In Ode to Valparaiso – Pablo Neruda writes about Valparaiso’s perennial chaos and ugliness, that stood through time and the thousands of ships that passed by for centuries. This port city with small colorful houses lining up the hills – looks as disorderly today as it has been for ages. After the opening of the Panama canal in early 20th century – Valparaiso as a port, slipped away in its stature, and as the customary halt for ships going from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But as Neruda says, the colorful houses and street art and a few functioning fulniculars remind us of the heydays gone by. Charles Darwin in his diaries note several insects linked to this city during his voyage in the Beagle, which ultimately influenced his Origin of Species. Today, the Chilean Naval HQ and the constant flow of students – ensure its perpetual relevance and youth. I stopped by Valapariso on my way back from a visit to a power plant nearby. Yes, I am fortunate to visit such places in a “day’s work”. In the few hours I had – I tried to soak in this place as much as I possibly could. As a former gateway to the south and to the new world, the port is still vibrant with lines of dock equipment and ships hemming the shoreline.
In this maiden visit to Latin America, I was politely corrected early on – that I should not use America as the byword for the US. Deep rooted nationalistic sentiment is pervasive and people here, and rightfully so, will remind those not mindful enough, that “they” in the southern hemisphere are Americans too. And indeed, there is character, culture, and diversity that is worth giving its dues. It is more than just their shared love for life and football. Here in Chile it is of course – Colo colo vs. Universidad de Chile ( the club has nothing to do with the Uni any more) that runs the football fever and occupies people’s mindshare. Santiago, compared to Valparaiso may lack in character – or perhaps the modern urban plague has hit hard to unify and harmonize the look and feel, such that parts of the manicured Las Condes and Providencia, resemble Polanco in Mexico City or even Gurgaon in India – gated communities and large multi apartment complexes punctuated by lovely villas. Chile (and it shows in Santiago), is a developed and economically progressive place compared to most of Latam. The Chicago boys had a hand in it to set it up in the 70s, and even today the business community is very bullish about this place. It is a controversial topic no doubt but that’s a topic for another day.
The old city with its fish and vegetable markets still retain the dirt, smell, and the feel of the developing world – of chaos but also of freshness, where everything is still organic, and markets are synonymous to conversations and meeting platforms. The old city also has a plaza or a city square built in European style filled with locals, hawkers, and chess players. The square is surrounded by a worn down old church and commercial buildings, such as the old stock exchange that are remnants from the Spanish colonial times. Many of these are being brought down to make way for new shopping malls and other outfits. Progress has its own ways to plough through history.
In my travels to such foreign lands, food is a big part of my exploration. Through food, I believe one can tell quite a bit about a society. It was obvious, rather quickly, that there was nothing unique about traditional Chilean cuisine. The ceviche is ubiquitous but it is mostly made in Peruvian style. Chile’s relations with its neighbors, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia have been strained in the past, and this is not just political — people are sentimental about it, although the more educated and worldly, express it with a grain of self-deprecating wit. But Chile unlike many other countries is not stuck in the past but is constantly re-inventing itself. People do not mind being called a copycat of the US as long as it is symbolic of moving forward in prosperity. Such pragmatism is noteworthy. With its market-based economy, it is in much better position compared to the once developed Argentina, or the corruption laden Brazil. I know I digressed. So, finally, desperate to find local Chilean food, I ended up in Borago, which is rated in the world’s top 50 restaurants. (Not to rub it – but I guess Peru has three restaurants in the top 50). Chef Rodolfo Gunzman is creative and tried his best to bring indigenous ingredients – mostly local Chilean items that grew in the rocks to prepare several exotic courses bringing out flavors that are quite distinctive. Pictures are below:
In the recent years, Chilean wine has become quite popular. After France, Italy, and Spain, Chile ranks fourth in global exports. The topography with mountains along the coast and another range running along the Argentine border creates a microclimate that supports the reds of Maipu and the whites of Casablanca valley. I took the wine tasting tour as part of the standard city tour but it was deeply underwhelming compared to those in France, Tuscany or even the commercial Napa. But if one can get a private tour to a place like Concha y Toro, it can well be a very memorable experience.
In large cities, I try my best to go off the mainstream, to find the sub-cultures that reside in parallel worlds. I was happy to connect with a photographer who does freelance for BBC these days and was connected once to our common ground – the ICP in New York. We went to some of parts of the rough Bohemian area, which has a bursting street art scene. Lots of paid commission along with the usual tagging and graffiti.
It was interesting to find that there are quite a few British expats here, including my photographer friend. Some say that it is the sea that brought them; others believe that given the animosity between Chile and Argentina – the Falklands dispute resulted in some friendly overtures. Clouts against a common enemy. I ran into a small group of English expats – in Wonderland cafe in the Belavista area. Most of them worked for the BBC South American news service and knew my photographer friend. They were dressed in tropical coats and Panama hats, with tanned faces coated with days of sweat – an image out of the Raj brought to life. Life for foreign correspondents is a feast or famine business and it was obvious that they were enjoying now, given that the wildfires that consumed the news have gone for a while. It is now time for afternoon tea in a languid, lazy Sunday — filled with hearty laughs with your lady friends.
My stay, in contrast, was a rather busy workweek, looking for a couple of days over the weekend to sneak out to Buenos Aires. It turned out to be very different city from Santiago. Will write about that soon. Meanwhile – here are the pictures from Santiago and Valparaiso.