Friday, November 28, 2014

Chillin’ in Chiloé, Chile

Visiting the archipelago of Chiloé, about halfway between Santiago and Patagonia in the long string-bean of Chile, was like stepping a century back in time. Driving to our hotel we crossed a soft, rolling, green countryside not unlike New Zealand dotted with fluffy sheep and yellow gorse. A farmer was turning his field with two oxen yoked to a plow, seagulls flocking behind.

The island, I discovered, is an exotic place of subtle appeal. In Castro, the main town, we saw palafitos (houses on stilts), fishing boats unloading salmon and shellfish, and a man building a large wooden boat using a chainsaw and hammer. Entering the market, the aromas of
strange spices, meats and cheeses enveloped me. Another section displayed a kaleidoscope of colourful woolen scarves and handicrafts. The rolling Rs and sibilant Ss of Spanish filled our ears. I was surprised by the amount of seaweed being sold, especially bull kelp, which was tied up in box-like form. And potatoes of many strange shapes and colours reminded me that Chiloe is where the world’s spuds began. It has about 400 varieties.

A favourite memory is of the approximately 75 churches dating from the18th and 19th centuries, made of native timber and found in even the tiniest village. Many of the domed roofs look like ships’ hulls, reflecting the local talent for ship-building. Sixteen churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Best … the indigenous people, the Huilliches, believe in trolls, ghouls and mythological lore. Although mostly Catholics, they often visit shamans, instead of doctors. Witches are powerful and deal with many disputes. And there are enchanting legends. The Trauco, for example, is a forest dwarf who covers himself in bark becoming irresistible to virgins, a scenario often used to explain unwed pregnancies in villages.

We entered the Chiloe National Park on the west
coast, a land of wind-blown wetlands and bright green forests. A penguin colony lives near here and blue whales, dolphins, sea lions and sea otters swim offshore.

That evening we recounted the day’s adventures over glasses of full-bodied Chilean wines while savouring a traditional gastronomic treat, the curanto. A hole in the ground is filled with layers of mussels, clams, beef, pork chicken, sausage and potatoes between large nalca (rhubarb) leaves and cooked over hot rocks for hours. Yummy!

Chiloé was fascinating, and I loved its slow-paced way of life. I didn’t, however, wander into the forest at night.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Santiago in 24 Hours

I faced a challenge: to explore Santiago, the capital of the 6,000-kilometre-long shoestring of Chile, in only 24 hours.

My travel group raced up San Cristobal Hill to the gleaming white statue of the Virgin, a focal point of the city. Surrounded by parkland, the site is popular, and I loved listening to rolling Rs and sibilant S sounds of Spanish. Panoramic views of the city and Andes foothills lay before us with the 64-storey Costanera Centre skyscraperthe continent’s tallest edifice—sticking up like a sore thumb. A slight haze hung over the valley, for Santiago is known for smog.

We lunched at an outdoor patio in the fashionable Lastarria district. Platters of ceviche, fried Conger eel, and pulmay, a stew of mussels, pork, potato and lamb were accompanied by fine Chilean wine. Unusually, the chairs had clips to prevent purses and backpacks being snatched.

At Santiago’s historic centre, the balconies and columns of Spanish architecture reflected the city’s long history (founded in1542). In the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, I gazed at the vast ceiling and ornate design while enjoying the dark coolness. A short walk led to La Moneda Palace (the president’s place) fronted by an expansive parade ground and guarded by soldiers in crisp uniforms, who eyed us suspiciously.

Next was the Central Mercado, one of the world’s best according to National Geographic. I wandered amongst aromas of exotic spices, meats and cheeses; in another section a kaleidoscope of colourful woolen scarves and handicrafts were displayed.

We stopped at the Park Forestal, one of many green spaces lining the Mapocho River. I strolled along the tree-lined walkways, admiring the statues donated by other nations to honour Chile’s 100th anniversary of independence.

From my hotel window, I could see Providencia Avenue below. A mariachi band blared as businessmen in dark suits and ladies, chic and attractive with dark, sensuous Spanish features, flowed to and from the subway entrance. I could see why Chile’s economy is considered the most dynamic in South America.

My best memories are of fine Chilean wine and superb cuisine. We arrived at W Santiago Hotel’s
Noso Restaurant after 9 pm. Excellent Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernet Sauvignons flowed during a dinner of salmon ceviche, pumpkin soup with prawns, and ribs dripping with succulent barbeque sauce.

After, we headed to Bocanariz, a wine bar in the trendy Lastarria barrio, which reputedly serves every Chilean wine. While sampling their best seller, a Pinot Noir Refugio 2012, produced by Montsecano y Copains, we pondered the places we didn’t have time to visit.

The Casa Blanca Valley wine region, for example, is only 40 minutes away. With about 20 wineries, it produces Chile’s best white wine. You can sample cool chardonnays beside green vineyards marching like military platoons up the dry, brown slopes.

We could have visited Valparaiso, a UNESCO heritage city situated on the coast, a mere 1.5 hour drive away. Famous for its multi-coloured houses, numerous art galleries and coffee houses, it enjoys a bohemian, laid-back pace of life.

Leaving, my head was spinning. In spite of a Herculean effort I had only seen a fraction of the exciting, vibrant Santiago.

Currency: 1 $ Canadian = 521 Chilean pesos
Electricity: Chile uses 220 Volts. Bring a transformer & plug adapter.
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