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.

Chile’s East Coast

We moved twice from Argentinian to Chilean waters, once to see Cape Horn before we visited Ushuaia, and then through the Beagle Channel towards Punta Arenas. (Interesting note: In Spanish, Cape Horn is called Cabo de Hornos, literally the Cape of Ovens.) Unlike some videos we’d seen before leaving that included solid masses of fog and walls of waves, we encountered flat seas and calm winds around the bottom of Patagonia. Small islets increased in height throughout the day as we sailed from the Falklands toward Cape Horn. The terrain rises rugged and rocky – it really does look like the end of a continent. In some protected spots, plant life takes over and it gives the impression of wide, smooth lawns from the deck of the ship. Just east of the Cape is a small Chilean Naval station and a chapel, as well as a memorial to sailors killed while attempting to make the passage. Just a mile or two past the Cape, the ship did a 180 degree turn and headed back toward Ushuaia.

Cape Horn, sunset over mountains in Tierra del Fuego

Picking up after Ushuaia (it’s covered in a previous post about cruise stops in Argentina and Uruguay), we reentered Chilean territory just before Glacier Alley in the Beagle Channel. Again, we had reasonable weather, though clouds kept the largest mountains hidden and the wind was fierce. Our ship sailed by six glaciers, five in quick succession and then a sixth about an hour later. Sadly, though several used to reach the waterline, only one, the Holland Glacier, still does. Others, shrunken by climate change, are surrounded by large sections of bare rock, marking their former limits. After sailing by the initial five, rain picked up and we headed inside, catching glimpses of the final glacier from a warmer corner of the vessel.

Holland Glacier – the only remaining tidewater glacier in the Beagle Channel, and the drastically climate-change shrunken French and Romanche glaciers

Punta Arenas was our first Chilean port, and we had the entire day to explore the town. However it was a Sunday, and almost the entire city center shuts down each weekend. Luckily for us, we will be returning later this year and can see everything we missed. We again hiked uphill to the back of town to get a better view. Like other small towns in Argentina and Chile, quite a few wandering dogs crossed our path, and that always makes me wary. Happily all were completely absorbed in their own animal lives and ambivalent to our fleeting presence. Spotting what we assumed might be the Mercado Municipal from the viewpoint, we headed back toward the waterfront. Our guess was only one block off, and thankfully it stays open every day. Fishmongers were selling all sorts of shellfish, salmon, octopus, as well as pre-mixed ceviches. We ate ceviche at a table tucked into the corner of a tiny restaurant, and it was refreshingly crisp and spicy  after bland food on the cruise. Without needing to see anything else, we decided to walk back along the waterfront and ended up at the Zona Franca where a shuttle would take us back to the pier. I’m glad we found the duty-free zone before moving there. The stores within its boundaries sell everything from imported pastas and shoes to new refrigerators and SUVs. This area turns Punta Arenas, all the way at the bottom of the continent, into a shopping destination for Chileans, Argentinians, and Falkland Islanders all hoping for deals. It certainly seems to have served its purpose of spurring on the local economy, and we’ll be spending pesos there in the future.

Full double rainbow – too large for my camera, view of Punta Arenas, Chile
Around Punta Arenas

After leaving the southern city, we spent two days cruising in and out of the fjords that line Chile’s coast. The weather never fully cleared, but the dark shapes of mountains were usually in sight, and watching a line of peaks vanish into the mist is moving in its own way. Nestled in the fjords on day three was a quick stop at Puerto Chacobuco. Its few hundred buildings are surrounded by water and peaks and were topped by gray clouds during our stop. The port buses dropped us off next to a set of geodesic domes that have a couple dozen local artisans selling knitted hats and mementos that had the fairest prices of any port. Without time to rent a car to reach inland lakes and hiking, we opted to see all of the town, and I think we managed it. There is a hotel, a couple restaurants and markets, a gas station, a fire station. The waterfront here also boasts a shipwreck, the rusting Vina del Mar.

In Chile’s fjords, an arm of the bay and homes in Puerto Chacobuco

Our final port of call was Puerto Montt, though we spent much of the day in nearby Puerto Varas hoping for volcanoes to make an appearance. Puerto Montt doesn’t feel focused on tourism, though it certainly is one of the gateways to some of southern Chile’s incredible landscapes. Next to the waterfront is a fair with rides and even a small roller coaster, though we saw no one there on a Thursday. Just beyond that is the main bus station where we caught a microbus to Puerto Varas after seeing the downtown, visiting the Cathedral, and finally getting our phones hooked up with local SIM cards. (Fun discovery: the Claro office did not have nano-sized SIM cards or a cutter, so Kevin delicately trimmed ours down to size with a pair of safety scissors).

Shrine to the Vision of Lourdes and a church in Puerto Varas, some spring-feeling graffiti, “There should be a volcano behind this lake!”

Bussing to Puerto Varas only took about forty minutes and cost about $1.25US. Unlike Puerto Montt, this is definitely a tourist town. It freely embraces its German heritage. Many of the buildings and hotels along Lake Llanquihue belie a German style, as do many of the bars around town. (If you’ve been to Leavenworth, WA, this is the light version.) Finding the Osorno Volcano just as hidden from view here, we stopped at one of the restaurants and grabbed local beers as a way to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. Turned out we made a good choice; Chester Beer is quite tasty and doesn’t make it too far from the source. If we hadn’t have tried it in Puerto Varas, we would have never found it. As a bonus, we got to watch a local TV show was filming at the same restaurant and the hosts reactions to being recognized by passers-by and one busload of loud teenagers. We easily caught a microbus back and made our way for a final full day of sailing before the end of the cruise. Apparently lots of passengers had taken a bit too much time exploring; we left a little bit late and were underway before the crew even pulled the last life/tenderboat back out of the water.

After two weeks we arrived in Valparaiso and jumped on a bus to Santiago. From our new internet access in Puerto Montt, we learned that large sections around the capital were burning, and this was absolutely the case. Santiago was hazed in thick smoke, that blocked everything over two miles away, but more on that in a future post.