Thursday, December 31, 2009

Santiago to Valparaiso, Chile

Mendoza to Santiago can easily be done in one day, but I chose two. There was I high mountain pass and border crossing to contend with, and I wanted to enter the Chilean metropolis fresh in the morning. Besides, Adam wasn’t checking into the hotel until the morning of 11th (November).

I had read that the pass could sometimes be closed into late October due to heavy snows. Based on that you would expect one of even moderate intelligence to deduce that November may be, at the very least … chilly. Underdressed and of low intelligence, I made it up the pass, through on/off again rain sprinkles. Stopped to see my first condor, and then upward to see the Inca's Bridge. This naturally occurring bridge (not a functioning bridge) was formed in ancient times when an ice formed over the river and then layer upon layer of accumulating sediment combined with the mineral deposits from the sulfur springs, the bridge eventually petrified. The remnants of a commercial hot springs venture still stands at the river’s edge. Of interest, Charles Darwin sketched this bridge during a stopover on his voyage on the Beagle.

The next morning, after wondering around a gargantuan network of highways, I followed a taxi to the new W Hotel in the wealthy outskirts of Santiago. Pulling up at the valet station, they didn’t know what to do with me. (I was to be the first motorcycle guest at a W Hotel in all of South America! Granted, this was the first and only W Hotel in South American and it’s grand opening party was still a week away.) I met Adam waiting in the hotel lobby and we toasted to our first respective birthdays in the southern hemisphere with a pre-noon beer.

Adam’s trip had been partly inspired by an Anthony Bourdain episode on Chile. Armed with the show’s restaurant itinerary, our plan was to follow in Tony’s gastronomical footsteps. We would split the trip between pork and beef in Santiago and seafood in the coastal town of Valparaiso. The menu included pork shoulder, coffee with legs, razor clams, conger eel, pinchanga, and the mother of all sandwiches, the Lomito Completo!

After two days of stumbling around Santiago in a perpetual food coma, we couldn’t really find the soul of the town. The historical buildings were rare and spread out amongst a litany of uninspiring 1970’s structures. The town lacked a real central core, and for God’s sake – they had a Starbucks, Ruby Tuesday, and a TGI Fridays! ARGH!!!!!!!!!! Was I not in South American anymore?

Leaving the bike at the hotel, we boarded a bus to search out Chile’s elusive soul. Valparaiso, the hillside town known for it’s colorful metal clad buildings, seafood, and past residence to Chile’s favorite son, poet Pablo Neruda. We checked into the budget busting Zero Hotel that had a view that made it worth every penny.

“Valpo” was one of the largest ports in South America and a necessary stopover for any ship sailing through the Straights of Magellan (southern end of the continent) until the Panama Canal opened. Recently, the area has regained some of its prominence as increasingly becoming the cultural center of the country, and through increased tourism –in other words, a much more soulful place.

Back in the day, sailors referred to the city as “Little San Francisco”, due to its division into steep hillside neighborhoods. For the most part, the historic area is very walk able. To get up the steep slopes, rickety wooden funicular elevators are used. In 2003 Valparaiso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historical importance, natural beauty, and unique architecture.

The trip was a complete success; we found Chile’s soul, and even a heartbeat, albeit faint. We made it through 90% of Tony’s list, while adding a few items of our own, and depleted much of Chile’s wine stock.

Overall, it was one hell of a birthday!

Trip Menu:

Lomito Completo: grilled pork, cheese, homemade mayo, avocado, tomatoe, lettuce, and fresh grilled bread. Other options include a fried egg and sauerkraut.

Coffee with Legs: to stimulate coffee sales a few years back an entrepreneur decided to open a chain of Hooter-esque espresso bars with coffee served by leggy women in high cut dresses. Like Hooters, if you get turned on by yards-and-yards of nylon stockings, then this is your place. It’s not mine.

Pork shoulder and Arrollado: the entire shoulder joint of a pig, boiled and plomped down on a platter. Arrollado is sliced roll of unrecognizable pork bits. These blue-collar blue-plate specials were washed down with pitchers of Terremoto - white wine and pineapple sorbet.

Machas Parmesana: razor clams on the half shell baked with a topping of Parmasean cheese. (melt Parm over cardboard and I’ll eat it, but these were damn good)

Conger Eel: If it were not for the fact that the name of this dish has the word “eel” in it, they would’ve been extinct by now - the world would have devoured every last one. The eel is prepared baked, fried, or any other way you might prepare a fish. It is presented as a large flat (not round) white flaky fillet – you would never know you were not eating a delicious white fish unless someone told you, or you read it on the menu.

Pinchanga: A no holds barred plate of hangover vittels. A pile of french fries, topped with grilled onions, egg, cheese, and greasy grilled beef. If it doesn’t cure you, it may kill you.

Vino: I had always considered the wine county of Argentina and Chile to be separated by nothing more than a political border, producing much of the same product, but I could not have been more wrong. The two regions are divided by the Andes mountain range, which keeps the salty sea breezes on the Chilean side, while leaving the Argentine side dry and arid - completely two different regions. Due to the proximity of the ocean and the sandy and shell fortified soil of Chile, extremely nice whites (Savingon Blancs) can be found, very different from the white Torrantes of dry northern Argentina. Where Argentina has its Malbec grape, Chile focuses on Cabernat’s and their unique Carmenere grape. However, like in Argentina, I also preferred the Chilean blends when it comes to the reds.

Peckhammer Video:
Michael Lewis plans to spend the next five years traveling the world solo on his motorcycle. This is not a travel video; it's a series of short interviews aimed at unraveling the thought process that led Michael to trade his house, his business and most of his worldly possessions for a life on the road. In part three, Mike explains "carnet de passage."

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