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Posts Tagged ‘Chile’

As any traveler knows well, it’s often the places that we discover on the way to somewhere else that become the real highlight of the trip. The focus of our 2011 January journey was really Buenos Aires.  Since we were going to be in South America anyway, we decided to take the long way round to our destination. Via Chile.

Chile runs like a thin ribbon down the side of the continent, stretching from brutal desert, through a fertile agricultural region, and then all the way down to the glaciers of Patagonia. The copper mines in the north have fueled the country’s economic resilience and prosperity. Indeed, if you travel to Chile with some expectation of a cheap “Mexican” style holiday of pesos and penury you would be disappointed. But my, it is money well spent. Indeed during our first week here, no less an authority than the Travel section of the New York Times declared the capital city of Santiago numero uno of the 41 places that you must see in 2011.  We agree.

I gather that not too long ago Santiago was considered too stiff and formal to be enjoyable for travelers.  (Perhaps attributable to the wave of German immigrants in the last century who, next to the Spanish, are the prominent cultural influence. Lots of micro breweries as well as wineries. )  You would not know it from the laughter, live music and general celebratory air at the side-walk restaurants and bars on Constitution Avenue in the bohemian neighbourhood of Bellavista.

Chileans are accustomed to taking a light meal called “onces” at around 5 pm daily, so dinner rarely starts before 9 in the evening.  There are really two faces of food in Chile: the cheap and heavy platos of meat or fried fish, served with plenty of bread and French fries.  The national snack is a hot dog, loaded down with sauerkraut, regrettable cheese sauce and lots of bright yellow American style mustard and ketchup.  A common habit of two of those a day, combined with the world’s largest per capita consumption of Coca Cola, makes obesity is a growing national concern.

More refined cuisine showcases the rich variety of seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables that the country produces. The locals will tell you that the best of everything is exported, and yes, the cherries we bought at the lively Central Market were not as sweet as the ones we get Loblaws. But at $1 per kilo, who can complain?

And when you are in the port city of Valparaiso, eating fresh razor clams, lightly steamed and served under a blanket of broiled Parmesan or at a vineyard,  biting into an apricot that you just plucked from the canopy above you, and the honeyed interior drips down your arm, that you realize that this country is blessed. And you are blessed to be here.

Chile was fortunate to escape unscathed from the financial debacle of the previous decade, due to conservative financial practices and like Canada, huge reserves of commodities that the world hungers for. A sure sign of prosperity, cranes are everywhere on the Santiago skyline.  As in other countries when times are good, migrant workers are tolerated to the extent that they do the work the locals don’t want to do. This time round, it’s the Peruvians. They are also valued for their impact on the food of the city:  most locals will admit that their own cuisine is pretty uninspired. The wave of Peruvian immigration has literally spiced up the food on the street and in the city’s best restaurants.

On the city’s streets you see one of the peculiarities of Chile’s urban scene:  well-behaved street dogs.  We were told that Chileans love puppies and like to have them around the house to cuddle and play with while they are cute and adorable.  But when they are grown, they are traded in for a new puppy, and let go in the country or on the street to fend alone.  So we did as the locals do, slipping them pieces of meat and cheese beneath the tables of our sidewalk café.  Most seemed well fed, certainly well socialized, and since the country has Catholic attitudes towards birth control that extend to animals, very productive.  But perhaps I was projecting my own feelings when I looked into their brown eyes and could see a sadness that even filet cannot fill.

Our alfresco meal was taken on Constitution Avenue, the destination of choice for wealthy Santiago residents who come down from their mountain mansions to walk on the wide side, just a little.  Just one short block over, college students, backpackers, artists, musicians and anyone who is just plain broke, parties loudly until dawn, drinking beer that costs one tenth of a beverage on Constitution. Rarely do the patrons of either street mingle, and the reasons are social as well as economic.  There is a growing middle class in Chile certainly, and it is the only country in South American to ever be declared “developed” rather than “developing”, which is an incredible achievement.

But the class system imported by the Spanish still lingers, and its impact will be felt for at least another generation. Families whose pedigreed fortunes extend back to the conquistadors own many of the impressive boutique wineries that we visited. For these wealthy few, no expense has been spared on creating the most leading edge, architecturally brilliant, organically pure, and energy-efficient wineries.  Frankly, it makes even our best efforts in Ontario look like amateur hour.  As our guide remarked,  “you know you are rich when you can put your name on a bottle” .  (Not to mention a slew of polo ponies.)

Chile and Santiago have easily become one our favorite destinations in the world:  by the second day, we declared that we had to come back.  It’s only a 10 hour direct flight south on Air Canada:  put your head back at midnight and arrive in the morning to a world of warm weather,  glorious scenery,  delicious market fresh food and very fine wine. Buenos Aires might be anti-climatic!

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