I know this is on the food page and I should be telling you about what I ate on my trip to Chile (a lot of fish, if you must know, not surprising in a country with 2,600 miles of coastline). But you’ll have to forgive me if this column is more of a travelogue. The food on the trip was great, but the places I went were far more a feast for the eyes. I just have to talk about them.
Torres del Paine park in Patagonia was windy, wild and wet, with snow-capped rocky crags; waterfalls, rapids and turquoise ponds fed by melting glaciers, and salt ponds populated by flocks of flamingos; herds of guanacos (wild llamas) grazing by the side of the road; and wooded trails. It exceeded its reputation as a stunning, nearly pristine wilderness area, though humans have taken their toll — a huge swath of the national park may never recover from a massive 2011 fire started by a careless camper that took out thousands of acres of 200-year-old, very slow-growing trees. But even the burned-out areas were spookily beautiful.
The snow-capped mountains of the park loomed in sharp contrast to the flatter, wind-swept, grassy pampas outside the park and surrounding our lakefront lodgings. On our way to visit the turquoise-colored glacier, the toothlike “towers” (the jagged peaks of Torres del Paine) played peek-a-boo through the morning mist. I thought it was the most spectacular, mind-blowing landscape I had ever seen.
Until we got to Atacama the next week, which topped it.
The Andes keep Chile dry, pushing most precipitation to Argentina on the east. This is compounded in the north of the country by a second, coastal mountain range that also blocks rain from the Pacific, creating the Atacama Desert.
According to the map, the desert is 1,200 miles north of Patagonia, close to Bolivia in the Andean high plains. But I think maybe it is on another planet.
We flew there on a perfectly normal airplane, but when we arrived, I had to check to make sure it wasn’t actually a rocket ship. The land was so empty, desolate and dramatic, I halfway believed we had landed on Mars. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the rover coming toward us over the dunes.
Atacama is one of the driest places on earth, but water is what has made it extraordinary—the raging rivers that must have rushed through the landscape in the far distant past. The evidence is all around in the stunning canyons and valleys carved from the rock.
One canyon, aptly named Valley of the Moon, was a geology lesson. From the canyon rim, we gazed down at a wide expanse of bumps, ridges and rock walls lined with horizontal bands revealing the sedimentary rock that was once the floor of an ancient sea, before the massive plate movement — perhaps as much as 30 million years ago — that uplifted the Andes to their current towering heights.
A sandy expanse at the bottom of the largest chasm showed that erosion processes are continuing– and was also evidence that climate change is affecting the region. Two weeks before we got there, the area had received torrential rains (by Atacama standards). It rained for three days, and land that gets an average of 15 mm a year received that much in an hour, resulting in disastrous flash floods.
We heard tales from our guides and saw the sad results in washed out roads and damaged houses. But the freak storm also made our visit more special, as we got to see the desert at its greenest, with snow on the usually bare Andes peaks to the east. On our hikes, the white dusting on the canyon rocks also looked like snow, but was actually salt that had been drawn to the surface by the rains. The vast salt plain, another alien feature of the landscape, was unusually white for the same reason, with new mineral clusters on its bumpy surface.
It was like no place I have ever been. A landscape out of a science fiction novel. And it wasn’t just the daytime sights that were out of this world. Every night, we could see the Milky Way in all its glory in the crystal-clear desert air.
We weren’t the only ones looking up. There was a major international observatory just a few kilometers away from our lodge, with massive radio telescopes aimed at the sky. If it hadn’t been bristling with security, I would have tried to stop by. I was hoping to find a NASA rep to chat with.
They’re spending billions planning to send a handful of humans to Mars, and I wanted to point out that it’s a waste of taxpayer money.
A few round-trip tickets to Chile would suffice.
I’d love to keep reminiscing, but this is on the food page after all, so I guess I should stop and give you a recipe.
After we reboarded our rocket and returned to Santiago, we also did some city tourist stuff, including participating in a fun cooking class.
The first recipe we made was Pisco Sours, which means my recollection of the rest of the class is a bit fuzzy, but I do remember we finished our meal with this easy coconut flan. Since it is free of flour and leavening, with Passover starting on Friday, it would make a good Seder dessert.
For the caramel syrup:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
For the flan:
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
2 cups whole milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1/2 cup fresh shredded coconut
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Make the caramel by cooking the sugar and water together over medium-high heat until the water has evaporated and the caramel starts to turn golden brown. If you are using a candy thermometer, it should turn color around 340 degrees. (Watch it carefully once the water starts to go away and don’t let it overcook, as the temperature will rise rapidly.)
Pour the caramel into the flan mold or molds to make a thin layer on the bottom. I used 8 individual ramekins, or you can make one large flan in a souffle dish.
While the caramel is cooling, make the flan mixture by beating the condensed milk, whole milk, eggs, vanilla and coconut together until well mixed.
Pour the mixture on top of the cooled and hardened caramel.
Prepare a bain marie by laying a dish towel in the bottom of a large baking pan. Place the flan mold on top and then carefully pour boiling water around it to come halfway up the sides of the pan.
Bake until the mixture is firm — 50 to 60 minutes for a large mold, slightly less for multiple smaller ones.
When it is done, be careful in removing it from the oven so you don’t splash the water onto the flan or burn yourself. Let the flan cool to room temperature, or refrigerate it if you prefer it cold. Serve by running a sharp knife around the edge of the mold and then inverting it onto a plate. The flan should slide right out, and the caramel will pour over it, making you look like a baking genius.