Tag Archives: Chile

Easter Island aka Rapa Nui

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known locally, is a peculiar place.

It is one of the most isolated places in the world; the nearest inhabited land is the tiny island of Pitcairn, around 2000km away. It is 4100km to the more populated, but still small island of Tahiti and 3700km to mainland Chile.

Locals call it “Te Pito o Te Henua” – the navel of the world. The English expression “the middle of nowhere” may be more apt, and certainly explains why the place feels strangely otherworldly.

Just to be clear, the people are not strange at all, but lovely and welcoming – here I am in the fresh flower garland given to everyone at airport arrivals.

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Behind me are the spectacular crashing waves we could see from our campsite. Mark became a bit addicted to taking pictures of waves (NB: the gnarly surf and paddleboard dudes are, sadly, not either of us)

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While Rapa Nui is officially part of Chile, it really belongs to Polynesia, a geographical area defined by an imaginary triangle between New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui itself. All of these places share common cultural traditions, such as similar traditional dances. We went along to a show one night. There were plenty of hunky men on stage…

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…and beautiful ladies…

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…and at one point, a scared looking Englishman…

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I cannot foresee a time when this photo will fail to crack me up.

Rapa Nui culture reached its peak between 800 AD -17th century, when the famous large basalt statues of anthropomorphous figures known as moai were constructed.

We got up before dawn one morning to see the moai at Ahu Tongariki gradually revealed by the rising sun.

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Perhaps more famous than the moai statues themselves is the mystery they represent; nobody knows exactly why or how they were made.

Saying that, it is widely accepted that the statues symbolise neither gods nor demons, but ancestors of the island’s different clans who really lived here.

The silent, watchful faces are not scary or menacing in the slightest despite their imposing size. They almost always face inland as if keeping a protective eye over the island’s inhabitants, as an elder would seek to look out for their young. Only one site of moai face the sea but they still watch over a village area.

These pictures were taken at Rano Raraku, the quarry site where the statues were prepared.

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The statues’ facial expressions are mild, solemn and placid – I felt an overwhelming sense of warmth and comfort when near them and couldn’t help but smile. Perhaps the joyful spirit exuded by the statues is the reason why we couldn’t resist trying a few jokey impressions…

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Other cultures commemorate their culture and ward off enemies with fierce, warlike imagery but the Rapa Nui way was to instil a sense of security via pride in the spirits of the island’s elders.

So the ancestral significance of the statues is agreed – the real enigma is the precise way that the moai statues were transported and erected. Experts debate theories involving levers, pulleys and sledges but no conclusions can be drawn.

Mark and I have no truck whatsoever with the belief some (crazy) people have that there must have been alien intervention. Puh-lease! If the monumental structures like Machu Picchu we visited earlier in our travels taught us anything, it’s that ancient peoples had ways of getting things done with manpower and hard graft that we modern softies just can’t comprehend. Anyway, like the tricks of a master conjurer, the puzzle adds to the powerful aura of the moai.

Although they vary considerably (after all, each moai echoes the characteristic features of a real person and the size relates to their clan’s perceived prestige), the average moai is 4m and 12.5 metric tons.

There are 887 moai in total, but only 288 are erected on an ahu (stone platform). 397 remain scattered around in various stages of completeness in the Rano Raraku quarry and 92 can be found outside of the quarry, forever en route to their ahu. The remainder are in fragments or part of museum collections.

The several moai that are in fragments were damaged largely as a result of the conflicts between different lineages (mainly over resources), which led to toppling of rival clans’ statues.

These conflicts from the 17th century also brought about the Tangata Manu or birdman rituals. Each year, men would compete to be the first to find the first egg of the season laid by the sooty tern aquatic bird. This was a tough challenge which involved swimming out through strong currents to the place where these birds nested, living in the wilderness for days and tracking birds before a final race back. The winner would be considered sacred for the next year.

Much of the artwork around the island shows symbols relating to the birdman rituals.

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We hiked up to the volcanic crater of Rano Kau to check out the ceremonial village of Orongo, through gorgeous fields of wildflowers.

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A friendly stray dog followed us all the way from town, waiting patiently while we puffed up steeper bits. We managed to hitch a lift in the back of a pickup truck on the way down and abandoned the poor pooch – he sprinted after the car as far as he could.

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The volcanic crater of Rano Kau:

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These are the rocks where the sooty terns lay their eggs, and where the contestants would swim as quickly as possible.

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Orongo, an important ceremonial village during the birdman rituals.

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Rapa Nui was very expensive: everything cost at least three times as much as on the mainland. We made do with meals cooked at our campsite, using provisions carried over from Santiago. One exception was the sublime ice cream from Mikafé, made with local island fruits such as goiaba, kiwi, coconut, sweet potato. The flavours changed each day so we made sure to make a daily visit!

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We happened to be in Rapa Nui during the annual marathon race. There were also half marathon, iron man and 10k races. Mark was briefly tempted to sign up for one of them but decided that running with zero training, dodgy shoes and in searing heat would not be a good idea (the marathon had to start after church, at 10.30am, so it continued during the hottest part of the day).

While we did the sensible thing of chilling with a beer near the crashing waves on race day, our new campsite pals Alistair and Kate not only ran, but both won their respective age categories.

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26.2 miles in the midday sun = madness. Told you this was a peculiar place!

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Valparaíso, Chile

When people we met travelling found out we were headed towards Chile, they almost always said “you have to go to Valparaíso”. As we wound our way around South America we heard many descriptions of the coastal city. Some people spoke of its quirky beauty and energy while others lamented its pollution, decrepitude and stray dogs.

Although some people struggle to see past these negative points, the overwhelming impression we pieced together about Valparaíso was that it was not to be missed.

After the good fortune of arriving in Santiago in time for the annual Dia del Patrimonio, our luck changed and the weather was miserable most of the time we were in Valpo. This picture over the bay is in black and white, but the skies were just as grey in reality.

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On this morning it was drizzly and overcast, but not bad enough to thwart our plans to visit Pablo Neruda’s house. Neruda was a Nobel prize winning poet who had a real zest for life; his house in Valparaíso is packed full of character and fun, from the fully equipped bar where he would entertain his friends and dare them to use the exposed loo to one side, to the collections of colourful artwork and curiosities such as an antique carousel horse.

Unfortunately they are very strict about taking pictures inside the house so our camera was locked away before we entered. But do go if you can!

The next day the rainstorm worsened, insistent on forcing keen visitors inside:

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For a while we took refuge in one of the city’s markets, where we warmed up and dried out over chupe, a thick seafood stew topped with bubbling cheese.

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As you would suspect for a port city like Valpo, the seafood is stunningly fresh.

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The city has many stray cats, some of which also found shelter under the market’s roof.

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Before long we admitted defeat to the rain and trudged back to our hostel, through the steep roads which had rapidly turned into gushing waterfalls and fast flowing rivers.

Thankfully the following morning the angry skies had subsided and for our last day, we had glorious sunshine. Valparaíso was transformed and it was easy to see why it was top of so many people’s travel experiences in Chile.

We joined the “Tours 4 Tips” group for a free walking tour around the city, led by people dressed in stripy “Where’s Wally” outfits.

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We explored the main port, still busy although much less so than the former glory years:

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We learned lots about Valparaíso’s chequered history – from the heights of a globally recognised port and a bustling city full of immigrants making their way up to California to seek their fortune during the Gold Rush, to its decline after the Panama Canal provided an alternative and more convenient point of access.

Some buildings were beautiful, while others were crumbling remains of once grand structures.

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While the larger port of San Antonio up the coast now claims the lion’s share of commercial port activity, Valparaíso has become an important centre of art and culture in Chile and worldwide.

The city is decorated with vibrant colours on virtually every surface.

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Knowing our time in South America was coming to an end, we made sure to get our last fix of empanadas…

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Valparaíso does have its problems and may not be for everyone, but we certainly wished we had more time to explore the hilly neighbourhoods and infamous bar scene, or even stick around long enough to find a bare wall to decorate with our own mural… maybe a design of umbrellas to commemorate our first visit!

Santiago, Chile

Often when travelling, you arrive in a new place to be told “it’s a shame you’re here now and not last week/next month for the best festival/parade/show/season”. So it’s rather pleasing when your stay somewhere serendipitously coincides with a special event.

Mark and I happened to be in Santiago during the annual Dia del Patrimonio, a day for Chileans to celebrate their country and show national pride. Here in the capital, many buildings which are usually kept private open their doors to the public for the special occasion, and all of the museums and galleries scrap their entry fees for the day. Score!

The city was festooned with traditional dancers in colourful dress, musicians, balloons and decorations.

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The Presidential Palace drew the biggest crowds but the queue of thousands of people snaking down several blocks scared us off. Rather than spend the whole day shuffling forward in the world’s longest line, we popped into the Museo Historico Nacional on the city’s main square for a dose of Chile’s history, the art gallery Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and finally the excellent Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Museo de La Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos) which examines the brutal events during Pinochet’s military regime, 1973-1990.

All this sightseeing and culture made us hungry, so we popped into the Mercado Central for a traditional lunch of paila marina, a tasty soup of super fresh mussels and fish in broth.

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This was actually our second time in Santiago; some weeks before we had just 24 hours in the city on the way from Patagonia to Mendoza. That time we discovered a couple of gems which we made sure to revisit, such as Bar Nacional.

If I lived in Santiago I would be a regular; it’s an honest, no frills place which feels like a proper “caff” of the kind which is becoming increasingly rare in London. Bar Nacional is a sound choice at any time of day – as well as fresh juices, coffee and hearty set menus, they have a fully stocked bar. This is a perfect place to enjoy Chilean classics like pastel de choclo and was our choice of venue to watch the Champions League final along with locals.

Emporio La Rosa has very good ice cream indeed, in many tempting flavours like raspberry & mint or bitter chocolate & orange or local honey.

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Mark and I almost fell out after he thought it would be funny to snatch my ice cream and run away down the street with it. He knows that a surefire way to push my buttons is to get between me and food. This stunt still makes him chuckle; I am not amused. As revenge, I am posting a picture of Mark’s attempt to grow a “travelling beard”:

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It was hot and sunny on our first visit to Santiago, so the views from the top of Cerro Santa Lucia were pretty good. Apparently the best time to climb up there is just after it has rained, as Santiago’s thick smog gets washed away and the Andes are more visible in the distance.

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For us, the peaks were just about visible. I was keen to return to ground level so I could forget about how much pollution we were breathing in!

A drink enjoyed all over Santiago and throughout Chile is mote con huesillos, a combination of cracked wheat or maize kern and dried peaches cooked in sugared, spiced water until plump and rehydrated. Quite a pleasant thing for a light breakfast or quick snack.

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Another stroke of luck was that our second visit to Santiago happened to coincide with the birthday of a new friend we had met months earlier in Buenos Aires. Toby is an Aussie living in Santiago and fittingly, he chose a proper pub serving fish & chips for his party. Many happy returns again Toby and thank you for showing us what a great, liveable city Santiago is!

Pastel de choclo: Chile’s best loved dish (recipe)

After completing the W trek we decided to treat ourselves to a stay in a cosy B&B, as a break from roughing it and a chance to rest and recuperate properly.

We chose Pire Mapu in Puerto Natales on the basis of excellent online reviews and had a lovely time. The hosts (Brendan is from Leeds and his wife Fabiana is from Puerto Natales) were very warm and welcoming. We soon got talking about food, cooking and Chilean cuisine. Fabiana kindly agreed to show me how to make a classic Chilean recipe, pastel de choclo, which we would then eat together for lunch on Easter Sunday.

Fabiana explained that since Chile is so long and extends through many lines of latitude, the cuisine varies greatly from tip to tip and between the coast and inland areas. Pastel de choclo, however, is adored throughout the country and is essentially the national dish.

It’s not unlike a cottage or shepherd’s pie, but with a topping of mashed sweetcorn (choclo) in place of potato. Also the filling combines chicken, minced beef, hard boiled eggs with softened onions, peppers, garlic (other versions often include raisins and olives although we omitted these). It’s as though every element of a typical farm is represented in each mouthful of pastel de choclo.

Although the components are very different, the end result is just as hearty, warming and comforting as the British classics – and as easy to prepare. It’s definitely a complete meal; no accompaniments are necessary, although we did use some of Fabiana’s homemade crusty bread to soak up the last of the juices in our clay bowls.

This is how Fabiana made it, on the beautiful antique AGA-style cooker which had been a wedding present to her parents, decades ago. I have added some thoughts about how I may tweak the recipe and method to account for UK ingredients, equipment and palate at the end.

Pastel de choclo – Fabiana from Pire Mapu’s recipe

(serves 4 – you can use four individual ovenproof dishes as we did, or put everything in one large dish and divide portions when you serve)

1 onion
1 red pepper
paprika
dried oregano
4 chicken thighs (skinned)
4 cloves garlic
200g minced beef
4 hard boiled eggs (peeled)
1 kg package of blended maize
200g sweetcorn kernels
sugar
salt and pepper

Dice onion and red pepper and crush 3 cloves of garlic. Soften in a little olive oil with 2tbsp each of paprika and oregano for a couple of minutes.

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Add the chicken thighs and cook for a further few minutes before adding enough cold water to reach just under the surface of the chicken. Season with salt and pepper, stick a lid on and leave to simmer gently.

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In a separate pan, prepare the minced beef in a similar way: crush the remaining clove of garlic, soften in oil with another tsp each of oregano & paprika. Add the minced beef, fry for a few minutes until brown, season and add a splash of water to create a tasty gravy. Leave to simmer gently.

Meanwhile prepare the topping: if using ready blended maize paste, drain off excess liquid in a sieve. Use a blender or food processor to pulse the sweetcorn kernels to a rough paste (let a few chunks remain). Combine with the drained maize – the texture should be like soft scrambled eggs. Put the mix in a clean pan to heat through on the stove, and add quite a bit of sugar – a couple of generous handfuls.

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By this point the chicken thighs should be tender and cooked through. Place one in the bottom of each individual ovenproof dish (or if using a big dish, one in each corner) and spoon over the red peppers, onions and juice from the pan.

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Sprinkle some minced beef around each chicken thigh. Tuck in a hard boiled egg – each person gets a whole one.

Cover with a thick layer of the sweetcorn topping, right to the edges. Dot with butter and sprinkle with more sugar to help brown.

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Put in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes or until the top is browned and the filling is piping hot.

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Serve!

Notes:

  • Fabiana says you can use your favourite spices; cumin is typical, or chilli powder if you like hot food. I think smoked paprika or chipotle chillies would work really well in this dish, particularly against the sweet topping.
  • I wondered about using poached eggs rather than hardboiled, so you have the joy of breaking into a runny yolk. Or even sous vide if you’ve got fancy kit!?
  • While I’m sure it could be tracked down in a specialist shop, I have never seen ready blended sweetcorn or maize in London. Fabiana is confident that making a paste from tinned sweetcorn kernels in a blender would work just as well. If the paste needs to be loosened, a little milk would be the best thing to add.
  • Chileans love very sweet food and I would use far less sugar than Fabiana did. Particularly as tinned sweetcorn in the UK is sweeter than the starchy Chilean maize anyhow. Also I want to experiment with brown sugar or even molasses, which would give a richer flavour than refined white sugar.

Trekking the “W” in Torres del Paine national park, Chilean Patagonia

This is what trekking food for five people, for five days looks like:

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Pretty dismal. But of course the trekking mentality is that food is simply fuel to get you to the most remote, wild and beautiful areas.

Torres del Paine national park is world famous; as well as the mountains, lakes, glaciers and streams which abound in Patagonia, there are the distinctive granite towers which inspired its name.

Extremely hardcore folk trek the full circuit (also known as the “Q”), which takes around nine days. As a born and raised city girl I suspected my love for nature would seriously wane after that long, plus Mark and I were conscious that we wanted to have as much time as possible in Peru and Ecuador.

So we settled for the more manageable, but still challenging, W trek, named after the shape of the route, plus a bit extra (which we dubbed the “Q tip”, geddit?). This trail navigates up and down out of the mountain valleys, via the park’s must-see attractions: Los Torres, Los Cuernos, Valle Frances, Paine Grande, and Glacier Grey.

We hooked up with an English couple we had met in El Calafate, Jack & Jenna and Derek, an American from San Francisco who had been travelling for five months already. We made a good team – the combination of Jack’s impressive supply of games, Jenna’s organisation and feminine solidarity, and Derek’s Spanish speaking skills was a winner. (I’m not sure what Mark and I brought to the group; Mark was an excellent packhorse and his melodic farts were an endless source of amusement. My role was pacesetter for steep uphills thanks to my geeky walking sticks or “power poles”)

The self-styled "Team Salami", named after the supersized sausage that was the cornerstone of every meal we prepared at camp.

The self-styled “Team Salami”, named after the supersized sausage that was the cornerstone of almost every meal we prepared at camp.

Our French pal Cyrille joined us for the first couple of days before peeling off to complete the full circuit on his own in search of spiritual discovery. (He had the world’s heaviest pack and a pair of self-whittled walking sticks; the rest of us joked that his discovery may be that actually, he hates camping and should have stayed home.)

We took in some amazing views:

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The glacial water was so fresh and delicious, you could literally lap it up like a dog:

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As a special end to our trip, we woke up in the early hours of the last day to start trekking in the dark, under a full moon and a canopy of stars. The goal was to arrive at the main Torres viewpoint before sunrise, after an hour long uphill slog.

We made it with enough time to spread out our roll mats and get comfortable with our sleeping bags and thermos flask, ready to watch the moon drop and the towers glow pink and orange as the morning sun came up.

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Totally worth the shockingly early start.

Of course, trekking isn’t all photogenic vistas, perfect weather and happy camping – there were some truly miserable moments which had me swearing never to put myself through this ordeal again. And swearing like a fishwife in general (sorry Mum). Over the five days we hiked over 100km (70 miles) and most days were at least eight hours of solid trekking. By the end, most of us had shattered muscles, knackered joints, bruises, scrapes, blisters, mosquito bites and numerous other painful niggles. And we stank.

Look at our hangdog expressions on the last day.

Look at our hangdog expressions on the last day.

Towards the end of the trek, the main thing keeping us going was thinking of the celebratory feast back in civilisation, with all the heavy, unnecessary treats we had to leave behind (and BOOZE!). Team Salami headed straight for a local brewery for pitchers of beer and this kilo of chips smothered in cheese, bacon and fried chicken – definitely deserved.

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Personally, I was hallucinating visions of fresh fruit, salad and veggies after nearly a week of cereal bars, dried noodles and salami. I very nearly climbed into this trough of apples in excitement.

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Perhaps this is easy to say from the comfort of a warm, cosy room, but having to walk miles through crazy weather magnified the beauty of the landscapes. Seeing the Torres light up at sunrise would not have been as special if we had been dropped off by a tour bus (obviously this isn’t possible anyway!). The sense of achievement after all that hard work made the whole experience more profound and utterly unforgettable.