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It's a looooong way down. Relatively few have made it. But, for those who've survived, it's worth the trip. Patagonia, Chile. Tierra del Fuego. Cape Horn. Places as legendary as they are distant. Barren and beautiful, sparse and bountiful, soulless as well as soulful...and home to a salsa that's as surprising as the sights are.
During the heyday of European exploration, the voyage from Europe to the Spice Islands of the Pacific was fraught with danger and, rounding treacherous Cabo del Hornos, it often meant death. Nowadays, this bottom tip of South America is becoming an off-beat tourist destination where, for foodies, the Chilean fiery salsa called pebre is almost to die for!
Where Ferdinand Magellan and, later, Charles Darwin braved sea-sickness, hostile natives, and no room service, today's travelers have comfortable shipboard suites, continental and South American cuisine, and even a free open bar on the Mare Australis. She's an "expedition ship" which means it's small (129 passengers), education-oriented, and with fewer amenities than a massive luxury liner but more than you might imagine. What she lacks is more than compensated for in her unique ability to take a visitor to exotic places where no other passenger vessels are permitted to go.
Using small, inflatable, rubber dinghies called Zodiacs, the competent crew members deposit adventure-minded visitors on the most foreign of shores. Once there, they can see spectacular glacial landscapes, literally thousands of cute penguins, bizarre two-ton sea elephants, and-unpredictable weather permitting- even set foot on Cape Horn itself. Perhaps the most unusual part of the experience is days of traveling narrow sea channels without seeing any signs of civilization. There are no buildings, no pipes or power lines, not even the glow of distant lights-nothing. It's simultaneously unnerving and reassuring that there is still a place on earth untouched by man. The cruise's accent is on nature, so there isn't much in the way of habitation at landfall. All that is there is el fin del mundo ("the end of the world").
Most visitors begin this voyage with a long series of flights which terminate at the Chilean port city of Punta Arenas ("Sandy Point"). It was here that I purchased a bottle of Ají, a chile pepper sauce that locals use as the base of their national homemade salsa: pebre. (If you can't find it in stores where you live, not to worry; the ingredients are so basic that almost any off-the-shelf brand of chile sauce will do. Ají-which actually means "chile"--is just red pepper, salt, vinegar and a few generic spices.
Punta Arenas is a departure point for many wishing to experience the region called Patagonia, and you're as apt to find determined German back-packers as you are to encounter hunters, fishermen, kayakers, bicyclists, and nature-loving photographers. The town supports this transient economy with museums, hotels, arts and crafts shops, a little nightlife and restaurants which serve everything from local cuisine to the weirdly alien--beaver, a type of llama called guanaco, and krill-the microscopic shellfish that is whale chow. For the less audacious, there's the more recognizable finned bounty of the seas, as well as the all-natural beef and lamb of the region.
Whether opting for the three, four or full seven-day cruise, the first night's dinner aboard the ship will consist of lobster and limitless amounts of fine Chilean wines, so it's recommended to go easy at on-shore lunch before boarding. For passengers, meals are the last link to civilization as they head ever southward on a classic route through the Straits of Magellan.
The first stop is a colony of elephant seals, and then there's there's a penguin rookery. Some of the ensuing hikes can be strenuous, aside from the inherent visual rewards, ship personnel greet trekkers at the end of the trudge with a choice of hot chocolate or a generous tumbler of Johnny Walker Red poured over 2,000 year-old glacial ice. Now that's aged scotch! As the cruise continues south toward the pole (Antarctica remains a mercator-deceptive 3,000 miles distant), icebergs and glaciers flank the ship, prompting one seasoned traveler to observe that the trip was "like a combination of Alaska and the Galapagos."
About four days into the voyage, we docked at Puerto Williams, which Chileans claim as the last outpost before arriving at the great frozen continent. The place is little more than a spartan military installation and an impoverished native village, making rival Argentina's claim of their Ushuaia being the southernmost "city" in the world the truth. Sightseeing in Puerto Williams is an intellectual exercise in ghost town visualization. With nothing much physically there, you're left to your imagination to appreciate the storied lives of long-dead natives, whalers, intrepid explorers and traders. But that's not hard to do. Even in summer (the seasons are reversed south of the equator), there's a quiet, cold breeze of palpable isolation. It was a hearty breed that ventured through the area in days of yore and, even now, one can sense that Tierra del Fuego remains a difficult place to live. For example, there is no cable TV.
After visiting Puerto Williams, Ushuaia is the "big city," with myriad shops, tour companies, various and sundry modern services. Terrific side trips are available in the town. A colorfully-recreated steam engine pulls the antiquey-looking cars of "el tren del fin del mundo" through the rugged countryside. Horseback rides are more physically challenging than would be legally-permissible stateside, while offering a more intimate view of the spectacular scenery.
Recently, Argentina's economy has been devastated. This is a boon for visitors whose purchasing power extends from clothing bargains to multi-course meals, which wind up costing only a few dollars. A group of us tried a local eatery named Moustacchio, where we thoroughly enjoyed a ten-course hot and cold buffet, followed by as much fresh barbecued lamb as you want. With two bottles of fine Carmener wine and tip, the tab was just five U.S. dollars each!
Ushuaia is also a jumping-off point; Russian cargo/passenger hybrid ships take off for Antarctica, planes and helicopters ferry folks to the back-country, and some people arrive with the express purpose of disappearing. That was the point of a former prison, now turned peculiar tourist attraction, which once held notorious criminals and political enemies. It is certainly one of the strangest museums I have ever visited. Life-size, full-color figures of often gruesome criminals are displayed in the cells which once housed them, right alongside histories of polar exploration and dry-as-dust railroad and postal exhibits.
A smaller museum in the town is dedicated to the Yamana Indians who once called the territory home. Up to this point, the shipboard lectures about them felt incomplete, engendering a strong suspicion of historical spin-doctoring. We had been told that the tribes were decimated from their contact with European diseases, and that even though the missionaries tried to save them, it was "too late." The museum offered a more complete picture. Sadly, it was the familiar tale of invading greater numbers, superiority technology, and genocide. The Indians had been tough (some of them went naked in arctic conditions) but they couldn't beat armies of Spanish, Dutch, French, and English. The Indian museum was small but detailed and so fascinating that I lost track of time. Had it not been for the generosity of friendly townsfolk who gave me a ride, I would have missed the boat.
That night the ship ran into the first and only spot of bad weather. Her old salt captain was not worried about the two meter swells (that's up and down for a total of about twelve feet!). But the seas sent unsecured items sliding and smashing in cabins all around ours helped me learn the favored curse words of the dozen languages spoken by my fellow passengers.
The following morning, the foul weather hadn't broken. Hardy souls (and fool-hardy photographers) tested their sea-legs by riding the waves in the observation lounge at the front of the ship where crests regularly broke over the bow and sprayed a window that was normally a good eighteen feet above the waterline. The captain finally expressed concern, not that we were in any danger, but that Cape Horn, one of the promised highlights of the entire cruise, would have to be bypassed.
Luckily, storm conditions subsided just in time. It was still too rough to circumnavigate the Cape but, on the leeward side, there was a small, rocky inlet where we could put ashore and sightsee.
Excitedly, we donned layers of insulated, cold-weather clothes, topped them off with ship-issued yellow rain slickers and capped the whole ensemble with a fashionable bright orange life vest. Then into the Zodiacs we scrambled and, after a short but bouncy ride, up 120 rickety wooden stairs to the crown of the island. Cape Horn is actually the end of the mighty Andes mountain range and the winds raging that day left no doubt about exactly which end we were visiting!
At the top, there's a lighthouse, a tiny church, and a modern sculpture of a stylized albatross commemorating the hundreds of ships and thousands of lives that were lost plying the surrounding perilous waters. (During the last decade, two modern tanker ships foundered there and were consumed by the sea.)
Maybe it was the mythos of that place or just the amount time that we had all spent in close quarters together, but, after that, the passengers seemed to bond. We shared stories, swapped photographs, and would have hosted rounds of drinks if they hadn't been already included in the ticket tariff. We wandered old Indian trails together, hiked virgin forests and rode Zodiacs up to the calving ice faces of towering glaciers.
The Mare Australis turned down the island-dotted Beagle Channel and traversed lunar-barren fjords, eventually depositing us at Magdalena Island where we welcomed by 120,000 Magellan penguins. Two crews of Italian videographers were aboard the ship and the one that was shooting a television nature documentary put on heavy-duty wetsuits to brave the freezing ocean, while getting up-close and personal with the aquatic birds. (Penguins spend an estimated ninety percent of their lives on and in the water.) While watching the Discovery, Nature and the Had Enough Animals Yet? Channels, I was always impressed with the intrepid perseverance of wildlife camerafolk. "Wow!" I'd think to myself, "How many months of bitter cold, rotten food, and loneliness did they have to endure just to get a few seconds of incredible pictures? That's what I used to think. Ľbut not after my visit to Magdalena Island. The nosy penguins made the job easy with their fearless "in your lens" curiosity. They're so close that you could snap a National Geographic cover with a cardboard K-mart disposable camera. No nature lover can visit the island and fail to come away satisfied. It was the perfect end to an amazing journey.
The good ship Mare Australis sailed back into the port at Punta Arenas. For some, the travel was over; but, for many others, it was just beginning. People had come a long way and didn't know if they'd ever get the opportunity to make such a trip again. So quite a few made the cruise part of a larger experience in the remote countryside. One couple took off for the Argentine side of Patagonia. Another headed north to Peru. There was even a man who planned to follow adventure with luxury, staying in top hotels and savoring local cuisine, while indulging in the fine vintages of Chile's famous wine regions.
My itinerary was Torre del Paine National Park, a preserve of stark beauty with jagged peaks bisected by frozen glacial rivers of ice, herds of guanacos, nandus (large ostrich-like birds also called rheas), foxes and, most nearly-extinct of all, the rarely-seen authentic cowboy. The "arrieros" were on a cattle drive from wintertime feeding grounds to the rich summer grasses of the high plains. Seeing them was like a trip back in time, for they lived in the saddle, camped off the land, and were paid about twelve dollars a month. They took good care of their bovine charges but were so hungry that they probably hoped for a death on the trail-just for the meat.
Torre del Paine park resembled a lot of natural beauty spots in the world: British Columbia, the Colorado Rockies, the Dolomites Ľall rolled into one. There are a few places to lodge inside the preserve and even a few good restaurants -of course with magnificent views. Best of all it had an untamed feeling; I didn't see any park rangers and there wasn't even a sign warning you to keep back from the unfenced edge of a thundering waterfall. It was all gorgeous, wild and dangerous.
Steady 80 mile-per-hour winds (with even more powerful gusts) pummeled visitors at the terminal moraine lake at the foot of the Grey Glacier. It was as if somebody had left the refrigerator door open to Antarctica and provided a pretty convincing argument that this was as close as I'd want to get to that icy blast zone of the planet. Yet the scenery was fantastic and a professional photographer, determined not to miss capturing it, attempted to steady his shot by uncomfortably hugging a boulder while sitting on cold, hard stones. Later, he was heard to comment that he'd "traded his tripod for an ass-pod." Even doing so, he had to shoot at a 600th of a second to avoid wind-blown blur. He agreed that sights were only part of the adventure, and equally important were the emotions that we all personally experienced and would forever savor.
Chile provided such vivid memories that the flights home seemed much, much shorter.
For general information about Patagonia: http://www.patagonia-chile.com/
For information on the Mare Australis expedition sailings: http://www.australis.com/
The Moustacchio Restaurant is at Avenida San Martin 298.
Chileans have this salsa in their homes for every meal and, why not? It can be used on everything but cornflakes! As prepared from this recipe, pebre commences with a nice side-cheek "glow," proceeds on with a back of the throat grab and climaxes with a tip o' the tongue tingle--all the while maintaining a tasty, lingering flavor.
Combine all the ingredients in a non-metallic bowl and let sit for at least an hour to blend the flavors.
Yield: About 1 ˝ cups
Heat Scale: Medium
These delicious sausages have a counterpart all over Latin America. The ingredients can vary widely; some recipes call for saltpeter, some use all pork, some include spices such as cloves and cinnamon, and still others prefer vinegar or wine. I have included this rather traditional recipe from Argentina utilizing the famed ají p-p, the "bad word" chile; for a substitute, use pure hot red chile powder, such as New Mexico Chimayó. In Argentina, these sausages are almost always included at an asado--a barbecue. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.
Coarsely grind the pork, round steak, bacon, salt, and garlic together a meat grinder or food processor. If you use a food processor, take care not to grind the meat too finely; you want the meat to have some texture.
Place the ground meats in a large ceramic bowl, add the remaining ingredients, mix thoroughly, cover, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Form the meat into patties and fry them in a skillet over a medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until no pink remains on the inside. Drain the patties on paper towels and serve hot.
Yield: 12 to 14 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
This delicious, spicy dish only needs a large green salad, sliced tomatoes, a baked potato, and a Chilean wine to create a feast. We have used lean, ground beef in this recipe, but coarsely ground chicken, rabbit, or pork could also be used.
In a heavy skillet, brown the meat, drain, and put it into a bowl. Add the oil to the skillet, and saute the onion, and add the chile, cumin, paprika, salt, pepper, and oregano; add the sauteed mixture to the meat and mix. Then pack the meat mixture into a shallow 3 to 4 quart overproof casserole, and arrange the olives over the top.
Put the corn in a blender with the milk, ˝ teaspoon of the sugar, and puree the corn. Heat the oil in a skillet, add the pureed corn, and simmer the corn, stirring, until the puree thickens. Pour this mixture over the meat mixture and sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon of sugar.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
Since Chile has a 2600-mile coastline, I would be remiss if I didn't include a fish recipe from that country. There is a minimum of grazing land in Chile, so instead of beef being the major source of protein, it is fish and shellfish. The wines of Chile are quite good, so be sure to include a nice chilled Chilean white wine when you serve this Chilean ceviche. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.
Cut the fillets into 1 inch pieces, place them in a ceramic bowl, cover with the fruit juices, and toss them lightly to coat.
Add the remaining ingredients and mix gently. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate overnight. Drain off some of the juice and arrange the fillets on lettuce leaves on 4 individual plates and garnish with the tomatoes and the cilantro.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
Many of the stews in Argentina are garnished with fresh fruit or even dried fruit. This spicy, creamed seafood dish is very elegant and makes a gorgeous presentation dish. Accompany the dish with a simple green salad and a chilled Argentine white wine.
Combine the rice, 3 tablespoons of butter, the saffron, salt, and the boiling chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. When the rice is tender, stir in the pimientos and the peas and keep the rice warm.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy saucepan and sprinkle in the flour and stir for 30 seconds until it is well blended with the butter, taking care not to burn the mixture. Add the milk, all at once, and the hot sauce, stirring constantly until the mixture starts to thicken. If the mixture is not smooth, beat it with a whisk. Then, remove the cream sauce from the heat and set aside.
Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a large pot, and add the onion, the garlic, and the bell pepper and saute for 3 minutes. Then, add the lobster, shrimp, and crabmeat and toss the mixture lightly. Add the cream sauce to the seafood mixture, and heat slowly, until the mixture is hot. Serve the creamed seafood over the cooked rice and garnish with the oranges, avocados, grapefruit, and the lime wedges.
Yield: 8 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
Story and Photos by Paul Ross
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