The Mother of Dragons

Chile, travel

Chile’s three main industries, in order of significance, are mining (copper exports are one-third of the government’s income), wine-making, and fishing. I have little interest in exploring the first one. I read “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle that Set Them Free” by Hector Tobar so I think I’m decently educated about the Chilean mining industry. A book title with 21 words and a colon is not a book title. It’s a sentence. Get it together, Hector.

Now wine-making and fishing does draw my interest. Yesterday we drove 75 miles north-west of Santiago to visit the Casablanca valley for some wine tasting followed by the port city of Valparaiso, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s the third largest city in Chile and translates to “Paradise Valley.”

Along the way, our lovely guide, Fernando, told us about the history of Chile and out of the full day’s history, geography, and cultural lesson, I naturally retained the most unconnected of facts. Let me wow you with my knowledge:

– The condor is the national bird of Chile. The only reason I remember this fact is because Fernando gave me a condor pin as a gift so either this bird is indeed the national bird of Chile or I have a random pin with a condor on it.

– A third of the 17 million people in Chile live in Santiago. Why? Because 80% of the country is either the Andes mountains, Atacama desert, or frigid Patagonia which sees 220 days of rain a year. The country is divided into 13 regions, so basically like the Latin American version of The Hunger Games. Regions 1-4 at the top of Chile are dry and that’s where the Atacama desert is. This is the part of the Hunger Games where you battle the sand and die of thirst. Then come the central regions, which are more or less the Capitol. This is where Santiago lies and where you have four seasons and temperate weather. You get good food and good wine and everyone is drunk and merry. Then come the southern regions which are windy, cold, and dominated by perpetual rain. But they have penguins, which is the only benefit because penguins are cute and they waddle. Throw in perennial 8.7 magnitude earthquakes and 2,000 volcanoes, out of which 150 are active and you have Chile in a nutshell. May the odds be ever in your favor.

– Chile has palm trees. With temperatures in the 30s at night, I was surprised to see palm trees growing in Santiago. And even more surprised to learn these are special Chilean palm trees (Chilean wine palm or cocopalm) native to the area – hearty trees that can withstand 5 degree Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius) temperatures. As the tour guide on our free walking tour of Santiago clarified, “We didn’t import them – we’re not trying to be Miami.” With smooth bark, a full head of verdant leaves at the crown, and a thick trunk that can get up to 4 feet in diameter at the base, these palms don’t look like their tall, insecure, and anorexic cousins back in L.A. They’re big-boned and proud. They don’t sway at the hint of a breeze, exfoliating themselves left and right, littering palm bark all over the streets. Get it together, L.A. palm trees.

– There are roughly 400,000 stray dogs in Santiago. They started out as abandoned dogs who multiplied until the government set up programs to neuter/spade and immunize them instead of putting them down. Now they’re a part of the city. Local shopkeepers and restaurateurs feed them. This happy mutt followed us on our four-hour walking tour of Santiago, diligently marking his territory every block of the way.

As Fernando told us all about Chile, we entered the Casablanca valley known for its white wine production and drove to Casas del Bosque (Houses of the Forests) to sample their Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Carménère, Syrah, and dessert Riesling. I would love to wow you with my tasting notes but the only thing I wrote down was “smells like celery” next to the Sauvignon Blanc. I did enjoy the Carménère and learned that 98% of the world’s production of Carménère comes from Chile. Taste-wise, it’s heavier than the Merlot but lighter than the Cabernet Sauvignon. According to the description, it has a “voluptuous structure, well-rounded tannins, and intense chocolaty notes, coffee, roses, plums, cinnamon, strawberries, blackberries, and moist soil.” You had me at moist soil, you little minx.

I was thrilled to bust out my furry cream vest for this trip. The 50-to-60 degree weather during the day made it a perfect accessory and I wore it proudly for the first five minutes until Michael ogled me with a bemused look.

“Ok, Game of Thrones. What’s going on here?”

“What? It’s a furry warm vest. It’s practical and chic.”

“It looks like you skinned a sheep and draped it over your shoulders. We’re not in Norway you Viking wannabe.”

For the rest of the day, Michael checked in on me periodically with a “How’s my little barbarian doing?”

This Mother of Dragons was not amused.

After our wine tasting, we drove into Valparaiso, walked around the historic port city, and tasted some of its delicious seafood. Although fishing is Chile’s third largest industry, I was dubious about the quality of the seafood. I started to become convinced after trying the Paila Marina, the Chilean seafood stew, at Mares de Chile, a small restaurant on the border of the Mercado Central, Santiago’s fish market. It was as if the entire ocean was condensed into one steaming bowl of seafood broth. Foaming and bubbling on the surface, dense with an indiscriminate assortment of shellfish and native fish on the inside, 90% of the patrons in the restaurant ordered it and I could see why. It was undeniably scrumptious.

The seafood is so varied and plentiful in Chile because of the strong current in the south which makes its way up the coast to Santiago. Although this southern current makes the beaches ice-cold year-round, it oxygenates the ocean and enables a wide assortment of fish and crustaceans to thrive in the coastal waters. The octopus was no exception. Grilled and drizzled with an olive tapenade sauce, it was so fresh and meaty that I couldn’t believe I was actually eating octopus. It might not be visually stunning, but it was gastronomically divine. I could pair this with a Carménère all day long.

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