Chilean Cuisine

We were thrilled to get off of the cruise ship so we could once again shop for our own ingredients and make our own meals. Based on the fruits and veggies that make their way to the US from Chile each winter, we expected big things. We made our way to Santiago’s markets our first afternoon in town and were not disappointed.

About a ten minute walk from our apartment was the Mercado Central, the most touristy of the three markets we frequented. It was full of seafood – both vendors and restaurants selling the fresh catch of the day. We splurged ordered ceviche and chupe de mariscos from a crowded sit-down place in the center of the building. It was delicious, of course, but much pricier than doing it ourselves. So for future meals we found a vendor we liked, Pescaderia Puerto Palmeras, and kept going back to them. We tried salmon (not as tasty as in the Pacific Northwest), congrio dorado (an eel that tends toward oily while cooking but is really tasty), tollo (white meat from a small shark), and reineta  (seabream with firm meat that is good by itself or in tacos or in ceviche or in just about anything). 

So much fresh fish!
Homemade reineta ceviche, chupe with mollusks, more reineta being fried up

Right across the river from Mercado Central is the Mercado de Abastos Tirso, with produce and groceries on the main floor and eateries upstairs. And just a couple blocks further is the massive La Vega market where is seems possible to buy anything.  There are hundreds of fruit vendors, bread stands, butchers, spice sellers, and hawkers shouting prices for dried grains, pickles, fish, dog food. It is a maze of delicious smells and crowded hallways. During our stay the tomatoes, blueberries, and strawberries were in season and incredibly cheap. Fresh produce arrives on trucks seemingly hourly. It’s possible to arrive and get vegetables and fruits that were picked the same morning and taken off the truck before your eyes. Outside are street empanadas and other hand-held cuisines from all around South America.

Even away from the markets, it’s easy to grab a snack of fruit or ice cream from vendors on the street. The local ice cream brand is Danky – weird word but yummy, heat-fighting products. Also readily available is Santiago’s traditional summer drink, mote con huesillo – dried peaches soaked overnight and combined with cooked wheat. In the 90 degree plus heat, it’s a refreshing way to cool down.

Restaurants in Santiago focus on fish and Peruvian cuisine. In fact, when we asked around, many locals claimed their favorite ‘Chilean’ food was Peruvian. Overall, Chilean cuisine falls somewhere between what we found in Peru and Argentina. There tends to be more spices, more limes, and less beef than in Buenos Aires but less fish and fewer stand out umami flavors than in Lima.

So many berries! Danky ice cream, favorite new spice mix, warm poutine in Punta Arenas

In Punta Arenas, different foods were needed to combat the chill and rainy weather.  (The 1,300 miles that separate PA from Santiago completely change the climate and many of the local tastes.) Take away restaurants sell warmed sandwiches with gooey cheeses and empanadas with garlicky beef. Our favorite choripan was from Kiosco Roca (it seemed to be everyone else’s favorite as well). On the advice of a Santiago Uber driver we tried it with the leche con plantano (milk with bananas) – it went together better than I anticipated. Rather than fish, more focus was on red meats, though ceviche still rules at the downtown market.

Chorizo with leche con plátano, mote con huesillo, and restaurant ceviche


Since we didn’t eat at any of the tourist-oriented restaurants in Punta Arenas, we didn’t have any of the lamb (though it looks amazing) or the king crab that is famous in the area. Instead, we cooked at home and made lots of rice and lentil dishes with gravy sauces and red meat. Punta Arenas is the kind of place that made me crave curl-up-on-the-couch-under-blanlets meals. Mulling wine also helped fight the chill and was another reason to try local drinks.

All manner of crunchy snacks

Like many places around Latin America I was left disappointed by the snacks. Chips boasting big and varied flavors (pizza! choripan!) never delivered. Queso-flavored Doritos were the best bet – they at least tasted like cheese and were good for dipping. One odd exception to the salty/savory snack set is the chirimoya alegre flavor that some corn puffs have. The fruit flavoring made it closer to a fruity breakfast cereal than an afternoon snack. It was a shame to be let down overall, but Punta Arenas is fortunate to have a duty-free import zone that receives shipments of goodies like ajvar, chocolates, and ratatouille mix from around the world. They seemed to have more variety than Santiago.

All burgers came this way. I have no explanation.

And finally, I have no explanation for the scores of individually pre-packaged hamburger patties that we found in every grocery store in Chile. Each packet had a different combination of meat cuts and spices and varied in size. We tried a couple, and they were mediocre and a little freezerburned. Maybe choice is very important for weekend grilling?

In any case, Santiago’s teeming produce and fish markets left a delicious lasting impression. La Vega set a high standard that other mercados will have a hard time following in the future. We came for wine and seafood and ended up happily eating just about everything we could get our hands on.

Punta Arenas

Part of the fun of being in Punta Arenas is getting to Punta Arenas. From just about every way I looked at it, Chile is one of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in the world. High desert salt flats and rocky peaks lead southward into Santiago. We flew over the Atacama on our way from Lima to Buenos Aires and were stunned to see brightly colored mining ponds from the air. But to get from Santiago to Punta Arenas we flew almost straight down the Cordillera – mountains colored red, yellow, and orange by their mineral makeup, active volcanoes issuing wisps of smoke. As we neared the Puerto Montt and lake region the land became less dusty and sprouted trees and the mountains grew glaciers. Further on, great ice sheets took over, darker lines of crushed rock marking their inching currents. Finally, through the clouds, the southern straits and islands of Patagonia. 

Some of the best airplane views anywhere

Punta Arenas is the smallest city we’ve lived in during this trip, with a population of just over a hundred thousand people. Tourists often visit for just a day or two on their way to Antarctica or to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park. The town is friends and much less chaotic than most places we’ve been. Around our Airbnb, the nearest beach is dominated by a sunken ship, and the park has statues of extinct dinosaurs but also a live horse that roams the grounds.


The sunken Lord Lonsdale, dead dino, live horse

The most popular activity in town seems to be touring the Cervecería Austral, which claims to be the southernmost brewery in the world  (though I can think of a couple smaller ones that might debate that point). As far as beer tours go, Austral’s was a good one. Our guide  was kind enough to give his talk in both Spanish and English, even though we were the only non-Spanish speakers in the group. We saw their storage facilities, bottling line, and tanks that had active fermentation going on inside. And of course, we ended with a tasting consisting of five Austral Beers and two brewed for Imperial. Austral’s Calafate Ale was my favorite – the berries used to flavor it make it taste a little like candy.

At Austral Brewery and the mirador

A few blocks away from the brewery is one of PA’s best views. It looks out over the Strait of Magellan and the town’s bright roofs. The “how far to?” signboard is here – most cities seem to have one hidden somewhere. There is an impressive amount of smaller towns, especially from Germany. It seems like anyone can add their own as long as they have a spare couple of nails.

Nearer to the old center of town is the Museo de Magallanes. The rooms of the Palacio Braun Menendez  have been kept/restored to their early twentieth century glory and some have been converted into displays presenting the region’s history. It’s free, so it was easy to stop in for a few minutes and avoid an impromptu rainshower. The first few rooms proved that wealth means comfort just about everywhere, even on the far corners of the continent. The family had imported hardwoods, gaming tables, sumptuous fabrics, and enough gorgeous inlay to rival grand homes in any capital. Some servants’ quarters in the basement are also kept in a near-original state, though they are obviously more spare.

At the Museo de Magallanes

We are in Punta Arenas at the end of their summer (equivalent to mid-August to mid-September in the northern hemisphere), but that doesn’t stop the weather from feeling wintery. One of the first things I sought out was a jacket to layer under my raincoat. The wind off the Strait can be biting, and the sun stays hidden much of the time, making it even harder to warm up. And rain seems to be constantly threatening on the horizon. Thankfully, indoors there is a working heater and we can take the opportunity to cook heavier meals that summer doesn’t lend itself to. Anything for an excuse to mull wine and make a batch of poutine!

Isla Magdalena

If you are going to spend time in Punta Arenas, penguins are usually high on the to-do list. There are a couple colonies nearby, but the best known is the Magellanic penguin colony on Isla Magdalena. We purchased tickets through the Comapa agency downtown; the other option was to buy them at the terminal. We had skipped the overpriced penguin tours on the cruise, and this was our chance to make up for it.

The Melinka ferry leaves from the Tres Puentes terminal in the afternoons about 4 and arrives on the island about 6 pm. Buses or collectivos running directly to the terminal are rare, but just about all of them go to the nearby Zona Franca. From the duty free area, the terminal is just a fifteen minute walk away.

We waited in the terminal building for a few minutes until boarding. It was small but had spots to sit and decent pastries. Clearly, visiting penguins was a popular choice. Once on the Melinka, there was a warm cabin with seats across two levels. The space was a little cramped but there was another coffee stand and some videos showing off the gorgeous landscapes of Patagonia. I’d recommend bringing a book to pass the time sailing down the coast. (Four hours on a boat can be entertaining… or less so.)

Before arriving at Isla Magdalena instructions for behavior on the island are repeated four or five times in Spanish and English. They really want you to remember not to feed or touch the penguins or lay down on the path. But then we landed, the front of the ship was lowered, and the crowd was off.

We visited in late February, when summer starts waning and the penguins molt. The chicks were already grown so we missed our chance to see youngsters. But there was no getting around it: the island was full of penguins. It doesn’t have much else to recommend it since all the grasses and vegetation have been plucked to line penguin burrows, leaving only bare windswept rock.

It surprised me to learn that Magellanic penguins live in burrows while on land. They never struck me as digging animals, but apparently they do a pretty good job of it. At the other extreme, they also spend months also the also time in the ocean, swimming as far away as Brazil in search of meals.

The one of the left is so embarrassed to be molting!

The roped-off trail looped left, uphill toward the lighthouse, and then back towards the boat. Groups are only allowed to be on Isla Magdalena for an hour, and the length of the walk is timed to this. We took a few minutes to explore displays inside the lighthouse, but spent most of our time watching the penguins toodle awkwardly around on land.

We had relatively nice weather, but it is always windy and often rainy on the strait. Layers went a long way to keeping us comfortable while we were there.

Our ferry ride back seemed to pass more quickly, partly because dolphins were playing alongside the ship for a while. Getting back to the terminal at night makes flagging down collectivos more difficult and the buses had already stopped running. We waited a while but decided to take a metered taxi instead. The rate was many times higher than a collectivo would have been, but still less than $8 back to the far corner of town.

Overall, Isla Magdalena was definitely worth the trip and the price. Seeing penguins in their natural habitat and completely unafraid and unworried by gawking humans is an experience I’d recommend to anyone. All the penguin movies don’t do the real thing justice.

Santiago – Part 2

Santiago is a massive city – about 40% of Chileans live inside its metro area. It would be easy to get lost in any of dozens of neighborhoods, but we mostly focused on the places we could walk to from our apartment. There were more than enough museums, markets, and palaces to keep us occupied just in the central areas of town.

As usual, the churches we stumbled across were mostly Catholic and always beautiful. The Virgin Mary is often the central focus, with shrines to other Virgins around the interior of the church. Unlike in Europe, where most saints are statues or paintings, here, the Marys are usually draped in sumptuous fabrics and laces.

Churches around Santiago, La Vega Market

We made the little bit of extra effort to book a (free!) tour of the Palacio de la Moneda, Chile’s Presidential Palace. Upon arrival, we discovered we were the only ones signed up for English during that time slot, so our guide Carla gave us a private tour. The Palace originally served as a mint under the Spanish crown. In the mid-1800’s it started housing the Presidential residence and offices. It was here in 1973 that the democratically-elected Salvador Allende was overthrown (with help from the CIA) and the Pinochet regime installed. Military jets bombed the palace and destroyed much of the building. It has been rebuilt, but its gorgeous interiors were not restored to their previous glory. Currently it serves only as offices for the President and some of her ministers; Chilean Presidents are not given a government residence.

Parque Uruguay and Costanera Center, inside Palacio de la Moneda

We saw the courtyards, which are planted with orange trees and native plants, and which also house two cannons that used to guard the coast from pirates. The cannons’ names are Furious and Lightning – because naturally cannons work better when they know they are loved. Inside, we had the chance to walk through the rooms used to greet dignitaries and sign bills/make speeches in front of the cameras. Chile used to officially be Catholic, so there is a chapel inside the palace. That has changed over the years, and now many religions worship there. And of course, at the entrances, the guards are snappily dressed and happy to take a moment to pose for pictures.

Palacio de la Moneda, Presidential Guard, moonrise over the Andes

One of the most important museums in Santiago is the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. It commemorates the victims who were disappeared, tortured, murdered, and imprisoned during the Pinochet government as well as the dictatorship’s eventual downfall. Abuses began the day Pinochet came to power, and thousands suffered terrible fates during the following 17 years. Many remains are still being found and identified today. Ongoing resistance by the public and by church leaders eventually helped to bring about the regime’s dissolution. In 1988 a plebiscite vote about letting Pinochet begin another 8-year term. The resulting ‘no’ led the way for open elections in 1989. The TV ads but together by both sides are wonderfully ’80s. My new proposal: all parties in an election should have hilarious ads and musical numbers at their disposal. And of course, there is an added level of absurdity about voting to keep (or not) a dictatorial regime in place. It is one of the few awful eras in world history ended by a peaceful vote and happy campaign buttons.

Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, at the Natural History Museum

In a park next to the Museo de la Memoria is the Natural History Museum. We arrived about half an hour before closing. That gave us just enough time to walk through the exhibits, which are mostly about the different ecological zones of Chile. I finally got some help to explain the differences between all the alpaca-y animals – there are four species! Not all look as surprised to be a part of the museum as the one in the picture.

Our Airbnb rental had two decks, one facing east and the other west. No matter the time of day, we always had a place to sit out in the shade and admire the mountains or cityscape.  We didn’t have air conditioning, which was annoying for a few hours each day when the sun poured through our windows, but Santiago is often windy. One of our favorite things to do was to grab a glass of wine (or beer) and relax in the breeze to cool off. The hot days were more enjoyable knowing that soon we’ll be enjoying the Seattle winter-like temps in Punta Arenas

Chilean Wine (and other local drinks producing happy feelings)

From the title, you might guess that this was my favorite post to write about Chile. You’d be right; but, just to be sure, I put in a lot of research. Chile was high on our list of places to visit in part because of its reputation for wine, especially carménère. Back in Washington state, Kevin fell in love with the grape after discovering it at Northwest Cellars, the nearest winery to our first apartment, which also happens to produce soe of the best wine we’ve ever had.

But in Santiago, we were initially disappointed at what was available. Unlike Buenos Aires, where there is a wine shop (or at least a shop carrying wine) on seemingly every block, Santiago’s offerings were fewer and farther between. Grocery stores had wine, of course, but only bottles from the largest producers and the same brands that are exported around the world. It took heading to malls in Bellavista to find shops selling bottles from smaller-scale wineries. Of course, those were priced higher as well and still had fairly limited selections. Here, you are expected to head out to the winery (and often pay an expensive tasting fee) to sample or purchase small producers’ selections.

Like Argentina, almost no wine is imported from elsewhere in the world, so at least it is easy to be sure you are drinking local. Only the largest grocery stores carry anything other than Chilean wine. But, fortunately, most Chilean wine is pretty tasty.

🙂 Research

We went to a wine tasting night we found through Meetup, and had the opportunity to sample many whites (the theme was summer drinking). I was surprised at the quality of the sauvignon blancs and semillons, because I never associated Chile with white wine. It helped that some were late harvests, meaning the sugar content made them taste like dessert. Other dessert wines I purchased at the stores were good too, even the $5 bottles. The most interesting I had during the month was a deep red late harvest syrah that made me want chocolate brownies with intense fervor.

Grapes and vines at Viña Miraflores Organico; rocky, alluvial soil at Hoops Winery

To kick off our last week in town we took a tour from Bodega Wine Tours and visited small vineyards and wineries in the Maipo Valley. Very small: Vino Orgánico Miraflores produces just a few wines and Hoops Winery’s one or two barrels a year comes from vines grown in the front yard of the winemaker’s home. At Hoops, the carménère, petit verdot, syrah, and malbec all get picked and destemmed by hand and fermented in the same vat. The result is a different wine each year, based on what grew well. We sampled a 2010 (the first year they produced wine) and 2014. Both were wonderfully complex.

Favorite wines from Bodega’s tour; these two bins are nearly half of the Hoops Winery (two more on the other side and two barrels in the cellar)

Outside Santiago, there are wineries and other cropland in almost every direction. Chile is a unique place because it is one of the only spots in the world – and certainly the largest wine region – that is unaffected by phylloxera. The vines here don’t need to be grafted and are often grown with minimal pesticides and chemicals because other pests are also few and far between.

My absolute favorite wine of the entire month was a 2015 Gil Ferrer syrah from Vina Miraflores del Maipo. It reminded me a lot of Washington wine, and tasted like dark fruit. But almost every other wine is delicious as well, we’ve only had a one that wasn’t up to part with the rest. So far Chile’s record is incredible.

More wines from the tour – in the glass is a dark, delicious syrah; each barrel is one year’s worth of production at Hoops

And there is beer too! For the most part, large brands like Escudo and Cristal produce the equivalent of a Bud in the US – pale, plain lagers meant for hot afternoons. There was an influx of German immigration in the mid-1800s that kicked off beer making in Chile, but most heavier styles were scrapped in favor of more generic light beers. Fortunately, more craft breweries are starting to take off, though their products tend to be relatively expensive. Kunstmann, Austral, and Kross are the main medium sized producers and you can find their beers in most grocery stores. Smaller breweries like Chester might only sell their beer at a handful of places, and if you aren’t within fifty miles of the brewery, there is no chance of locating it. The smaller the batch, the better the beer tends to be here. Of random note: many places do import beer from the US and Europe, but any seasonal varieties are out of place. If you are brewing winter beer now, people in the southern hemisphere are drinking it when it is 90 degrees outside, which is not quite ideal.

More and less common beers and a pisco for good mix (try the K5 at Krossbar for a unique blend)

Pisco is the other local alcoholic beverage of choice. Both Chile and Peru claim to have invented this drink and the resulting pisco sour. Apparently the debate gets pretty heated; neither country will allow imports from the other to be labeled ‘pisco,’ instead more generic terms like aguardiente or grape alcohol. Pisco sours in Peru contain an egg white, in Chile they jealously exclude that ingredient. I’m not usually a fan of hard alcohol, but I did like pisco in both countries (see how hard I’m trying to not play favorites). In Chile, we had bottles Mistral and La Serena. La Serena was cheaper and better drinking. I may or may not have added an egg white to the mixture…

Local and local-ish beers, homemade pisco sour

In the end, I mostly stuck with wine. That will be a little more difficult in Punta Arenas, since the wine regions are all centered around Santiago, but hopefully enough makes it down to the bottom of the continent to keep us satisfied. If not, I can probably learn to love Austral for a month…