About Brian Horstman
Brian Horstman is a teacher of English as well as a traveler, writer, photographer and cyclist. His interest in traveling around Latin America began while he was living in New Mexico, where he began to experience the Latino culture that lives on there. From there he spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico and has since been living in Cuenca, Ecuador and will be living in Chile starting in 2011. Cal's Travels chronicles some of his more memorable experiences from Mexico and Ecuador, as well as some side trips to other parts.
Latest Posts by Brian Horstman
La Serena. One of Chile’s oldest cities, today it’s about 8 hours by bus North of Santiago. But at the time of its construction, it would have been a far-flung colony, meant to serve as a link between the Spanish colonial center of Lima in Peru further North and the newly founded Santiago to the South. Thanks to its historic origins, it still retains some colonial architecture much like you can find in other Spanish settlements around Latin America. Simple, flat-roofed, one-story buildings in an adobe style, or more ornate government buildings and cathedrals such as the ones you see above.
La Serena was certainly set up at the time to receive tourism, and areas like La Recova, a traditional market today given over to handicraft stalls and restaurants, was bustling with tourists and locals alike.
Late last winter, during the famed September holidays of Chile, we decided to head north. Our ultimate destination was La Serena, but along the way we made a stop in a small agricultural community called Ovalle.
Chile’s unique shape leads one to think linearly in terms of travel within the country. With Santiago just about in the center of the country, unless you decide to hop in a plane the limits of your traveling will be predicated on how many hours you can stand to be on the road. It’s for that reason that many Chileans know their own country only as far north as La Serena or so, and as far south as Puerto Varas or Chiloé. That’s about as far as most people are willing to drive at one stretch, and those with the money to fly often choose more distant destinations, such as Buenos Aires, Brazil, the Caribbean or other places in the US or Europe, rather than San Pedro de Atacama or Punta Arenas within their own country.
As travelers of modest means, those same limits apply to us as well, and the extremes of the Atacama Desert and rugged Patagonia are, so far, still unknown. But once we set our sights as far north as La Serena, a little research turned up an oddity of a national park known as Fray Jorge along the coast near Ovalle. Generally speaking, as you head north from Santiago the climate grows drier and drier, and to the south wetter and wetter. But Fray Jorge is an exception, a dripping wet forest lying some 7 hours to the north of Santiago and surrounded by arid landscapes. Why not check it out?
So we got a hotel in Ovalle and started looking for a way out to the coast. It turns out there’s no public transport heading there, and no rental car agencies in such a small rural town. But a few taxi companies were scattered around the main strip, and boasted turismo among the variety of services proffered on their signs. After some negotiating I was able to work out a reasonable price for a full day trip to Fray Jorge and another potential destination or two to be decided. So after a night’s rest with cable TV, we got in the backseat of an SUV and were on our way.
As we drove through the countryside, we saw some scenery atypical of the area, as our driver told us. The green hills all around were the result of some recent rain a few weeks before, provoking the light, bright coat of grass to sprout up around what was normally bare earth speckled with shrubs. Like many arid climates, the vegetation is opportunistic and sprouts whenever moisture may come, regardless of the season.
There you have it. Forest in the desert, how about that? It was fun to walk around in the woods for a little while. Our daughter hasn’t had too much opportunity to do that in her short life so far, but every time she does, she has a great time. This hike was well defined by a raised boardwalk, which made it tough to get lost. Even though it was a bit slick from all the moisture literally dripping from the trees on many parts of the trail.
The cloud of mist hanging over the forest, known in an indigenous language of the area as camanchaca, is the source of moisture for many plants and animals living in the otherwise dry north of Chile. Similar mists and fog blowing in from the coast grace the landscape of other parts of the northern deserts of Chile as well, and help to explain how any vegetation can exist at all in places with no rainfall in recorded history.
Apparently this forest was once more extensive than it currently is. In fact, the area covered by real forest is actually pretty tiny. While fog covers much of the surrounding area, the vegetation is low-lying along most of the hillsides, resembling a much greener, denser and happier version of the same kind of water-starved shrubs, cacti and grasses seen on the opposite side of the range.
Pretty and nice to walk around in, but it was no forest. Some say climate change is the culprit of such deforestation, while others blame direct human exploitation of the area for timber and firewood over the years. At any rate, some 100 square kilometers of misty hillsides are now under the protection of Chile’s CONAF, and from what I’ve seen in my limited interaction with CONAF’s park rangers and infrastructure, they run a tight ship.
The trail also affords one a view of the sea from a privileged vantage point at around 600 meters above sea level, and while the mist hanging over us obscured the view, it was still an impressive glimpse of the Pacific. It was a nice reminder that anywhere you may be in Chile, the ocean is never far away.
Our driver recommended a couple of other places we could go. One, El Valle del Encanto, is a canyon, home to an assortment of pre-columbian petroglyphs and other ancient relics, but would have involved a few more kilometers of hiking. At another stage of traveling life, this would have been the more attractive option, but with our little girl as part of the troupe, two hikes in one day would have been pushing it.
So we opted for the more relaxing alternative, Termas de Socos. That was a set of hot springs in a resort. After a previous experience with some nice rustic hot springs in Pucón, that sounded like a fine idea. In the photo here you can see a very promising pool, for example, to the right of our little girl. But oddly, that was not hot water. It was damn cold, in fact. Hence the total lack of bathers. The real hot spring water, inexplicably, was pumped only into bathtubs of the sort you would have in your own bathroom, tiny and narrow, each located in exceedingly uninviting private stalls. Fortunately, the receptionist at the resort gave us a chance to check out the facilities before we paid, and after a cursory inspection, we promptly headed back to the car. It was baffling to me that a resort would develop such nice facilities, only to set up the main attraction, the hot springs, in such an unattractive way. Any resort I’ve been to before has either built public pools, or designed private baths in a setting more in touch with the overall design of the resort itself.
That was too bad. But it illustrated a more general observation we had of Ovalle. The town of Ovalle, too, bustling with activity for a community its size and seemingly a fine place for the local people, was nonetheless at something of a loss for what to do with visitors. While it is surrounded by a number of nice attractions for tourists in the near vicinity, we were the only tourists to be found in the area, and this during a week-long holiday when literally millions of tourists were in search of vacation spots. As a destination, Ovalle is decidedly off the map for travelers. Which begs one of those chicken-and-the-egg quandaries. Does Ovalle lack tourists because it is unprepared to receive them, or is the infrastructure lacking because no one comes to enjoy it?
It was with such questions in our minds that we descended on our lunch spot for the day, in a small town not far from Ovalle. It reminded me a lot of a town in Mexico I had once visited while staying in Oaxaca, Mexico, with a similar climate, atmosphere and architecture. It was a quiet, unassuming place you wouldn’t think to visit, or even know how to get there, unless a local took you there. It enjoyed a beautiful setting in the same wide, fertile valley as Ovalle, and was home to a local restaurant with an expansive outdoor area with plenty of tables to choose from.
Decked out in the patriotic red, white and blue of Chile’s flag in honor of the national holiday we were celebrating, the restaurant served several rustic dishes featuring local ingredients. We decided on roasted rabbit with salad and rice, and empanadas filled with cheese and farmed crayfish, and weren’t disappointed. Wash that down with some Escudo beer and you’ve just had a typical lunch characteristic of northern Chile. In a place truly off the beaten path, it was a fun way to start our trip to El Norte Chico.
About this time last year we took a train to the town of Buin, south of Santiago and in the middle of Chile’s heartland of vineyards. Steeped in wine culture as Chile increasingly is, the time of the grape harvest is marked by festivities all around Chile’s wine producing areas. Buin is no exception, and being conveniently located on the rail line in close proximity to Santiago, it was a natural choice for our first harvest festival, known in Spanish as the vendimia.
The popular Chilean vendimia is fun for all ages, although probably much more so for those old enough to drink. In addition to the obligatory sale and consumption of wine, there were plenty of other vendors selling food, especially cheese, olives and grilled meats, traditional favorites all of local production and fine accompaniments to your glass of wine de rigor.
In the background of this photo can be seen the stage, idle at the moment of shooting. Soon thereafter however it became the scene of some good-natured stomping performed by young foreign women from the crowd, persuaded to come on stage and get leg-deep into shallow basins full of grapes.
Having dispensed with the preliminary surveying of the grounds, it was time to roll up our sleeves and start appreciating some wine. The two of us sampled four different wines each that day, always selecting vineyards theretofore unknown to us.
I have to say, unfortunately, that I was unimpressed by all of vineyards save one, Viña Richards. If I remember correctly we had a Pinot Noir and a Sauvignon Blanc from them, and both were, in a word, tasty. It’s rare to find either of those grapes in Chile, which was enough for us to gravitate towards them once we noticed them.
It didn’t take so long for us to get through our four glasses of wine, moderately portioned as they were. Afterwards we moved on to the grilled meat section of the festival, where we ate some shish kebab, known locally as anticucho, followed by some larger cuts of chicken and beef. Damn, that’s good! From this particular angle you can see the meat skewers on the grill, as well as where you stick them once you’ve picked them clean. Also featured is our daughter practicing cueca from an unorthodox sitting position.
It might seem antithetical to a celebration like this one, but I saw this brewing company on the way in, and couldn’t resist picking up a pint draught on the way back out. The stout was a fine finish to the evening and kept me occupied for most of the walk to the train station.
We concluded our evening with a sleepy train ride back to Santiago’s nicely appointed Estación Central, which connects conveniently to a subway train taking us within two blocks of our apartment. A fine way to travel, and best of all, the conductor is our designated driver.
It was a long ride, but eventually, we arrived: Bariloche, in Argentine Patagonia. Bariloche is the kind of town that really symbolizes an entire region, conjuring up many images of Patagonia upon simply hearing its name. It is a destination unto itself, a community many travelers are moved to visit almost as a place to check off a list of important stops on a grand South American tour.
When we began our trip, Bariloche wasn’t on our own personal list of places to see, but once we decided to include Argentina in the loop, we couldn’t resist putting it squarely on our path.
To get there, we crossed over the Cordillera de los Andes, the continental divide of South America, and the border between Chile and Argentina. With it came too the protracted wait at checkpoints on either side of the border.
We also had the chance to see firsthand the otherworldly effects that the eruption of the volcano Puyehue has had on the surrounding landscape. Ash has piled up relentlessly on the ground, in the branches of trees, and on the roofs of buildings, like grey snow that will never melt.
And after nearly a full day of being on a bus, we were there. As the blue waters of Nahuel Huapi lake came into sight for the first time, I admit I was happy to be finishing with such a long ride. The scenery had been incredible along the way, changing constantly as we went.
But, once we were off the bus and making our way into town, it was liberating to have such a long trip behind us, no matter how picturesque it had been. It wasn’t long before we were looking over the lake from this vantage point, the apartment we rented for our stay.
After so many times calling ahead for our accommodations for the next destination, we decided to play it by ear in Bariloche, what with the dozens of places to stay that were to be found in every travel guide and website we looked at.
In the end, for the same price we’d pay at a hotel, we had our own place with a private kitchen and a view. Not too shabby!
Once we were set up with a place, we headed out for the evening for some pizza, followed by some looking around. After dark, the summer heat gave way to the cold mountain air. We hadn’t packed much in the way of warm clothes, but it turns out that Bariloche is something of a shopping capital of Patagonia. The main emphasis was handcrafted chocolate, but there were plenty of clothing stores to be found as well. After fortifying ourselves with a little of both, we were equipped for the night and the festivities that came with it.
By chance, we found ourselves in Bariloche for the weekend of Carnaval, the feast of Catholic binging prior to the pious period of Lent to be ushered in with the coming Ash Wednesday. A tradition with a history nearly as long as Lent itself, nearly all countries with a Catholic tradition have their own version. Ecuador certainly does, as I’ve experienced befpre.
I don’t know how representative Bariloche is of Argentina as a whole, but the community here was doing its best to drum up *ahem* some Carnaval parading in the festive tradition I saw in Ambato. While these kids were dressed a bit more warmly that what you might find in more tropical places like Ecuador, or Rio de Janeiro, they did a fine job ringing in the Lenten season.
Some more Argentine food, a bit more consumerism, and sadly, our time in Bariloche came to an end as quickly as it started. Or not so sadly, really, as the road ahead led to old friends in another town in Argentine Patagonia.
One more stop on our tour of the Southern Cone!
Chiloé. Like many places in Latin America, its name alone evokes a certain mystical impression. The fact that it is routinely shrouded in mist and fog only helps maintain such a feeling once you’re there. A large island in the north of Chilean Patagonia, it’s far enough from the beaten path to have access only by sea-going ferry. Ironically, the Pan-American Highway runs through it, and in fact ends at the southern point of the island. But the “highway,” as it also does in Panama, runs to the sea and then picks up again on the other side. I’ll take you on a virtual walk-through of the crossing.
First, a look at our trusty sea-going vessel.
These ferries are big enough to carry cars, trucks, buses, and anything else that rolls along a highway. I had never been on a ferry as big as one of these, so for me it was every bit as interesting as anything else we saw in Chiloé.
In the US, I suppose we’ve gotten around to building bridges of various sizes across just about every body of water we might feel like driving across. I remember driving in Maryland and noticing on the map a “Bridge-Tunnel” across the Chesapeake Bay and heading to Virginia Beach.
I couldn’t imagine what a bridge-tunnel would look like, so I decided to drive down the Delmarva Peninsula with the sole intent of seeing it firsthand. It cost $12 to use it, as it turned out, which was more than I expected, but I certainly wasn’t going to head back the way I’d come. But, I digress.
Boarding the ferry. It was interesting to observe that it was operated by Cruz del Sur, the same company that operated the bus we were on. Quite a lucrative business, I imagine, being the means of transport for anyone hoping to come to or go from an island with a population of 150,000. The cars were clearly being packed in pretty snugly. Considering the trip across the channel was a good twenty minutes each way, it pays to be efficient with space. I was impressed too by how quickly the whole process moved along.
Once the ferry got moving, our bus opened its doors and virtually everyone got out. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones impressed by the experience. A quick trip up a flight of stairs and it was possible to join the many other people enjoying our seafaring experience. The channel is only about 3 kilometers wide, but still, we were in the waters of the South Pacific.
For many years, there has been talk of building a bridge across this channel, which would do away with the need for ferries like this one, and permanently connect the people of Chiloé (known as chilotes) with the mainland.
There are those in favor of such a project for the benefits it would bring to the island, and those who oppose it, citing a deterioration in the unique character that the island has developed after centuries of relative isolation.
Once across, we continued by land for a few more hours before reaching our destination of Castro, the capital of Chiloé. It was said to be a sort of encapsulated experience of what the island’s many towns had to offer in terms of culture, geography and architecture. Along the way, we were afforded our first views of the island’s landscape.
Much of what we had heard and imagined about the countryside here proved to be quite true. Green hills, dirt roads, small towns and the constant reminder of the sea, either through its many estuaries or the regular rainfall blowing in from the Pacific.
When we got to Castro it was late afternoon. Our bus left us at a terminal downtown, a good ten blocks from the hostel we’d found after hours of phone calls from Puerto Varas. Not only was it the high season here in the South of Chile, but by pure luck we’d planned our trip to coincide with what are known as the fiestas costumbristas of Castro.
This is a party held annually to celebrate the local culture with lots of music, food, drink and handicrafts. That meant we’d have the fortune to see it even though we hadn’t planned on it, but it also meant that the town’s limited lodging was filling up fast, and we were lucky to find a place to stay, even calling a couple of days in advance. And not a bad place, either.
After meeting the owner of the hostel and getting set up in our room, we decided to make the most of the afternoon and see the town. I was particularly interested in seeing (and saying) palafitos. A nice word which describes these stilt houses jutting improbably out into waterways like the one you see here.
Obviously at the moment the level of the water was rather low, but judging from the height of the stilts, it sometimes gets quite a bit higher. But thanks to the stilts, no wet floorboards.
From the front, these look like regular houses along a street like any other. It’s not until you manage to get around behind them that you see what makes them so special.
Considering what’s behind them is usually water, it can be tricky to find a decent vantage point to see them. Fortunately, there was a bridge over this particular river, affording us this postcard glimpse.
From there we made our way down to harbor, where we saw fishing boats, military boats, commercial shipping vessels, and even a cruise ship carrying lots of English-speaking retirees, who were walking around the neighborhood snapping pictures along with us. As we continued our sightseeing, a gentle rain began to fall.
As the afternoon wore on into evening, this rain picked up until it became a steady downpour which continued in varying degrees of intensity for the rest of our time in Castro. We were told it rained a lot here, and once again, the rumors turned out to be true!
This didn’t stop us from having fun that afternoon, as the rain was still, at this point, a light sprinkle. We were thoroughly enjoying the coast, the unique houses, and the town of Castro itself.
Everything about it was pretty much just what a tourist would hope to come so far to see. Hence our surprise to see the hulking building looming atop the hillside, at such stark contrast with its surroundings. Still under construction, it conjured up comparisons of Death Star-like proportions.
Situated only a few blocks from the town square and Castro’s iconic wooden church, we ventured to guess it was a shopping center, and once back in Santiago weeks later, we learned we were right. Photos much like the one we took here appeared all over the newspapers, with headlines and articles exploring the controversy.
For tourists, and for those locals who count on tourism for their livelihoods, it was a bane on their impression of Castro’s quaint small-town atmosphere.
For many others in Castro, who currently travel three hours and across the ferry to Puerto Montt for anything from a movie theater to a fully equipped hospital, the mall would bring a welcome dose of modernity. Probably no modern medical clinic, but a movie theater? Maybe.
The project was under scrutiny not only for its inconsistency with the rest of the town’s architecture, but also because it had allegedly been built with a few more floors than what was originally authorized.
The project’s financier and designers, for their part, claimed that the municipality was changing its tune halfway through the process now that it was provoking such a high-profile reaction around the country.
Leaving the project, for now, in limbo. Whether or not this and the bridge across Chiloé’s northern channel get built anytime soon, though, it’s clear that the pressure to bring the community here into fuller integration with the rest of Chile is strong.
Much of our time, due to inclement weather, was spent indoors at our hostel. With a large group of guests and a nice communal area including a fully functional kitchen, it was easy to pass the time like this. And as usual, Tamia found a friend her size.
We also spent time playing cards, drinking wine and researching the next legs of our trip, working out how many days we’d spend in each place and how to plan our bus trips and accommodations accordingly. As I’ve said in past postings, this was the high season, and it was essential to look a few days ahead in order to not get stuck in an unfamiliar place with nowhere to stay. In Castro especially, we saw many backpackers going door to door in the rain, looking for somewhere to sleep for the night.
That’s bad enough when you’re in your twenties and on your own, but traveling with a small child makes that an especially unconscionable idea. But thanks to Skype and wifi service at even the most rustic hostels, it was easy to stay a step ahead.
Doing my best to make the most of our time, I donned a rain jacket and tried to take advantage of some of the less rainy moments.
During such times I explored some of the more rural areas surrounding the town of Castro itself. Maybe because it was cool, green and wet here, and maybe because of the humbler way of life, it reminded me a lot of being in the Sierra of Ecuador.
At one point I also got on a fogged up, run down city bus and went for many kilometers along a slick road out of town and to the famed fiestas costumbristas. One of the soggiest events I’ve been to in a long time, it was a bit short on attendees that day thanks to all the rain.
As you can see from the photo, many of them appeared to be on their way out as I was heading in. Undeterred, I vowed to stay under the cover of the many wooden stands while sampling as much food and warm beverage as I could during the next couple of hours. My favorite was the chochoca, a thick sheet of savory potato dough roasted over a grill and then served with fried pork folded into it. This I washed down with a nice, warm glass of wine heated with orange slices. Tasty!
Picturesque Puerto Varas. A sort of quintessential town in the south of Chile, it embodies much of what people expect when they think of this part of the country. A small community with wooden houses, lots of trees, a frigid but beautiful alpine lake, and of course, a majestic, snow-capped volcano looming on the not-so-distant horizon. There are many towns like Puerto Varas in southern Chile, but few manage to lure as many tourists. Perhaps because this one has reached a critical mass of tourism, which brings in enough consistent revenue to pay for more infrastructure for tourists, who come in greater numbers and bring more money. So it has gone over the years, leading Puerto Varas to become something like a Vail, Colorado of South America.
While many people come to ski in the winter, just as many make their way here in the summer for hiking and other outdoor activities. But many families, like us, come simply to enjoy the town itself. With a wave of German immigration in the 1800′s, the town has been left with a decidedly Teutonic cultural stamp, most visibly in the form of its many historic buildings.
Incidentally, the thousands of German settlers in the area have had an important effect on Chilean culture up and down the length of the country. From the ubiquitous schop (draft beer) to be found in any given bar in any town or city in Chile, through the tasty chucrut (sauerkraut) they put on their hot dogs, all the way to the kuchen (cakes) served for dessert, one of the best ways to experience German influence here is with your belly. Another significant result of all of this is the Chilean ability to actually spell my last name right.
Even as the German settlers and their descendants have intermarried and assimilated into the general Chilean culture, the architecture in this part of the country is still influenced by the old German style. In Puerto Varas and many other towns in the area you can find many more recent houses like our hostel, pictured here. With wooden shingles lining the exterior walls and old-fashioned wood stoves to stay warm in the winter, these communities emanate a homey, residential atmosphere that made me think of what life must have been like in the US a few generations ago.
That’s not to say that the town doesn’t have plenty of modern influences. With the amount of tourism flooding in during two distinct times of year, in the town’s small center you can find international brands and modern, hulking shopping centers interspersed with the older and more modest storefronts. And like any tourist town, there’s plenty of shops selling clothes, souvenirs and local products, like delicious cheese. With much of the cheese we buy in Santiago being produced in this region, we went out of our way to buy a few samples while we were there.
Since we didn’t have a car, we decided we’d rent a bike. And since there were three of us, we decided to rent a bike made for three. Pedal powered and with two steering wheels (although only one of them was actually connected to the wheels), we thought we’d found a nice form of local transportation. But once we got a kilometer or so away from the center of town, we heard a loud pop and our ride started getting a lot rougher. As it turned out, we’d blown a tire.
After some consideration, we came to the conclusion that one of us ought to walk back to the rental shop while the other stayed with our daughter and the bike. Soon, a replacement bike was procured, and the girl from the rental shop was stuck pedaling the broken down vehicle back limpingly to its origin.
We continued our fancy-free tour around town, enjoying our liberating form of transportation, until we got back downtown, when some piece in the drive train happened to snap off. The steering wheel was locked in place, and the front wheels were stuck turned a few degrees to the left. Fortunately, we were less than a block from the rental shop, and we were able to muscle our vehicle back to where it came from without drawing too much attention to ourselves. We weren’t sure how the girl would feel about us breaking two of her bikes, but she seemed to feel like it was her fault and looked embarrassed. She even offered to let us use a third bike if we were interested, but we decided not to push our luck any further.
Instead, we opted to spend the afternoon on the beach. The lake upon which Puerto Varas was built is icy cold, even in the summer. Some people still braved its waters, and even more went out onto canoes and paddleboats. Before our mechanical difficulties with the bike, we thought we might do the same, but considering our luck, it seemed like not such a good idea to head out onto the water in another rented vehicle. So instead we spread out a towel and enjoyed a snack while taking in the beautiful view. And Tamia made a friend about her size.
With the many national parks in the area, and with mountainous forests all around us, the lure of getting out of town and exploring was a strong one. With our decision, however, to make a tour of as many destinations as possible during our trip, came certain consequences. We were traveling at a time when lodging and buses were booked many days in advance, requiring us to anticipate how many days we’d spend in each place before we got there. More than once, we left a place without having explored it as much as we might have wanted to. That’s how it usually is when you visit a nice place, I suppose, and with luck this initial, exploratory tour of the south of Chile will not be our last. In the meantime, we couldn’t feel too much disappointed, what with the many stops still ahead.
We recently took a trip that included several towns in the South of Chile, doing our best to see as much as we could in the amount of time we had for traveling. It was something of an exploratory trip, as we had never been to any of these places before. Chile is a uniquely shaped country, and its extended length means that thorough travel throughout its many regions requires a lot of time, and some careful planning. Adding to the challenge is that Chile, like many of the countries in this part of the continent, isn’t cheap, especially in the high Summer season of December through February.
Especially in the South, the high season lends itself to tourism because you’ve got the least chance of getting rained on. The names of Chile’s southern regions, such as Los Ríos and Los Lagos, highlight the abundance of water and its defining presence in the area. Our first stop was Valdivia, the capital of the region of Los Ríos. It has an extensive history of various waves of European colonization and indigenous resistance, but the biggest earthquake in the recorded history of the world, at a magnitude of 9.5, was responsible for the destruction of most of its historic buildings and economy. That means that today Valdivia itself isn’t much to look at compared to many of the other cities in the area. But it’s blessed with some gorgeous geography: three beautiful rivers, like the one you see above, as well as a varied coastline made up of multiple islands, and plenty to do.
We arrived in Valdivia at night, having taken the train from Santiago as far south as it goes and then busing it the rest of the way from Chillán. Despite making a reservation at a hotel and confirming it the night before, the receptionist told us they had no rooms for us. Some mild indignation landed us in a private cabin at a discount for our first night until they made room for us in the hotel.
The masses of travelers that flood into Chile’s southern destinations demand plenty of forward thinking, like the booking of hotels and buses several days in advance. And even then, you should be prepared to behave assertively when necessary. You’re in direct competition for space, and even the national parks and monuments have no qualms about visibly raising the prices this time of year.
One of our cost control methods was, whenever possible, to stay at accommodations with kitchen access, either in a modest apartment or carefully negotiated private cabin, or in a hostel where the kitchen is shared with the other guests. That said, we still made a point to sample some of the signature dishes in the South, where dark beer and buttery potatoes are served as accompaniments to seafood and lamb that crumbles and melts upon contact with your watering mouth.
Like at the Kunstmann brewery, the home to Chile’s famed German-style microbrew. Chile is in the midst of a craft beer revolution, putting Kunstmann on the map today in the eyes of enthusiasts. Their restaurant is something of a mix between Cracker Barrel and brewery, walls lined with memorabilia painting a clear picture of the historical German influence on the region. The theme is rounded out by the impeccable stainless steel fermenters on display behind glass, and the countless T-shirts, commemorative steins and gift boxes of beer for sale. Skipping the gift shop, we contented ourselves with a few pictures, a huge meal, and a pitcher of unfiltered lager.
The guidebook I relied on for this trip had a definite love-it-or-hate-it attitude about the South of Chile, placing each destination squarely in either the can’t-miss or not-on-your-life category. It sang the praises of Kunstmann beer, for example, while condemning the food as so German that only the nostalgic Hansel or Helmut among you would find it appealing. I thought it was pretty damned tasty, though, and a few friends who have also been there have echoed my impression as well. Can’t please everyone, I guess.
The coastal areas of southern Chile, during much of the colonial age, lay at the edge of Spanish territory and the settlements consisted mostly of heavy fortifications which have weathered the centuries and earthquakes better than the buildings in the city of Valdivia. Except for the cold and fog, some of these forts reminded me of the ones we saw in Cartagena de Indias.
This one was in a place called Niebla, aptly named for the prevailing weather conditions. While the visibility was low and confounded our attempts at taking pictures, it was fascinating for us to be at the other extreme of Spanish influence in South America. From the Caribbean forts in Colombia to these in South Pacific, one was struck as much by the similar architecture as by sheer distance between them.
The three forts we visited formed a triangle of defense with each point located on a different island or peninsula, separated by the estuary of the Valdivia River. When you look at the system of forts on a map after seeing them for yourself from the water below, it becomes clear how formidable the fortifications would have been for pirates or other attackers.
Today, however, they stand as little more than a crumbling relic of the past, punctuating a profoundly beautiful landscape where the continent meets the sea. This fort is located on the Isla Mancera, a picturesque island with a walking trail along its perimeter, ostensibly open to the real estate market as evidenced by the collection of rustic houses to be found on the path, but fortunately lacking any large scale development so far. When you find yourself at the right vantage point here and look out over the sea, you can’t help but hope that places like this will somehow manage to avoid the greedy eyes of developers forever.
The last, and the largest, of the forts we visited was in the small town of Corral, with a population larger and more concentrated than the haphazardly scattered homes on Isla Mancera. Hopping from one destination to the next on a small ferryboat as we did that day, you begin to get the feeling that you could keep at it endlessly, exploring one town after another in infinite procession.
That’s why I sometimes prefer to look at a map after the fact, or perhaps never, so as not to put limits and borders on that feeling of unlimited expanse. But even then, when your eyes are filled with wooded hills and blue water as far as you can see, that’s about as close to the infinite as you can hope to fathom. Especially when you’re on the first leg of a trip full of places you’ve never been.
Back in Valdivia, we walked the costanera, a boardwalk at the edge of town that comes to a point at the confluence of the two rivers that defined the historic borders of the city. There, a colony of stocky sea lions have made themselves at home, a few of them seen basking on a raft, in front of the tour boat in the river.
These boats will provide you with an all day river cruise, stopping off at the same forts we visited. We opted to make the same trip on our own terms, taking a city bus to Niebla and then hiring our own ferry from one stop to the next, but for those who prefer the convenience and comfort of a packaged trip, there are kiosks of tour agencies on the boardwalk ready to make you a deal.
And, while I mentioned before that Valdivia didn’t have much historic architecture left after the 1960 earthquake, that’s not to say it doesn’t boast a few remnants of its former glory. What has remained has been polished up and painted, rendering certain corners a miniature Valparaíso of sorts.
It was in one of these buildings where we had our second taste of southern cuisine on our way out of town. With our backpacks piled up in the corner, we hunkered down to a full-on seafood feast of fried fish and a hearty stew loaded with all kinds of shellfish I don’t know the name for in English or in Spanish. Accompanied, of course, with deliciously buttered potatoes. And washed down, naturally, with a nice, dark beer. It was going to be another long bus ride, and we’d need our spirits high.
A fitting end to our first stop. Stay tuned for another fun-filled installment.
In the U.S., when we think of Oktoberfest, we think, naturally, of Germany. German sausage, sauerkraut, maybe some German music, and everything written in a nice, German-looking font. But let’s face it, we mostly think of beer. So when I heard of an Oktoberfest happening in the small community of Malloco, a short drive from Santiago, I was happy to find out that here, too, Oktoberfest means beer.
Apparently, la Fiesta de la Cerveza, in Malloco (read: Beerfest) started years ago with the restaurant pictured here, Der Münchner. Indeed, the first thing we saw as we climbed off the bus from Santiago was the colorful front of this German restaurant, with the beer festival happening essentially in its back yard.
When I say “we,” I mean a group of English teachers like myself and other friends, all understandably curious about the very promising, long list of Chilean breweries that would be present and serving many varieties of their hand-crafted beers. Upon arriving at the bus terminal, we discovered many, many buses with the words “Malloco: Fiesta de la Cerveza” scribbled on the sides. Presumably, these buses would be making round trips all day long, shuttling partygoers to and from the capital and the party. Just how many people would be there?
Once we had paid the 5000 peso admission (about $10 US. Chile, defying the long held reputation that Latin America is a cheap place to travel, can be pricey), we wandered past several rows of stands selling commemorative steins, hats, and various things to eat. After a few minutes of this, we began to wonder, where was all the beer?
But then the path opened up into a wide, dusty field encircled completely by beer vendors. Literally, dozens of breweries. And at that hour, right around lunchtime, there weren’t so many people at all. So we went straight up to one of the first breweries that caught our attention and made a purchase. Dark, delicious and cold beer. Not your typical commercial pilsener; that day, there would be none of that. No. Nothing less than microbrew, at its flavorful finest. We split up, some of us dedicated to enjoying our first pints in the shade, and the others striking out at once, intrepidly in search of the next cupful.
You see, we were not limited to one successful formula for enjoying an extended afternoon of sampling so many uncommon beers. With the next several hours as full of promise as they were, the temptation was certainly there to enthusiastically take down a few pints in rapid succession.
Clearly, there were many festival goers who were doing just that. But after an education at Ohio State University, my personal rate of consumption had been tempered by years of experience, and most of those in our party had clearly learned similarly.
Rather than make the mistake of indulging with wanton abandon, then, only to be met with a physiological compulsion to sleep in the later afternoon, we chose to make our second beer purchase only after a shrewd sampling of as many different beers as possible. Because of the relaxed atmosphere brought on by the low turnout at this early stage in the day, most of the sellers were happy to talk at length about their beer, their philosophy, and to give out free samples of an ounce or two of each beer they had on offer.
We spent a good couple of hours in this regimen of socializing and sampling, staying out of the relentless midday sunshine as much as possible under the cool shade of the canopies hanging over each stand. It was in this way that we learned that the overwhelming majority of the many breweries in participation that day hailed from central Chile. I didn’t hear of any coming from further north than La Serena, and not many came from much further south than Santa Cruz. With the reputation of southern Chile as being the major beer producer that it is, that bodes well for future sampling as we begin to explore places like Valdivia and Puerto Varas. Tasty!
Time passed, and a second pint was finally purchased, with the benefit of a well-informed knowledge of what was available. Moving in reverse, having started with a stout, my second beer of the day was an amber ale from a brewery I had never heard of before, and may well not hear of again until Fiesta de la Cerveza 2012. But it was the one that stood out in my mind as having the nicest hop profile so far, and that was what I was going for that afternoon.
Meanwhile, the festival was filling up, and the beer stands were heaving with spirited clientele. Thankfully, that didn’t mean that the vendors stopped giving out free samples, but the time for idle chit-chat was over. Interactions with the bartenders became terse and to-the-point:
Me: La negra.
B: ¿Grande o pequeña?
M: Una muestra, nomás.
Deciding it was time to take a break from the crowds, we opted to have some food and some time to relax in the shade. In the search for a place to sit down, we walked past the obligatory carnival section of the fairgrounds.
Incidentally, the little wheel behind the red tower is one of those contraptions that is designed to send you spinning along multiple axes at the same time. The weekend before at the same event, a young man who had likely had too much to drink, decided he would stick his legs through the bars of the cage he was locked in for his safety while the ride was in motion, and his feet caught on the center axle, snapping his legs at the shin. He died in the hospital a couple of days later. Not surprisingly, that ride was not in operation the day we went. Alcohol and carny rides are never a good combination.
After a nice break, we launched back into our methodical sampling of virtually every beer on offer at the beer festival. More stands were visited. More beers were tasted. Another pint was purchased, by me. This time, it was an IPA, the only one I had found the whole day. It was from this brewery, if I remember correctly.
A well-crafted IPA is one of my favorite beers, but in the US amongst microbreweries today, there seems to be a tendency to load the beer up with a quantity of hops far in excess of what an IPA traditionally called for. The one I tried that day was well hopped, but not to the extreme like some of the “double IPAs” you can find. I wanted to bring a bottle home with me, but at the end of the day this brewery became somehow elusive, and I couldn’t track it down.
When all was said and done, we had tried beer from just about every brewery available that day, over the course of five or six hours. Drinking at a moderate pace for that much time doesn’t get you drunk if you do it right, but it was like a shift at work, and left us physically exhausted at the end. The bus ride home was a rowdy one, us standing in the aisle with crowds of Chileans chanting hymns that all of them knew and none of us did. Were they singing about politics, or football? Instead I focused on the number of beer stains noticeably visible on the white shirts of many of the people seated around me. Perhaps the people were on this bus and not behind the wheel for their own safety, and for the safety of others.
My personal bill for the day was 5000 pesos for the entry fee, and about 1500 pesos for each pint, 3 in total. Plus food, and another 700 pesos or so for the bus ride each way. Let’s put the grand total at around 15,000 pesos, that being about $30 US. I’d do it again next year. Who’s with me?