it really is so very beautiful! Great photos. Even though there aren’t many people in your shots, it still looks lively to me. I guess that’s all the bright colors talking!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 8:59 AM

Hah, I guess I inadvertently shot around the people. It was fairly busy inside but nothing like how it was yesterday (Saturday) morning!

SabinaNo Gravatar December 1, 2010 at 9:42 PM

Ohh, I love your writing!! I’ve never visited your site before. This whole post is beautiful. I’ll be back for more!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 8:58 AM

Thanks Sabina! Please have a look around 🙂 Hope to see you ’round these parts again!

KenNo Gravatar December 1, 2010 at 5:56 PM

Fantastic! Would love to wander around in the market!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 8:57 AM

I think you’d really love it.

GrayNo Gravatar December 1, 2010 at 5:25 PM

This is why I like markets, even though I’m not naturally inclined toward crowded places or shopping. It’s such a lively, colorful slice of life. And way better than a grocery store. 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 8:54 AM

Markets really give you a sense of the common and important items in the culture, and it’s interesting to see how the process of purchasing goes down.

Ani SorucoNo Gravatar December 1, 2010 at 1:53 PM

Y la mejor pizza con Mirinda Manzana… qué ganas de darme una vueltita por el Mercado!

And the best pizza with an Apple Beverage… you make me feel the need to be around the Market!


Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 8:53 AM

Apple beverage? Ani, is that a common accoutrement for pizza?

ErinNo Gravatar December 1, 2010 at 1:09 PM

I love Salta market! Glad you are enjoying it. I hear the cheapest empanadas in town are found in the market too.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2010 at 8:52 AM

There’s a lot of affordable food at restaurants in the market, and I’ve heard it’s good too. It’s a very interesting market with simply tons of interesting things to browse and buy.

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