Patrick Hieger

[Patrick Hieger]

Ask most any chef across South America, even the ones who go deep into the jungle or to the highest of peaks in search of exotic, foraged goods, and they’ll tell you that their local city market is a staple in their country’s, their city’s cuisine.  Santiago has the Vega Central.  Lima the Mercado Surquillo.  Bogotá has the blocks-wide Palo Quemao with an equally impressive flower market outside.  And nestled deep in the heart of South America, dead center in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, is the Mercado Abasto Sur, a sprawling behemoth of a market that showcases the incredibly rich biodiversity that, in the last few years, restaurants throughout Bolivia are starting to show off as they push to become the next “it” country in South American cuisine.  Spend even an hour traipsing through the labyrinthine stalls and rooms full of everything from hundreds of varieties of potatoes, bananas, and plantains, to exotic fruits, live chickens, meat on the grill, and much, much more, and you’ll see just why Bolivia has been getting their fair share of press lately.  And why they deserve it.

What makes the Abasto Sur so impressive is its sheer size.  Less a market and more of an entire section of the city, the market’s footprint only pretends to have real borders.  Even as you approach from the street, vendors are set up selling everything from quotidian household goods like toilet paper and napkins, to squash the size of large dogs, the reddest tomatoes you’ve ever seen, fresh meat, and a whole lot more.  Inside, you’ll find rooms the size of not-so-small houses stacked to the ceiling with massive sacks of potatoes.  Turn a corner and you’ll enter the banana sector, where you’ll find everything from red finger bananas to fully ripe plantains, ready to be fried, smashed, and served up hot.

Winding through the halls and stalls of the market, you’ll find vendors working tirelessly to move and sell the massive quantities of all the products available at the market.  Like with most other markets in South America, Abasto Sur shows off the embarrassment of riches that is this continent’s biodiversity, with enough volume to feed the globe more than a few meals.  Go for the variety, stay for the spectacle.

As Santa Cruz aims to become a hot culinary destination, with restaurants like Jardín de Asia and events like the Encuentros dinner series that will bring chefs from throughout Latin America to show the local public just what can be done with their incredible pantry of products, markets like Abasto Sur will stop being simply a local market where locals shop, and will become a tourist-worthy destination.  If you’re heading to Santa Cruz, we can’t recommend visiting enough.  However, we also recommend that you go with a local.  The market is large and confusing enough to get even seasoned goers turned around.  Don’t say we didn’t warn you.