A Visit to Chile - Part Two - Atacama

Volcano Lincancabur above the Hotel Altiplanco
Last week, I shared the first stop on our trip to Chile. The next segment emphasized the extreme differences that one can experience in the country.

As mentioned last week, we were lucky enough to have won this trip through a contest sponsored by LAN airlines, Skorpio Cruise, ADS Mundo, SouthAmerica.travel and Marmot Outdoor Gear. The contest was called the “Go to Extremes” and versus the previous five days in Patagonia, the Atacama desert was a shock to the system.

Valley of the Moon
We left Puerto Montt, flew to Santiago, then caught another flight to the desert mining town of Calama. From the lush forests, sea life, and islands of the south, we arrived in the barren desert of the north. Looking at Calama, we weren’t too excited about our new locale, but after Harald (our guide for the next four days) picked us up, and started driving towards the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, things changed. We crossed to different mountain ranges, and with each crossing, the Andes became clearer. The terrain changed from plain desert to vibrant colors and canyons. Vicuña and guanaco (both relatives of the llama) began appearing on the side of the road. After a little over an hour driving across the desert, we arrived at the Hotel Altiplanco, in San Pedro. The hotel is a quaint adobe complex sitting at about 8,800 foot elevation, overshadowed by the towering Licancabur volcano in the background.

15,420 feet in the Andes
The next few days, Harald took us to almost every site in the Atacama Desert (request Harald Apablaza as your personal guide – he is the best!). We visited numerous lagoons and salt flats, including Lagunas Piedra (so salty there is no way you can sink). Moon Valley was an interesting stop, with huge sand dunes, box canyons, and deep valleys. Petroglyphs at Hierbas Buenas, multi-colored landscape at Rainbow Valley, a visit to the small indigenous village of Rio Grande, and watching Flamingos at the Atacam Salt Flats were just some of the sites. 

What is interesting is that this desert is one of the driest places on earth, but there is water everywhere. The desert sits at about 8,200 feet, and it was is hot (mid 90’s during mid-day, with cool mornings). The Andes tower 20,000 feet into the sky above the desert floor, and collect the rain and snow. The snow melt filters through underground tunnels and fissures, as well as flows down the mountains. There are channeled canals throughout the towns for irrigation, but in the salt flats, the water comes up through the ground, creating marshes of salt water as well as fresh water (or known locally as sweet water). The bird life is extraordinary, along with wild donkeys, llamas and goats. Again, this is a desert!

Llamas in Rainbow Valley
One of the highlights of our stay was getting up very early, and heading up into the Andes, to visit the Tatio Geysers (highest geysers in the world at over 14,000 feet). Our drive took us over a pass at 4,700 meters (15,420 ft). At this elevation, you wouldn’t expect to see much wildlife, but we saw more in the high altitude, than any other time on our trip. High altitude marshes were teaming with water fowl and llamas, and the rocky outcroppings had the strangest creature I have ever seen…viscacha (something like a cross between a rabbit, rat and chinchilla). After the high altitude temperatures in the 20’s, we stopped at the Puritama hot springs, and their eight pools. Combine high altitude sun and white skin, and sure enough a sunburn was part of the days memories too.

Main street San Pedro de Atacama
So what about the food and drink in this part of Chile? Well, just like the Patagonia region, there are certain things that stand out, but there were also some similarities. Breakfast was the same as in the south, and nothing to write home about. However, we did add a couple new things to our breakfast list: Mate de coca (a tea made from coca leaves, and said to ease “puna”, or altitude sickness). I can honestly say that even though it has coca in it, I didn’t notice anything, but it did taste good. Another new breakfast item was puffed quinoa. Not only did we find this as a breakfast cereal, but also on the breakfast tarts, and something that resembled rice crispy bars (but with quinoa replacing the puffed rice). Quinoa was everywhere, as you would expect, being in the corner of Chile that borders Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.
Chilean Flamingo

Lunches weren’t big, like in the south, which was a good thing, since the heat in the afternoon, really suppressed any idea of eating heavy food. One “lunch” was simply a stop at the ice cream shop in San Pedro for a couple scoops of ice cream. Being adventurous, I tried Chañar ice cream (a nut from a local tree).

rolls with dipping sauce
All but one night, we had dinner at the hotel, as it was included with the stay. Each night the restaurant had a regular menu, but also had a complete dinner with three courses. Each course you could pick one of the two items. Prior to dinner, there was always small garlic rolls on the table, with a  wonderful dipping sauce. In my broken Spanish, I asked for the recipe. I am not sure if I got it right, but was told the sauce contained: pimento (but could be a medium heat pepper), tomato, onion, and cilantro. Blend together, then add enough olive oil to make the consistency similar to aioli, then season with salt.

Allyu Vineyards in Toconau
The wine menu had wines from all over Chile, including a local wine called Allyu. Yes, there is a winery in the Atacama desert. We went to the town of Toconau to check it out. The government is supplying the water to develop this new winery. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about the wine. While we saw it on the menu at a couple places, no one had it in stock. To top that, whenever I asked about it, I was consistently told that the wine was not good, and told not to order it. It seems the vines are only a couple years old, and they are trying to produce wine from young vines, and not aging the wine. 

Early morning breakfast at Tatio Geysers
Most nights, my drink of choice was Pisco Sour with rica rica. Rica rica is a local herb that grows wild everywhere. It has a very medicinal and herbal taste similar to sage, but is great with Pisco and lemon. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can find this herb in the United States, so your only choice to trust me that it is good, or visit Atacama yourself. Another item of note…the Adobe Restaurant in San Pedro, was the first place we saw ice offered (of course it was in the driest place on earth).

On Monday, we left the hotel early to drive back to Calama for our flight to Santiago, and the final segment of our trip. Check out the third segment of the trip, as you’ll see how the South, North, East and West of Chile, affect the wine regions of Chile.
Sunset at Kari Canyon

A vist to Chile - Part One - Patagonia

You may have noticed that my weekly wine blog has been running behind for the last couple weeks. Well, I do have an excuse. You see, I have been down in Chile, on a 16 day vacation. To make that even better, I won the vacation on a Facebook contest. (Yes, people do really win those things, and I am proof.) So, the next couple blogs will be a combination of food, drink and travel from our trip.

On Skorpios w/ our Marmot Gear
If you are wondering, the contest was sponsored by LAN Airlines, along with Skorpio Cruise, ADS Mundo, SouthAmerica.travel  and Marmot Outdoor Gear. It was called the “Go to Extremes” contest, and it lived up to its’ name. We spent 6 days in the Lake and Patagonia Region, 4 days in the Atacama desert, and 5 days in Santiago. Each area had a unique character, and was like visiting different countries.

This week, I’ll focus on the first segment of our trip…a cruise from Puerto Montt, to the San Rafael glacier, aboard the Skorpios II.

Puerto Montt
Our flight took us from Los Angeles, to Lima Peru, to Santiago, then on to Puerto Montt. From the time we left our house, to the arrival on the ship, was a total of 30 hours. When you are over six foot tall, sleeping on a plane is next to impossible, so we survived on only one hour of sleep getting to our destination.

Puerto Aguirre
We arrived in the fishing port of Puerto Montt, in the Lake Region of Chile. They are experiencing a drought, similar to California. Forest fires had created a haze in the air. Our ship had a capacity of 106 passengers, but we happened to book on the week after school had started up again, and only had 38 people on the ship. Our cruise would take us to the small fishing port of Puerto Aguirre, then on to the San Rafael glacier (closest glacier to the equator). After hitting this southern most point in our trip to Patagonia, we headed north to the private port of Quitralco, with its’ hot spring pools and isolated fjords. Followed the next day by a stop in Chiloe, and the capitol city of Castro. And, finally back to Puerto Montt.

San Rafael Glacier
Since this is a wine and food blog, it is only appropriate that I share those experiences with you.
On our flight to Chile, it became apparent that whisky might be a drink of choice in Chile. At one point in the flight, my wife asked for a Coke, and was told that all they had was water, coffee, tea, and whiskey. As it turned out, our first welcome drink on the ship was either a whisky sour, or a mango sour. Since we were cruising through the archipelago, we had plenty of time to try out different drinks on the ship. The most prevalent was Pisco Sours (made with Pisco, a Chilean/Peruvian version of brandy), but the favorite was a drink called a “Chilean Vaina”. To make... in a shaker, add about 2 tbsp of powdered sugar, a splash of Cacao, 4 dashes of Brandy, 2 glasses of port (looked like Tawny), 1 egg yolk, 1 egg and ice. Shake, then strain to make sure there is no egg residue. Pour into glass, and top with cinnamon. Pretty darn tasty!

Puerto Aguirre
All our lunches and dinners included a bottle of white and red wine. If you weren’t much of a wine drinker, as our English table mates were, then beer was always available. The beer of choice was “Cristal”, a local lager that is very similar to Budweiser.

Thermal springs at Quitralco
We were offered numerous different wines, from all over Chile, including: Viu Manent, De Martino, Dias de Verano, Santa Rita, Vina La Rosa La Palma, Vina la Rosa, Tierra del Fuego and Medalla Real. These wines varied at each meal, and covered almost every wine growing region in Chile. Surprisingly, we never had a Pinot Noir. Lots of Sauvignon Blanc (which paired perfectly with the seafood rich menu) and Carmenere (which worked with the heavier red meat meals).

Market in Castro
One thing we learned is that Chileans don’t put an emphasis on breakfast. Every breakfast had meats and cheeses, along with some type of sweet tart (not as sweet as what we normally eat in the US). Every place we went also offered scrambled eggs, but for some reason, they were always very runny/watery. A variety of juices was also offered. The American staple of orange juice was there, but there was always melon juice and strawberry juice too. Occasionally we would also find peach juice.

Patagonian volcanoes along the Andes
The big meal of the day was lunch. Always served around 1:00, we found these meals to be very heavy, and mostly protein based. One heavy, but wonderful, lunch started with a king crab au gratin, followed by pork butt and potatoes. Speaking of potatoes…there is some argument on the origin of the potato. Peru has long claimed to be the original source, but as we found out, the islands of Chiloe claim they are where the Spaniards first discovered this starchy tuber.

Dinner was always served later in the evening. Most Chileans eat dinner between 9:00 and 11:00 at night. To carry them through from lunch they have a snack around 5:00. On the ship, this was tea time, and it was served with tarts, as well as meats and cheeses.

100,000 old ice with 30 year whisky
One of the trip highlights was the visit to the San Rafael glacier. As we approached in our smaller, steel hulled boat, we traveled among the numerous icebergs. We found a good sized one, that could be easily reached, and chipped off some chunks of 100,000 year old ice, and served it with a 30 year old whisky (there’s that whisky again).

Asado Patagonia
Another trip highlight was at the private port of Quitralco. While we were traveling around the fjords, climbing to the viewpoints, or soaking in the thermal hot springs, the ship’s chefs had taken two  fresh lambs, split them, and posted them over a wood fire pit. These would be just a small part of the protein rich (chicken, beef, lamb) grilled lunch we had in port. This style of lamb is known as “Asado Patagonia”, and was served with sopapillas, and traditional beef empanadas (including one un-pitted olive, and boiled egg inside).

Open water fish farm
Some other interesting facts about this part of the world…Did you know that Chile is the second largest producer of Salmon in the world? As we cruised, we passed open water fish farms everywhere. Shellfish is also very productive, but only north of the Corcovado Gulf. South of the gulf, they have had a seven year stretch of red tide, which has affected the shellfish population, and made it poisonous.

Our final night on the Skorpios ship included the semi-formal captain’s dinner. There was an amazing spread of fresh shellfish and seafood, along with an array of desserts from the talented pastry chef. The perfect end to a cruise in the Patagonia region in the south of Chile.

Our next stop would be to the north, with a visit to the Atacama desert. Check out the next segment of our trip by clicking here.