Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Chile, Day 9

I never would have guessed this was possible, but directly beside my room’s small skylight there appears to live a colony of seagulls. And I discovered today that seagulls and chickens have something significant in common: they wake up slightly before the sun rises and proceed with their loud voices to try to wake up the entire world. Even luckier, the roof of my hotel is made of tin, and the seagulls treat it like air force pilots treat aircraft carriers. From 5:30 on, strident cries overhead mixed with the thunderous clanging of seagulls charging back and forth, skidding, and probably running in circles until they were dizzy, on the hotel’s tin roof. I had to laugh into my pillow, which I’d pulled tightly over my head, at my bad luck. I just can’t seem to catch a break as far as sleep goes.

I started off the day sluggishly, but I quickly regained my equilibrium with breakfast at Coffee Express, which is a nice, overpriced place to start the day.

I ordered plaina de huevos, which are apparently eggs fried in a metal pan, as well as toast and a café Americano. The eggs and toast were about as unexciting as you can get, and the 2200 peso price tag ($4.38) seemed a little higher than it should have been considering what it amounted to. The coffee was the same – not bad, but at 800 pesos ($1.60), and a very small amount of coffee at that, I’m not sure it was worth the money.

But the café itself is nice – I appreciated the spaciousness of the place, the glass walls, and the outdoor seating option.

Coffee Express is located on Prat and Balmaceda streets. Tel: 221-673. Hours: 9 a.m. - 9 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. on Saturday.

From here I went directly to Kokoro no Niwa, the Japanese garden at the southern part of Parque Pedro de Valdivia. I was glad the skies this morning were overcast, if only because Japanese gardens look better in subdued light, plus it made the air cooler, which is always a plus. I enjoyed the Japanese gardens quite a bit, perhaps because I had it all to myself at the beginning. However, it did occur to me as I walked around that the garden’s maintenance could have been a little better. The surface of one pond was half-covered with grass clippings, the park’s largest rock garden looked like it hadn’t been raked in weeks, and one of the streams was mostly, but not entirely, devoid of water. But I don’t mean to nitpick. Like I said, I enjoyed wandering through the park. The ducks, geese, and other birds there were pleasant to come across, the hydrangeas were bursting with color, and the red bridge in the middle of the park was a nice contrast to all the green everywhere. It’s a nice break from the city and a spot of tranquility where you’d least expect to find it.

Kokoro no Niwa is open from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and is located in the Parque Pedro de Valdivia. Tel: 217-013.

After this I continued my morning outing toward the ocean, which meant walking west down Avenida Francisco de Aguirre until it ended. I wanted to see the lighthouse that was only 2 km from where I was staying, and from there I would continue south another few km to have lunch. The walk to the lighthouse was interesting, as the area I passed through had an industrial feel to it. The lighthouse definitely looks better from a distance; from up close, it looked like a giant, toy castle that children might play in.

The doors to the lighthouse were all locked, so I couldn’t climb to the top, and because the base was crowded with some rather shady looking people, some of whom were pestering me for money, I decided to head on my way. Walking beside the beach I passed a couple of groups paying soccer, but mostly the wide, gray sands were empty.

It was obviously too cold for people to swim, though I did pass a few surfers running from the water to shore in wetsuits. In any case, I arrived much too early at the area where I wanted to eat, so I sat down and read and people-watched for an hour. Once one o’clock rolled around, I headed to a restaurant called Kardamomo, which was fronted with colorful paintings for sale and covered with bright pink bougainvillea.

It was a lovely spot, and I grabbed a table by a window in back, with a view of the beach and ocean.

I ordered the day’s set menu: tilapia in an herb-cream sauce with potatoes. It came with a cold avocado and cream soup, with a few asparagus heads thrown in for good measure, and a basket of bread smeared with a pizza-flavored sauce.

I was supposed to get dessert, too, but I actually turned it down. Imagine, me turning down dessert! In any case, the lunch was only 5500 pesos (~$11), and it was decent if not great. The location was fantastic, though, and the music selection was thoroughly and coolly “lounge.”

Restaurante Kardamomo is on Avenida del Mar 4000. Tel: 216-066. They open for lunch at 1 p.m. and close late after dinner.

After this I took a taxi back to town – it’s hard to believe that a ten-minute ride really costs $10 here, but what are you going to do when you can’t speak the language – and decided to top off my lunch with some caffeine at a hip little café (with wi-fi!) called Café Centenario, which is on the corner of Cordovez and Los Carrera.

I ordered a mokkachino for 1700 pesos (~$3.40) and hung out at my window seat for a while to read and watch the action in the plaza.

I took it easy for much of what remained of my day, but in the late afternoon I decided to explore La Serena’s market area. The market is called La Recova, and while it doesn’t have a great deal of “typical mercado products,” it’s certainly surrounded by plenty of shops selling meat, produce, beans, and various household items.

I wasn’t planning to have dinner here – I didn’t think anything would be open at 6 – but apparently the restaurants in the market are open all day. On the second floor I was lured into a restaurant called Restaurant Tres A. It had a long balcony with umbrellas to protect customers from the sun, and a view of a church and plaza (the construction below didn’t bother me).

The owners were the friendliest people I’ve met in Chile by far, and they gave me a free pisco sour before I’d even decided to order anything.

But I’m glad I did stay and order. They told me that the house specialty was a dish called congrio pirata, which is basically two grilled conger eel fillets set atop layers of oysters, crab, shrimp, chopped garlic and ají sauce, then covered with “rolled cheese” (queso laminada) and set in a white wine and cilantro sauce.

It was excellent. It was without a doubt the best conger eel I’ve had in Chile so far, but the unique combination of ingredients really won me over. And at only 7500 pesos ($14.94) it was really a pretty good deal -- especially with the free pisco sour, not to mention the free glass of mint liqueur they gave me at the end, too.

In addition, I ordered an ensalada surtida (mixed salad) and glass of red wine.

I was definitely a little tipsy afterward, but being tipsy only made the experience more fun. I highly recommend Restaurant Tres A for anyone who finds themselves hungry early or in the vicinity of La Recova. You can find Tres A on the second floor of Mercado La Recova, which is at the corner of Cienfuegos and Cantournet streets. Tres A can be seen from the plaza beside Iglesia San Agustín.

I returned to my hotel after this, only to find my room filled with long, flying insects whose wings fall off at the slightest physical contact. I have no idea where they came from, but I'm writing this from the hotel lobby. I hope they're gone when I go back, otherwise this may be a very long night -- especially with the seagulls getting ready for an early morning...

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