Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chile, Day 17

The dogs were at it again last night. From midnight to one a.m., and again from four to five a.m., the neighborhood dogs erupted into continuous barking. Why no one tries to shut the dogs up is beyond me, unless most of Castro is deaf.

I took a tour today of Isla Quinchao, which is technically a municipality in the region of Chiloe. There were four of us in all: an Englishwoman, an Argentinean woman, our Chilean guide, and me. We started off the day at a little before 10 a.m. and headed straight up the road about twenty minutes to the town of Dalcahue.

Upon arriving there we stopped at a church, the name of which I’ve unfortunately forgotten. It’s one of the oldest churches in Chiloe, however, and is built entirely from wood and covered with alerce shingles (alerce is an endangered species of tree in Chiloe and only recycled alerce is allowed to be used in construction anymore).

For me, perhaps the most interesting thing about the church was a picture of Jesus surrounded by four creatures from Chiloe mythology.

The Spaniards, when evangelizing local people, were very successful in their attempt to combine Catholic beliefs with traditional Chiloen beliefs. Even today, most Chiloen people still believe in these mythological creatures, which are meant to be endowed with various supernatural, god-like powers.

After wandering through the church we drove a little further to a small, picturesque beach and walked around here for a bit, taking in the boats that had been stranded in low tide, looking at the small stores in the area that sold seafood caught earlier that morning, as well as bundled seaweed used in cooking, and past more of the colorful, weathered houses that are so typical of the Chiloe region.

Look at that two-tone house.

There was also a well-known crafts market that specialized in fabrics dyed with herbs, flowers, and other natural products – I would have bought a sweater, for sure, if I had any immediate need for one, and if the two small bags I’m traveling with weren’t already packed to bursting.

From Dalcahue we took a 10-minute ferry to Isla Quinchao, where we immediately went to a mirador, or a lookout over the water, and were shown a salmon farm that had been abandoned after the industry had basically polluted itself to death.

In the water on the left are mussel farms, and that box-shaped area in the water on the right is an abandoned salmon farm.

We were told that the salmon had all recently suffered from a disease that couldn’t be cured, which wiped out the entire local industry and caused 10,000 people to lose their jobs. The mussel farm, however, was still going strong. Our guide was happy to see the salmon industry collapse, as relations between their workers and the community weren’t very good, and the rich owners were notorious for hoarding their money and not being the least bit charitable.

Perhaps the sight of the salmon and mussel farms had been meant to whet our appetites, because we continued from here to a small restaurant called Ostras Los Troncos that specialized in fresh oysters.

Included in the price of the tour, we were allowed to eat as many raw oysters as we wanted – at least the small ones – and I put down three.

That's not my hand...

I could have had more, but since the day was long and we were supposed to have lunch later, I decided to hold back. A group of Italian tourists quickly followed us here, and I watched one older man plant himself in front of the oyster shucker and eat seven or eight before his group pulled him away.

With oysters in our bellies, we headed to another church, this one in a town called Achao. The church here, built in 1740 and now a World Heritage site, is called Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto and is the oldest in Chiloe.

One of the many unique aspects of this church is the alerce shingles used all over the exterior. The inside, too, is beautiful, especially the ceiling, which is shaped like the inside of an upside-down boat.

There’s a small museum in the back, too, that celebrates the area’s history.

After another stop at a mirador in Achao we returned to Dalcahue by ferry and stopped in town for lunch.

As we were walking along the beachfront, the Englishwoman in our group was pulled into a ground-breaking ceremony held by the local government and asked to take part.

Mathilde is the blonde one in the middle of all those Chilean men.

It took a few minutes for her to extricate herself – we’re expecting her photo to appear in tomorrow’s newspaper – and then we continued walking through some of the back streets to wherever our guide had in mind for us to eat lunch.

Seaweed for sale.

More of the beautifully weathered houses in Chiloe.

He took us to a place he called Cocinas (I think), which is a newly built structure that houses many of the food stalls that had formerly been located in the back of the crafts market.

It was a beautiful building full of large portholes through which one could see the ocean while chowing down, and inside there were numerous options, the specialty of course being seafood.

However, since I wanted a break from seafood I went with oven-cooked lamb (4200 pesos, or ~$8.60), which was excellent if tremendously difficult to eat.

There was also some lamb hair left on part of one piece, and two bugs that I found in the salad. Nothing that a sharp knife can’t take care of, but that burned lamb hair will stick in my memory for a while, I think. And when the Englishwoman suggested dessert, I felt my arm twisting – a very pleasant feeling when dessert is at issue. I ordered a piece of lemon custard pie, which was definitely the best 700 pesos I’ve spent on anything.

Once we had food in our bellies we returned to Castro. Shortly before arriving at the ferry we spotted two dolphins, though one quickly disappeared. The other stayed there for some time, feeding in the fish-rich waters.

By the time we were in the northern outskirts of Castro we took the opportunity to see more palafitos – these were less commercialized than the area of palafitos where I’m currently staying, though the latter really aren’t commercialized at all…yet.

For the rest of the afternoon I didn’t do too much – hit the bank because I just found out I could only pay cash for my hostel, and tried to take a nap but was unsuccessful due to out-of-control German children charging around on my floor, screaming and pounding on the doors. Eventually dinnertime rolled around, and though I wasn’t desperate for any food I thought I’d better go out early so I could return early, too.

After a lot of wandering around, and coming upon restaurants that should have been open but weren’t, I settled on a place called Rapa Nui.

One reason I chose this place was because it advertised curanto, which is a Chiloe specialty consisting of seafood, meat, and potatoes. For some reason I thought it came as a stew, so when it arrived I was taken aback. I mean really taken aback. In fact, I’ve never been so startled, even frightened, by what appeared before me.

I almost thought this was a joke when it was set down in front of me.

The curanto was served in a wide, deep bowl, and included 20 large clams, 6 large mussels, an entire potato, a fat chorizo, a giant hunk of dried salted pork, and something no one has yet been able to explain to me – a pancake-sized portion of what looked like fat-streaked meat but was more like sticky rice (but wasn’t) filled with cooked fish. It was an insane amount of food.

I'm not even halfway through my meal here...

And again, I’m becoming more and more serious about being vegetarian when I return from this trip. Where are the green vegetables in this country? In any case, the curanto was pretty darned good, though the mussels were dry (cooked rather than steamed?) and the clams were chewier than I would have liked. But for only 4200 pesos (~$8.60), you really can’t go wrong with this. It’s definitely a two-person dish!

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