Our quest to discover authentic Chilean food specialties had us in Santiago for about 2 weeks. While this was not enough time to go as deep as we would have liked to, we did have the chance to observe and get a good understanding of the local food scene. We enjoyed the food, most notably the seafood at the farmers market. We tasted many exotic fruits that we discovered at the La Vega farmers market. We got to learn about the endemic Chilean cuisine with the top chef, Rodolfo Guzman, owner of Boragó restaurant.
In addition to the food, we got a chance to explore the city. We loved the green spaces in the city from the Parque Forestal to Santa Lucia, a small hill in the center of the city with incredible views of the city. One of our favorite activities was running up and down Cerro San Cristóbal, the second highest point in the city on the weekends when the streets were closed to cars.
Santiago has many “barrios” or neighborhoods and we got a chance to stroll and enjoy the local vibe in several funky and bohemian barrios including Bellavista, Brasil, Concha y Toro, Lastarria, Patronato, and more.
Santiago, the heart of Chile has a lot of offer. Like any urban city it is full of attractions, culture and events. We enjoyed ourselves much more than we expected and could easily have spent a couple of months there. If you are planning a trip to Santiago, be flexible. You may end up adding a few extra days or weeks 🙂
From Santiago, we chose to go to Valparaiso, which is by the Pacific Ocean in search of more local seafood specialties. Valparaiso is 1.5 hours north of Santiago and the second largest city in Chile. It is a historical city with unique architecture built on 45 steep hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2003. It is the principal port of Chile and used to be a major stopover for boats before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.
Now the city attracts artists poets, dreamers and offers unique architecture with its funicular railways, colorful buildings and panoramic views. The funicular railways link the steep hills with the Plan de Valparaiso, the flat part of the city. These railways also known as elevators and have been operating since the end of the 19th century. Taking one not only allow you to enjoy the views of the city, but also lessen the effort walking uphill for a modest CLP 100 pesos (approx. USD 0.14 cts).
The best way to discover the many interesting sites the city has to offer is by foot. We stopped by the old home of the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda’s at La Sebastiana. It is worth visiting the place that inspired many of his poems. Pablo Neruda had a strong interest in food and was inspired to write odes to the simple ingredients that makes Chilean food special – – such as bread, corn, seafood, potatoes, tomatoes and onions.
One of the best things about staying with locals is that we get to discover little known facts or points of interest. For instance, Manuel our Airbnb host encouraged us to visit Lukas museum to see how local cartoonist Renzo Pecchenino portrayed the porteños in a humoristic way.
The museum is located in Cerro Conceptión and we had the pleasure to appreciate the cartoons and caricatures (in Spanish) he had drawn. We particularly enjoyed how Lukas reflected the Chilean society with great humor. It is a nice break off the beaten path on your visit in Valparaiso!
The colors of Valparaiso
Valparaiso is vibrant and alive with street art. Walking around the city, you can’t help but notice all the different shapes and designs on buildings. It is wonderful to see all the beautiful and creative expressions everywhere.
Valparaiso Seafood At The Mercado Cardonal
We asked Manuel about trying Valparaiso seafood specialties and he suggested some restaurants on the hill as well as the farmers market. Seeking an authentic experience, we focused on the farmers market. We went to the Mercado Cardonal farmers market with the local bus, riding along Avenida de Brasil.
After buying our fruits and vegetables, we went up to the second floor of the market, which had all the restaurants. Be aware that once you get upstairs, you will be targeted by one of the many waitresses looking for customers. After joking with one of them, we decided to try her restaurant, La Granja Marisqueira, which also had many locals eating there.
We shared the Menu del Dia (menu of the day) which is often the freshest option. This was a lightly breaded Merluza (Hake) fish served with rice and salad. We also ordered one of the popular Chilean dishes – empanadas. In this case, we went with the seafood or empanadas de marisco to complete our seafood experience.
The food was prepared in a very simple manner. The merluza was lightly fried with salt and pepper. The empanada was fried though not overly greasy. Everything was very tasty and fresh. Rosemary liked the fish more than I did. While the fish was good, I find the texture of merluza a little bit soft for my liking. The seafood empanada was filled with mussels and white fish and was very good as well.
It’s a place to get a simple and enjoyable meal and one that we would recommend.
Valparaiso Seafood at Caleta Portales
To go deeper in our exploration of Valparaiso seafood, we were advised by Manuel to go to Caleta Portales. This is where the fishermen bring the fish into the city. Caleta Portales means “fishermen village or cove”. We took the local bus and made it just in time to see a few fish stands with the seafood that had been harvested that day. Here we saw the local specialty Reinata (pomfret) , Merluza (hake), Salmon, Jaiba (crab), Macha (clams) and Ostiones (scallops).
Our host Manuel had told us earlier that they were no more scallops due to a mini Tsunami that had taken place in Valparaiso earlier in August. Apparently this had damaged the natural environment of the fish and in particular the shell-fish. The warning here was to be aware that the scallops served in restaurants were most likely to be frozen.
After our tour of the market, we checked out the different restaurants along Caleta Portales beach. Here, waiters were waiting for us and using all their trick to get us into their restaurant. Be prepared to deal with this off-putting behavior.
After walking down the the row we decided to stop at El Timon where the waiter was the most calm. We were able to discuss their menu and specials. He convinced us when he threw in the pisco sour and ceviche to start 🙂
After choosing a table with view of the beach, we ordered the grilled Reinata and the empanada de macha con queso (empanada with clam fish and cheese). The Reinata came with fries and we also ordered the Chilean salad with our meal. The seafood was excellent! The Reinata tasted almost like a steak, very fresh with firm texture, the very kind I like! The empanada was good although the Macha was not very flavorful which might explain the need for cheese.
We left our late lunch very well satisfied with our seafood meal from Valparaiso. We walked back to our Cerro via the long promenade along the oceanfront. This is where to our surprise we stumbled on a group of sea lions sunbathing on one of the concrete pylons in the sea. This reminded us of San Francisco where the sea lions can be seen at Pier 39.
It was worth making the trip to Valparaiso and it is city we recommend that you visit on your trip to Chile. It is a funky city with unique architecture and colors. However, don’t expect a beautiful seafront, it is still very industrial and some areas are dirty and not well maintained. Take the time to get lost in the hills, enjoy the street art and experience the elevators and stairs… that is what makes Valparaiso unique!
Although you might expect great seafood in Valparaiso, be cautious about where you choose to have seafood. Depending on the time of year some seafood or fish might not always be fresh. The best places to see Valparaiso seafood is at the farmer’s market where you can see the fresh fish at the various stalls. Be sure to taste the popular and common seafood in Chile. Try the Merluza (hake), Reinata (pomfret), Congrio (cusk-eel), Sardigna (sardines) or Macha (shellfish) and you will not be disappointed.
To conclude, what better than an ode from Pablo Neruda of the Congrio eel (Oda al Caldillo de Congrio):
Ode to Conger Chowder – Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (Extraits of the first and last stanzas. See here for the full poem)
“In the storm-tossed Chilean sea lives the rosy conger, giant eel of snowy flesh.
And in Chilean stewpots, along the coast, was born the chowder thick, and succulent, a boon to man. You bring the Conger, skinned, to the kitchen (its mottled skin slips off like a glove, leaving the grape of the sea exposed to the world), naked, the tender eel glistens, prepared to serve our appetites…”