Corrugated City

Sunday 22 April 2007

The earth moved for me, baby...

After discovering that our house was a on its last legs, structurally speaking, the last thing we needed was an earthquake. However, Mother Earth-who's a bit of an old crone these days, constantly complaining about global warming and all that-had other ideas...

So, it was at 6.20am that we were woken up by a gentle shaking of the earth. Which slowly became a little less than gentle and then tailed off after about 25 seconds. It was only a 4.0 on the Richcter Scale though so not that strong. The epicentre, 50km up the coast in Papudo was a 5.0. Of course, here in Chile, anything under a 7.0 is not really considered an earthquake, merely a 'tremor'-if you think that the earthquake in Iran a couple of years ago that killed something like 80,000 people was only 5.5 on the scale, you'll get an idea of how used to these things Chileans, in general, are. That 5.5 would just be a 'temblor' here. Anyway, the old girl held up ok (more than can be said for the girlf's uncle who stayed the night and ran around like a headless chicken) but we should probably get on with the structural stuff asap.

Yesterday at 1pm there was a proper earthquake. It occurred in Aisen, in Chilean Patagonia and measured a big, fat 8.0 on the Richcter Scale (**now being reported variously as anything between 6.2 and 7.3, still pretty big but not as big as first reported). It caused a mini-tsunami, roads to split in two and there are 10-20 people missing at the moment....

Saturday 21 April 2007

Le Filou de Montpellier

As i mentioned in a previous post, i was waiting for a chance to get to the French restaurant around the corner from us-Le Filou de Montpellier. It's another favourite place of mine (i spend most of my lunch money in mastodonte, allegretto or here). The restaurant is a bit of a Valpo institution, in that it's been around longer than most of the restaurants on Cerros Alegre and Concepcion. It also serves some of the finest food you'll eat in Chile. The French owners who wait tables and watch over the kitchen are friendly, welcoming in their french way and know their stuff.

Run by real Frenchies who serve up real French food (not French food with the typical south american chef's 'twist' or 'toque del autor'). We've never been in the evening when the dining is a la carte, we always go for the lunch menu. The menu consists of 3 courses of invariably delicious food for 3500-4500 pesos/us$7/9. Drinks are extra, 800 pesos for a soft drink which is pretty standard for restaurants in Chile. Anyway, the menu changes daily: this time we had a starter of cous-cous with Parma ham, a main of beef strips, parsely mashed potato, slimy mushrooms (i'm not a mushroom man unless they play with my mind) and onions in an oporto sauce and a dessert of chocolate and orange crepe-all excellent. On other occasions we've had really good fish dishes and the typically French boeuf bourgignon, which was perfectly cooked.

Reservations for the evening (only friday and saturday night) are essential and recommended for lunch any day of the week as well, particularly if there are more than two of you.

Le Filou de Montpellier is on the corner of Almte Montt and Urriola just around the corner from the Iglesia Anglicana, Cerro Alegre/Concepcion. Phone 32-224663. Highly recommended.

**UPDATE: since writing this review we've been for dinner in the evenings quite a few times...and we haven't been disappointed once. Well, maybe once-the girlf had steak one time and it was tough and chewy (but we're used to Argentine steak so comparisons are a little unfair- and the glass of house red wine was a bit iffy). But if you order the beouf bourgignon or conejo a la mostaza (rabbit), or any of the fish dishes then you'll be a very happy camper. And the desserts are really good, especially the chocolate ones. Bon appetit...


So the builders did a bit of work today. The idea was to uncover part of the original structure of the house to see what condition the beams and supports are in and to see how much damage the bastard termites had done. Turns out quite a lot. Our original renovation project has just doubled in size. We expected bad news but it's worse. The bastards have eaten quite a fair portion of the beams that are holding up a 3 story, 140 year old house.

We found this original wallpaper from probably over 100 years ago hidden under layers and layers of newer paper and dirt:

Unfortunately, Valparaiso is infested with the little fcukers and at a conservative guess i'd say that 90% of the houses on Cerros Alegre and Concepcion (ie the part designated UNESCO World Heritage Site) are in as bad or much worse condition than ours. The problem is that although construction is very cheap by english standards, it's still expensive by Chilean standards and most house owners simply can't afford to repair the damage. The other problem is that the last major earthquake in Chile was 1985, an earthquake that brought down houses and sent coffins from the cemetary sliding down the hills like sledges. The termite plague arrived after 1985 so you can only imagine the carnage that will be caused by the next big one. And big ones come every 20-30 years in Chile, so it's on its way.

Now you might be wondering why the hell we would have bought a death trap sited directly above one of the world's most active faultlines. This is why-click on the photo and you'll see we have views of not just the Pacific but the Andes in the same frame, the house facing north east. On good days we can see Aconcagua and possibly in the distance...New Zealand?

So what's to be done? In our case, we're going to basically build and entire new metal structure to replace the original wooden one. This involves stripping the house nude-leaving just the wood on show- taking out all the original adobe/mud. Once the structure's in place we can get on with the original project we had in mind-namely, turn an old Victorian house into something new and livable whilst maintaining the original style and mood. We've done it before so we know what we're in for: 6-9 months of fun and frolics. Oh, and stress, almost certainly tears (from the girlf-i'm a boy and boys don't cry), depression, arguments and possibly murder. But at the end: smiles all around. I'll keep you updated as things progress.

Thursday 19 April 2007

Samsara Thai Restaurant

The builders aren't going to start breaking my house today. That joy will have to wait 'til Saturday. In the meantime, i've got another restaurant review for you lucky people.

We went to Samsara after a comment was left the other day mentioning Thai food and i got the urge to eat some. There's one just around the corner from us that i'd noticed a few times so i thought we should give it a go. The restaurant is in a beautifully restored house on Alte Montt 427, Cerro Alegre. However, I should have known something was up when i saw that they'd left a couple of the wooden supports in their 'original' state (ie before renovations, covered in crap and dirty). This kind of bollocks that says to me that the owner and/or the designer is up his own arse and just wants to show off about how nice the rest of it looks. 'Oh look at that old beam, what a wonderful job we did.' I don't like that kind of thing. If you're going to do something well, finish the bloody job, don't leave a couple of pieces of wood looking like shite. Just my opinion.

Anyway, unfortunately my stomach was playing up a bit so i couldn't order the Green Curry, which i use to benchmark every Thai restaurant i go to so i had to try something else. Perusing the menu, i realised that we're a bit spoilt for Thai food in England and pretty much any other 'western' country. Thai food is cheap and usually well prepared. Here, it's expensive (in local terms). The deal at Samsara is that you get a main course, salad and pudding for between 9000 and 14000 pesos (us$18-28). That's a fair bit of wedge for Chile, particularly if you don't like the puddings on offer. Anyway, I chose the stir fried beef in sweet chili sauce and the girlf had some sort of coconot milk soup with a prawn (yes, one) and a couple of bits of chicken. for dessert, we both had the chocolate cake which was really rather nice. Light and fluffy.

Now i have to say that the food was actually quite good but it didn't really resemble any kind of thai food i've eaten in: Thailand, London, Paris or Sydney. It didn't even resemble the Thai food i ate in Knowle, that well known gastonomic hell..sorry, centre...down the road from Solihull. And if you're going to spend the extra money to go and eat 'exotic' food, you want to eat something that bears at least a vague resemblance to what it's supposed to.

We arrived at 9pm to eat and there were a couple of people already there. Our food was served reasonably quickly and the waitresses were doing a fine job. That was until 10pm when the place started to fill up. And when i say fill up, i mean that there were a whole 25 people there-the place is small. However, the waitresses (4 of them) couldn't cope. Not only that but the kitchen was a disaster. A couple sat next to us at 10pm and their food arrived at 10.50, just as we were leaving. That's 50 minutes waiting with only a couple of dry biscuits to keep you company. We'd have left at 10.30 had it not taken over 15 minutes for the bill to arrive. Shoddy work.

Anyway, i wouldn't recommend this restaurant due to the fact that the service is so slow and because the food served isn't Thai (something I insist on in a Thai restaurant). I doubt i'll be going back to try my green curry. If you still fancy it, the website is here:

Wednesday 18 April 2007

Not much to report

Been a bit busy the last couple of days so i haven't had much time to blog. We're having central heating put into the bottom apartment part of our house at the moment and the two floors above are going to get a good hammering tomorrow. You'll see what i mean when i post pictures in the evening of the house and of me. Weeping. And so starts another major renovation job...not sure why we do it as it's a bit of a nightmare to do and organise. And all those building terms and names of materials i spent a year learning in Argentina?-almost all completely different in Chile. Durlock=Volcanita, cinta metrica=wincha...just 2 of the many terms that make the builders here to look at me as if i were talking in English...

At least we've got confirmation that our belongings have finally left buenos aires and we'll have a proper bed to sleep in on sunday. Maybe...

Saturday 14 April 2007

Una ganga...2 restaurant reviews in 1: Mastodonte and Allegretto

I haven't really mentioned 'downtown' Valparaiso up to this point. There's a reason: 'El Plan' as it's called (due to the fact that it's flat while most of the city is built into the hills) is a complete nightmare. For those that know Buenos Aires, think el Microcentro around Reconquista and San Martin. At 5.30pm. But all day long. The Plan isn't really very big-at least the part where most people work ie Plaza Sotomayor to Plaza Victoria-but it's just a couple of narrow streets, one going in one direction the the other going, well, the other way. Along these two clogged streets run 498,789 bus an hour, 2 million and 4 cars. And the electrified Trole buses which frequently break down, making the 2 lanes that are already a bit tight into one exceedingly narrow path for everyone.

So i generally try to avoid El Plan, preferring the village like tranquillity of Cerro Concepcion. Which is actually just 3 minutes walk from the raging hell of downtown. When i am forced to venture down, i try to make it around lunch time as we found a little while ago the best and cheapest restaurant around. It serves my favourite chilean dish of oven baked chicken, rice and tomato salad for the princely sum of 1350 pesos. Or around us$2.30. Not only that, but the decor is absolutely brilliant. So if you're unlucky enough to find yourself downtown on a weekday (on weekends there's no traffic and you can walk around and admire the fantastic architecture-post coming soon-at your leisure), make sure you stop off for lunch at El Mastodonte. Not sure of the exact address but it's on Esmeralda just before Plaza Anibal Pinto (where you'll find the Riquet until it closes down shortly). You can't miss it, it's got a giant Woolly Mammoth head outside.

My second restaurant review is of one of my favourite places to eat, Allegretto Pizza, which produces some of the better pizzas i've had outside of Italy. The owners are an English-Chilean couple. Proper thin crusts, quality ingredients and huge: One between 2 is more than enough. The basic model is about 4000 pesos and then you add a couple of toppings. We tend to go for Parma ham, fresh tomatoes and sometimes prawns and we've not had a bad experience in the place (except when one of us decided to try to gnocci which was not the best idea, stick to pizza). The bill for 2 people with a pint of locally brewed Cerveza del Puerto is around 10,000 pesos or us$20 and is a bit of a bargain.

We went to Allegretto a couple of nights ago with a friend, it's probably the 6th or 7th time in the last 3-4 months and as i mentioned, we've not had a bad experience, nor have we seen any of the other customers have one. Except this time, when a couple of middle-aged french women sat at the table next to us. They proceeded to bitch and whine about everything; the table was wonky, the glass was smudged, the plate was dirty (both changed with the minimum of fuss), the pizza took too long to arrive and then when it did it wasn't very nice. This despite the fact that they polished off the entire thing, including pretty much every single crumb. They then paid and left a derisory tip. It's a shame the world's not perfect like France, eh? I don't know why they even bothered to leave the land of liberté, egalité, fraternité when everthing that´s not french isn´t worth contemplating.

Not that all frenchies are alike, of fact we've got a fantastic french restaurant run by nice, friendly, real french folk that'll be reviewed next time i'm feeling a bit peckish around lunchtime.

Allegretto is on Pilcomayo, opposite the Iglesia Anglicana on Cerro Concepcion.

Wednesday 11 April 2007

Nee-naw nee-naw, nee-naw. A bit of history.

When thinking about the foreign influence in Valparaiso during the 19th century, it’s easy to just have a look around the city and see it everywhere. It was the British who really helped drive the city forward as it was the British who were most involved in commerce in Chile for over 100 years. Chile, during much of the 1800s was, to all intents and purposes, a de facto colony. We may not have conquered it by force (although we did fire the odd warning shot in the 18th century) but Chile was almost entirely dependent on Britain economically.

It was Thomas North, the Nitrate King, who pretty much ran the country due to his financial strength. North’s going to get a whole post to himself some day soon, but suffice to say that he built the entire railroad system north of Santiago and poured millions of pounds into the development of Chilean infrastructure over the period of about 30-40 years. He’s a controversial figure and almost completely forgotten in Chile due to the fact that he was a an out and out capitalist and most of the profits he made were taken out of Chile and given to his shareholders and to himself. This obviously didn’t really sit well with a lot of Chileans who would have preferred for the money to stay in Chile. He's also quite controversial as he's been frequently cited as a cause of the war between Chile and Peru which saw Chile expand its territory by over a third and North become the most powerful man in Chile due to the fact he laid claim to pretty much the entire conquered territory and then proceeded to mine it to within an inch of its life.

The British built much of Valparaiso: most of the funicular lifts still bear the stamps of British iron-works, the most upmarket Hill (Cerro Alegre) is full of Victorian mansions and used to be called Mount Pleasant (Alegre means ‘happy’). Cerro Concepcion (essentially part of Cerro Alegre) has the Iglesia Anglicana which has not a word written in Spanish inside and which has a monster organ donated by Queen Vic herself. Cerro Concepcion also has the Paseo Atkinson and Calle Templeman. There are so many examples of the British influence in Valparaiso and it's going to get a full on posting soon so I can’t be bothered to talk any more about it right now. Just take a look at the photos and the newspaper adverts.

However, it’d be wrong to suggest that the British were entirely responsible for making Valparaiso one of the most important cities in South America. The city was the most important port in South America and, as such, was home an enormous mix of nationalities. Germans were influential in the forming of the city. Cerro Concepcion was the German enclave as well as the British one (we got on rather well in the old days; not surprising as our entire Royal Family is descended from the penalty shoot-out kings). The Iglesia Luterana is just around the corner from the Anglicana.

There were also large numbers of Italians, French and Americans doing business and living in Valpo. Eastern Europeans also played a part in the develpment of Valparaiso along with the original inhabitants of Spanish descent already living in the city when the immigrants started to arrive in large number. I think the best way to demonstrate this is by looking at the modern day Fire Department.

There are 15 ‘Companies’. Let’s take a quick look at each one. If the words bore you, you can at least have a look at the cool insignia that each Company has.


This was the first fire corp and was set up by a mix of British and American volunteers in June of 1851. It attended its first fire a week after its inception. Its first Captain was a Mr R Heathly.


Also founded in June of 1851, this was obviously the German Fire station. It’s first Captain was Herr Otto Uhde.


Founded in October 1854 this company was named after its two main benefactors and two of the richest men in Chile. Edwards and Cousino are still big names here.


Founded by the Spanish residents in Valpo in January 1865, this company was also known as La Espanola. First captain was Sr Pedro Billa


Founded in June 1856 by the French residents its first Captain was M Jean Duprat


This was the Italian fire house and was founded in January 1856. Its first Captain Antonio Gotelli died in active service in 1862.


Founded in August 1893 by another group of Spaniards and whose first Captain was Don Enrique Campusano.


This company was another French one but differed from the Fifth because the volunteers considered themselves Franco-Chilean and not just French. It was founded in June 1856 and its first captain was Antonio Duprat who I assume was related to the first Captain of the Fifth.

Founded in January 1858 by a group of native citizens. First Captain-Domingo Montalva


Founded in June 1851 and with a first Captain Sr. Josué Waddington. I can’t find any info s to why it’s now called the ‘Chileno-Arabe’ Company although my guess is that it’s due to the fact that Chile houses the largest Palestinian population outside of the Middle-East.


Founded on the 13th September 1901 this is another British Company and named after the founder of the Valparaiso Fire Company. Its first headquarters was the Iglesia Anglicana on Cerro Concepcion. It’s first Captain was Mr John Keil.

I'm not sure about the French, Spanish or Italian fire stations, but both the British and the German ones have fire-trucks donated by their 'home' countries. There's a 20 year old British fire-truck in the 11th station and two German trucks in the 2nd. It's good to see they're keeping the history alive.

The 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th Fire Companies are all more recent arrivals, from the mid-60s on, so I’m ignoring them.

So that just goes to show what a melting pot Valpo was back in the day. What's great is that after so long being ignored, Valparaiso is again receiving a significant amount of foreign immigration. The tourist and culinary industries are booming and they're being helped along by jonny foreigner. Brilliant.

Tuesday 10 April 2007

Lord Cochrane, man of steel

Lord Cochrane: Hard as Nails

Most people in the world haven’t heard of Scotland. Those that have mostly think it’s a small province in the north of England. And they’re pretty much correct. I mean, why would anyone have heard of Scotland? Ask yourself: What have the Scottish ever done for us?

If you’re Chilean, however, you might have reason to be thankful to the wind-swept land of the gingers for it was, if you can believe it, a Scotsman who played a mighty hand in liberating Chile from the dastardly Spanish.

Lord Cochrane is almost as famous in Valpo as Arthur Prat and quite rightly so. Valparaiso is a huge shrine to his achievements with a Lord Thomas Cochrane musuem, a large part of the Naval Museum dedicated to him, a street named after him and a large statue and obelisk in one of the squares. I haven't got around to going to any of them yet (except the street), which is a little shameful, but i'll hopefully get there in the next week or two. Anyway, in my humble opinion, Cochrane should be up there with Nelson (another slayer of the Spanish) as one of the greatest naval warriors of all time. Being English, i only know of British naval warriors (actually, my pre-20th century history is remarkably poor so Nelson's really the only one i know from any country); let me know if there's anyone else who should be considered.

So how has Cochrane won me over? I mean, he has a number of usually fatal flaws:

1. He’s Scottish
2. He had ginger hair
3. Do I need more?

(I should probably point out now that my old man's a ginge and my cousins are Scottish. What a family, eh?)

However, the guy on whom both Captain Hornblower and Jack Aubrey (think Russell Crowe in ‘Master and Commander’) were based was a different kind of man. By the end of his life he was revered not just in Chile but also in Brazil, Peru and Greece. That’s some going for a man who made political enemies out of pretty much everyone higher-ranked than him.

Cochrane came from an aristocratic Scottish family that had fallen on hard times, mainly due to his father’s decision to give up a career that was going nowhere in both the Army and the Navy (but paid the bills) in order to become an inventor. His main invention was actually rather good- a way of water proofing wooden ships- but he failed to realise that the ship-wrights were in cahoots with the Navy and it wasn’t economically convenient to the rich families to have boats stay afloat longer than their natural life. Cochrane noted this corruption and railed against it during his entire Royal Navy and political career in Britain. For this reason, the Navy kept giving him rubbish ships to sail and sending him on far-flung missions where he was unlikely to see any action and therefore not earn any prize money.

Despite this, in just over 6 years he became famous throughout Britain for his daring recklessness that saw him single-handedly board a pirate ship, sink a Spanish frigate with 7 times the firepower and “In 1805, he captured so many Spanish treasure ships that his personal share of the prize money was £75,000”.****

However, during this period he feuded so much with his superiors that he made high-ranking enemies for life.

Due to his popularity, Cochrane decided to stand as an MP in Devon. He lost his first attempt dismally and the election ended in a mass brawl. Next time around he managed to trick the voters into believing he would pay them more than his opponent for votes and he won (such blatant vote buying was common at the time.) He didn’t pay them a penny but he had his foot in the political door.

To stop him attending parliament, Cochrane was sent off to war again. And again he managed to sink a load of enemy ships (French this time) in more risky but exciting battles and become even more popular with the public at home. Next election, he stood for Westminster, whose constituents were very partial to his anti-corruption politics. Westminster was also the most famous constituency in Britain and in the media-eye. Once elected, Cochrane sailed off to sink a few more Frenchies.

4 years later he was implicated in a City scandal that saw him jailed. It’s more than likely he was the victim of a set-up. But, never one to lead a quiet life, he escaped from his cell using the age-old method of tying a load of sheets together. He then returned to Parliament after his loyal followers paid off his fines: Cochrane was bankrupt and in desperate need of cash.

Luckily for him, a group of ‘Chileans’ sent by Bernard O’Higgins in London made him an offer: to take charge of the newly formed navy of that wannabe country. Chile was in the throws of its second attempt to kick the Spanish out. The first lasted not very long. Spanish ships stalked the Chilean coastline which made it nigh on impossible for Chile to really declare itself ‘independent’. It needed someone to oversee the navy and slap some Spanish arse and Cochrane was ideal.

His plan, notionally backed by O’Higgins was this:

• Stop off at Santa Helena and have a chat with Napoleon
• Offer Napoleon the chance to become ‘King’ of the entire continent of South America
• Liberate Chile and the rest of South America
• Put Napoleon on his throne
• Earn enough money to buy the moon
• Blow raspberries in the general direction of his tormentors in the Royal Navy and Parliament

Cochrane described Napoleon as ‘the greatest man in the Tide of Time’. A bit of a fan, I reckon.

Unfortunately, there was news of a Spanish attack on Santiago and there was no time to waste; Cochrane travelled directly to Chile and his plan with Napoleon came to nothing.

Cochrane’s early months in Chile were as frustrating as his time with the Royal Navy. He quickly made enemies of the other British mercenaries working in Chile. He was not given the supplies or the manpower he craved and his early battles in the north of the country didn’t really come to much. He did, however, learn that taunting the Spanish even without doing them any damage would make him a popular man. He arrived back in Valparaiso with his reputation as a hot-headed (remember he was a ginger) hero intact.

He did, however, need some real success to justify his existence. He started to look south. Valdivia was one of the most impregnable fortress towns in the world. It was the head-quarters of the Spanish colony in Chile and unless it fell, Chile would never have a chance as an independent nation. This obviously didn’t stop our hero. After a couple of initial fact-finding sorties, he worked out a plan to capture the city.

Valdivia is up a rather long estuary. All along the estuary the Spanish had built huge forts and the entire river was basically a death-zone. Cochrane captured the city in a matter of hours by tricking the first fort into believing it was under attack from a huge an unbeatable army. It triggered a chain reaction along the river with each fort surrendering in quick succession. It must have been slightly annoying to find out that they’d just surrendered to a couple of hundred of severely under-equipped Chileans.

Cochrane took the most important Spanish base in Chile for the loss of two, yes two, of his own men and paved the way for the liberation of the entire country. It’s O’Higgins who gets the plaudits for leading the country to independence but it was our fun-loving Scotsman who did the dirty work.

He returned to Valparaiso expecting a hero’s welcome. He got it, in part. However, he also got hassle from San Martin, the Argentine liberator who was helping O’Higgins beat the Spanish, due to conflicting political ambitions. He also didn’t receive the monetary rewards he was expecting for liberating a country and started quarrelling with pretty much everyone. Again.

So, instead of living in Chile as supreme ruler of the newly liberated country as had been his original plan, he accepted an offer from Brazil to lead their navy against the imperial forces of Portugal. He then went up to Peru and helped San Martin spank the Spanish. He returned to Chile to live on his vast estate in Quintero before an earthquake practically flattened it and then sailed off to Brazil in 1823 to liberate that country. He kept in contact with the new Chilean administration only in order to demand further payment for his heroics, something he finally received over 20 years later.

Cochrane died in 1858 having been forgiven by the British Establishment and the Royal Navy. In his 81 years, he had fought the Spanish (3 times), the French, the Portuguese and the Turks and come out on top every time. That’s really not bad going.

It’s for this reason that I reckon he’s a ginger Scotsman that’s worth his weight in gold. However, outside of Chile, he’s not really famous and that’s an injustice that will probably never be righted.

****quote taken from the brilliant book Pinochet in Piccadilly by Andrew Beckett from which i nicked a fair bit more info for this post

Monday 9 April 2007

Fragata Esmeralda

So this post is a kind of comparative post to one on Robert's Buenos Aires Blog Here in Chile, the navy also has a training ship, called the Esmeralda, and new officers go on a one year around the world trip. It's quite a nice way to end your training i should imagine. Sailors get a big send off and a warm welcome back. I'm not sure if this is just a South American thing or whether it's common in navies around the world. In Britain and the US, new officers are sent to their deaths or prison camp in Iraq (and sometimes, 'accidently', Iran) or Afganistan. Which would you prefer; a couple of weeks in an Iranian jail or a one year sojourn aboard a giant yacht?

(I haven't bothered to double-check my 'facts' about the Esmeralda; i just accepted what the girlf said, which is always a risky business so if anyone wants to chime in and add to the story, please feel free).

UPDATE: I've just found out that the Esmeralda was the boat captained by national uber-hero, Arturo Prat , who did one of two things, depending on your point of view: He either died a hero during the War of the Pacific , choosing a glorious death when confronted by the Peruvian iron battle ship the Huascar; or some kind of nutter who not only got himself killed but most of his crew who would have most probably preferred a swift getaway to certain death. Every town in Chile has a street named after A Prat. Actually, in recoleta cemetary in Buenos Aires there's a tomb to an A Prat which i imagine is simply coincidence, but there may be a family connection (Arturo's remains are here in Valpo). I'll try to find out

The 30 minute boat trip around the harbour is well worth it. Cost is 1000 pesos ($2) per person or you can hire your own private boat for 10,000 pesos which is a far more pleasant way of doing things. You get half an hour around the harbour and it's probably the closest you can get anywhere to a fully operational port. The views back to the city are spectacular and the close up views of the dry dock are quite impressive as well. You also get a view of another pack of lazy Chilean sea-lions who commandeer the fishing boats when they're not in use.

The Esmeralda (the 'Sociber' in the background is the outside of the Spanish owned-hence Sociedad Iberica-dry dock)

Views to Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion

Lazy sea-lions

Dry dock-to get an idea of the size, the ship being worked on is about the same size as an average cruise-liner

Sunday 8 April 2007

Cafe Vinilo

So today, we were wandering aimlessly around Cerros Alegre and Concepcion so we could get a bit of exercise and take advantage of the last days of sunshine before winter kicks in and we came across this place Cafe Vinilo or Cafe Vinilo Blog We'd been past it dozens of times and it always looked quite a cool place but we'd never been in. The set lunch menu outside for $5500 ($10) lured us in and we were more than a little pleasantly surprised by the decor, food, atmosphere and service.

The menu was a starter of chicken soup, main of sesame seed coated salmon with stir-fried veggies and risotto and a dessert of some kind of banana thing which wasn't very nice (imagine banana flavour chewing gum) but had a tasty sauce with it.

Cool place, really decent food and well worth a visit if you're in the neighbourhood. It's at Alte Montt 448, Cerro Alegre.

Here are some photos.

Bistro Cuisine & Vins

This is going to be a pretty short review as we drank a fair few with the meal and i can't remember everything in the detail i'd like to but...

We went to this place Cuisine & Vins last Friday night. It's at Papudo 419 on Cerro Concepcion, opposite the newly opened Hotel Gervasoni. I'd read a few reviews about it and they were all pretty positive so i thought we'd give it a go. We weren't disappointed. The restaurant is nicely kitted out, the service was excellent (despite a shaky start-i made the waitress a little nervous after she made a small mistake and it turned out it was her first night on the job. When i found that out i tried to make things a bit easier for her and it worked, she was great the rest of the night), the wine was excellent-we had a Santa Ema cabernet sauvignon Reserva-and the food...exquisito...and to top it all off, the bill was on someone else.

Between the 4 of us we had the wild boar, 2 salmons and the duck and it was all pretty damn tasty although the duck was a tad dry. With all the booze and the food we could only manage to share a pudding of fresh strawberries and cream which was obviously delicious as it's hard to go wrong with such simplicity.

It's not the cheapest place around with an average main course costing around 9000 pesos ($18) but i'd definitely say it's worth it. We had a chat with the chef who told us that all the beef is Argentine which is a major plus as it's the best mass produced beef on the planet (you can get decent Chilean beef but it's rare and even the best local beef isn't a match for an average Argentine steak). This restaurant is also the first place i've seen in South America that serves Wagyu Beef also, apparently, from Argentina. It's exceedingly expensive by South American dining terms at 25000 pesos ($50) a pop but if it's cooked well probably worth it. In England, it'd be at least double the price.

Would i go back? Most certainly. But i'd also probably wait until someone else was picking up the bill again...and then maybe make them pay for the Wagyu beef...

Wednesday 4 April 2007

Elqui Valley

This should have gone up before the post about the South but i, er, forgot that we went North a couple of weeks before heading South...

Anyway, we went up to the Valle del Elqui because our house was being fumigated against the termites eating it inside out. Valparaiso is, unfortunately, almost completely infested with the little structure munching bastards, the climate being quite termite friendly and the fact that 90% of the city is made out of wood is a bit of a come-on as well. So for the week we had to leave the noxious chemicals do their work we decided to go for a short trip. We had to take the cats with us as they might well have died had we left them in the house. Well, they would have died. There are no decent catteries in the area that we found unfortunately so we had to take them. They're pretty used to travelling around now but i don't think they like it too much.

So we had to basically drive straight up without stopping, a mere 7 and a half hours. It's supposed to be quite a pretty drive, passing some spectacular coastline was cloudy the entire way. And cloudy the entire way back as well. Very boring.

We went straight to a cabana complex just outside of Paihuano which was pretty decent. Paihuano doesn't offer anything really but it's a good base to see the other villages in the valley. Montegrande is the next one along and is where Gabriela Mistral was born and lived most of her life. Mistral is one of Chile's Nobel winning poets (the other being, of course, Pablo Neruda). The village is pretty much a shrine to the child-abusing, Catholic extremist lesbian (in the Rough Guide she's described as such, but possibly not in those words) and since i believe poetry to be the most tedious of all art forms and the girlf not being particularly interested either, we skipped the museum and grave and took the side road to Cochiguaz and down into the Valley. Cochiguaz is where a bunch of hippies moved to after deciding the the Age of Aquarius had shifted from the Himilayas to the Valle del Elqui sometime in the 60s. No, i don't understand either, but if anyone does: please explain. It's a very pretty area but i didn't see any UFOs or other signs of strange hippy weird happenings but maybe i just missed it all due to my cynicism. Maybe only the truly open-minded see all that crap.

There's not actually all that much to do anywhere in the Valley, it's more about looking at the scenery and getting drunk on the Pisco which is distilled in the area. All of Chile's pisco grapes (moscatel) are grown in the valley and there are all the major companies happily distilling them into various different piscos. Oddly enough, however, Pisco is more expensive in the off-licence (botilleria) right next door to one of the distilleries than it is the El Tit in Pucon. Maybe someone can explain that to me as well...

Pisco grapes. Pretty.

The next town along, Pisco Elqui was originally named La Union until a nationalist mayor decided to re-name it so as to further boost Chile's claim that it invented the alcoholic drink, Pisco. Peru and Chile have been involved in a long, long running feud as to who invented it (and who has the best sea-food, and where the hell the border should be amongst other things) and since Peru has a city called Pisco, the mayor thought it only appropriate that Chile should have one as well. Pisco Elqui is probably the nicest of the 3 and the best equipped. It's got the best restaurants, best hotels and best infrastructure. It also has a really nice square to chill out in. Because it can get hot. It only actually rains a few times a year. The valley receives around 300 days of sunshine a year, which is more than England gets in a decade i reckon. A few kms up the dirt track from Pisco Elqui is Horcon, a heavily marketed 'Pueblo Artesanal'. This always translates to me as a) Tourist trap and b) bag of shite. Horcon is not really an exception although it has been recently purpose built and designed quite well. It's still full of spiritual new age nonsense and there was even some idiot playing the frigging didgeridoo. I hate the didgeridoo and firmly believe that any non-Australian aboriginal playing one should have it shoved right up where the sun will never shine. So we left pretty sharpish after eating 2 of the worst empanadas i've had anywhere on this continent. We were served 8.

Pisco Soured

One day we decided to drive to the Argentine border, for no other reason than we were a little bored. The drive is pretty nice as it turned out and once we got to Chilean customs we decided to follow the signs to one of the mines in the area. The scenery was spectacular with the mountains changing colour at every corner. We finally arrived at the mine at around 4000m altitude and despite there being a sprinkler system on and the mine looking all new and shiny there was no one home so we had to turn back. We picked up a local hitching a lift to Vicuna 2-3 hours drive away (luckily for him we were going just there) who told us the mine is currently abandoned and the reason why the river running down the mountain looked such a beautiful colour (although in the photo it looks a kind of sick-yellow for some reason) was because it was poisoned with arsenic. Well, if poisoning the world with arsenic turns everything that colour, i say we should start pumping it out in the air and injecting it into the ground.

Abandoned mine, views from the road

The day after we headed to La Serena for the day. The city centre is a masterpiece. A mayor early in the 1900s decided he wanted the city to look like a proper colonial city and as such all buildings had to be built in that style. The result is brilliant. Shame i forgot to take any photos. We then headed down to the beach which is huge and pretty cool with the mountains in the background. There's also a view of Coquimbo, La Serena's upstart brother along the coast and where the 'Monument to the 3rd Millenium' appears to be constantly giving La Serena the finger. Nice.

On the way back to our cabin i was stopped by the police for speeding and ended up with a 25000 peso fine (us$50). Bastards. Normally when i'm stopped by the police in south america i do one of 2 things. Give them money (as in ecuador and argentina) or speak bad spanish and say how much i love the country and its people (Chile-the police here are honest and unbribable, sadly. And, obviously, happily for the lack of corruption is one thing that makes Chile unique in Latin America). Unfortunately, i was with the girlf who is Chilean so there was no pretending not to speak spanish and i was also travelling with my expired passport so i thought it best just to own up and take it on the chin. Still, it was pretty unfair; Chilean police have green uniforms and this bastard was hiding in the hedge on a bend. That's just not cricket. It's funny; every country i've ever driven in i've been stopped by the police for speeding or some other minor infringement but i've never been stopped or been caught speeding in England. I guess i just know the rules of engagement a bit better over there...

Beach at La Serena and Coquimbo giving its neighbour the finger

So, all in all, La Serena and EL Valle del Elqui get a rating of 5 thumbs up, missing out on the 6th due to the actions of the nasty police in the area lightening my wallet of 25 quid.