Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Chile, Day 16

Dogs. Why must dogs bark at 3:30 a.m. and not shut up until sunrise? Why don’t their owners come outside and tell them to be quiet? I’m sure I’m not the only person in the entire neighborhood who hears all these dogs barking, right? Agh. Another sleepless night. At least the neighborhood is incredibly charming, and during the day the dogs are generally friendly and happy to be petted.

I chose not to go on a long, guided tour today because I thought I’d be better off just wandering around Castro, which is a small town, and taking it easy. I started off the day with a disappointing breakfast in a quite satisfying setting. A fire was roaring in a kitchen hearth, and outside the breakfast room windows one could see the Fiordo de Castro at low tide.

As I ate tasteless bread and a bowl of fruit with muesli and strawberry yoghurt, and drank tea that I was told was coffee, I watched half a dozen dogs snacking on shellfish that the tides had exposed. I didn’t know that dogs would do that, but there’s really no surprise in it, I guess.

After breakfast the power went out -- it would be out for over eight hours -- so I went out and took some photos of the palafitos, which are Castro’s famous shingled houses built on stilts and perched above the water. They are colorful yet faded, and receive government protection as national treasures. Quite a few of them along Ernesto Riquelme Street have been turned into hostels and hospidajes, while others along Costanera Avenida Puerto Montt are now seafood restaurants. As the tides rise and fall, and you’re sitting inside, you can actually feel them sway in the current. I thought I was experiencing an earthquake at one point, but it went on for so long that I realized it was an effect of the changing water level.

From there I hiked into town – it’s not far at all, but again the hills are steep and seemingly everywhere – and decided to explore Castro starting along the water’s perimeter. Castro is not a wealthy town, and yet it doesn’t seem to be exactly poor, either. One of the people I spoke with today told me that in Castro everyone is more or less equal – there are neither rich nor poor people in town; everyone has more or less the same means. I doubt it’s that simple, as I did see people begging for money, and along the water there appeared to be fishermen who I wouldn’t guess to be flush with money. But the town seems to be putting an effort into keeping things attractive: a newly built (but unfinished) Museo Regional de Castro caught my eye, and several small parks and plazas, such as Plaza El Tren, are well-maintained and pretty.

There were more hills to climb to get back into the center of town, and once there I circled the small Plaza de Armas.

There’s a presidential election underway in Chile, and Sunday the country’s new leader will be determined. It’s said to be a close race, and it was interesting to come across half a dozen standing political signboards slashed through – both candidates, in fact. (Later in the day they were all lying on their backs, as if someone had pushed them over.)

Towering over one end of the plaza is the very worth-visiting Iglesia San Francisco de Castro.

From the outside it’s definitely nothing special – it’s weathered much like many of the houses one sees around town – but inside it’s stunning. Ninety-eight years old this year, and a combination of neo-Gothic and Classical architecture – it’s one of sixteen UNESCO World Heritage sites in Chiloe – the church’s varnished-wood interior is a site to behold.

It almost has a wood cabin feel to it, but there’s nothing kitschy to be found here.

After this my body told me I desperately needed coffee, so I left the church, walked straight for a block down San Martin Street, and turned right at Blanco Avenue. At Blanco 264 I found Ristretto Caffé along with two fantastically friendly, English-speaking staff inside.

Wishing I’d brought my laptop, as the café (and many other restaurants in town) had wi-fi, I settled for a cortado grand Mielle (1000 pesos, or ~$2) – I had no idea what this was – and torta de mil hojas Chilena (1400 pesos, or ~$2.85) – not a clue what this was either. Not surprisingly, both turned out to be very sweet, and since sweet = yum, I enjoyed both.

For strong coffee and great service, I definitely recommend Ristretto Caffé. (Tel: 532-769. Email: ristrettocaffe@gmail.com)

Realizing that I wouldn’t want lunch anytime soon, I went back to the neighborhood where my hostel was and, since the power was still out, wandered around the streets. There were plenty of palafitos and other unique-looking houses to photograph, dogs and cats to play with, and tours to arrange for the coming days.

A couple hours later I decided I’d go back until town and have lunch, and I told myself I’d eat at the first restaurant I came to. This turned out to be Brújula del Cuerpo. I should have walked farther. The place wasn’t terrible – its interior decoration was eclectic enough to be of interest, and the upstairs rooms had plenty of alcohol and pool tables, which could be good things – but right away I knew this place wasn’t anything special. After a long look at their underwhelming American-style menu I went with a club sandwich (2800 pesos, or ~$5.70), which turned out to be like any club sandwich you’d find in a diner in the U.S. I apparently also ordered a giant plate of fries.

Brujula del Cuerpo is at O’Higgins 308. Tel: 633-225. The service was quick and attentive…for the most part.

For the rest of the afternoon I basically waited out the electricity. I finalized the arrangements for a tour tomorrow, and talked with a few people at my hostel. When 6:30 rolled around I headed out for dinner. The place I was looking for has apparently closed down or moved, but there was another restaurant in the vicinity called Restaurant Plaza and so I headed inside.

It was basically a café, though they did offer a number of interesting-looking menu items. One of the friendly waitresses there helped me choose a dish called salmon estilo cancote con agregado (5200 pesos, or ~$10.60). As usual, I had no idea what to expect. How am I supposed to know what “cancote style” refers to? For my agregado (side dish) I ordered a salad, which turned out to be chopped lettuce and sliced tomatoes.

I was definitely surprised when the dish arrived. What I’d ordered turned out to be salmon (with a lot of bones) topped with melted cheese and tomatoes and set on top of quite a few pieces of sliced sausage.

Never would I have guessed to combine salmon with cheese and sausage. Cheese and sausage, yes. Throw some salmon into the mix? No way. Actually, it wasn’t bad at all. It was very heavy, and rather salty in the end, but it was so weird in my mouth that by the time I’d finished it I really didn’t know what had just happened. I’d recommend the dish just for the “startled mouth” factor, and I think newcomers to Plaza Restaurant would do pretty well in general with the menu here.

Plaza Restaurant is at San Martin 359, just across the Plaza de Armas. Tel: 531-340.

I tried to get a taxi to take me home, but I can't tell the difference between a taxi and a collectivo, the latter of which refused to transport me anywhere. So I decided to walk. I needed to burn off calories after that ridiculously rich meal, anyway. I cut through the Plaza de Armas and found a concert, I guess you'd call it, going on there.

It was apparently some church-sponsored thing, but then again they were singing and doing jumping jacks at the same time, so maybe there was an exercise element to it, too. To the side of the stage were more than a dozen dogs randomly barking and jumping all over each other, while farther down there were dogs lying around and being...well...dogs. There were also people dressed up as half-dogs, half-humans -- I even got a photo of one!

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  1. Just now catching up on your blog and WOW I have missed so much! What incredible photos of great little eating places, food and scenery.

    We will make it back to do a tour of South America at some point. After two years in Brazil we needed a break and decided to do our extended trip before the move back to the US in SE Asia. We still want to see the areas you are exploring though. Beautiful!

  2. Lori: It's great to hear that you're traveling again before returning to the U.S. I'm sure that SE Asia will be a blast for you guys! Any plans to hit Vietnam? I'm replying to you from Chiloe, Chile, and if you find yourself in this part of the world sometime, I hope you can get a taste of things here. It's a wonderful part of Chile! As always, thanks for your kind words and for dropping by my blog as I continue wandering... :)