Where to stay
Casa Molle Luxurious boutique hotel in Vicuña with a spa, golf
course and excellent restaurant (breakfast in particular is exceptional).
Stargazing experiences available. Doubles from £898. Fundo la
Barrica s/n, Ell Molle, Vicuña, 00 569 4425 7739, casamollevilla.cl
Hotel Campanario Comfortable hotel with a pretty courtyard in
a prime location in La Serena, just moments from the beach and
nearby restaurants. Doubles from £85. Avenida del Mar 4600,
La Serena, 00 569 4235 7737, hotelescampanario.negocio.site
Hotel Limarí A low-key, tranquil hotel whose architectural design is inspired by the area's ancestral culture. The restaurant serves local specialities. Doubles from £79. Camino Sotaquí km 5, Ruta D-55, Ovalle, 00 56 53 2661 400, hotellimari.cl
Viñedos de Alcohuaz Winery with a beautiful guesthouse for hire via Airbnb. The high altitude is perfect for spotting stars. Guesthouse
from £78pp. D-45 Coquimbo, 00 569 9199 8877, vdalcohuaz.cl
Refugio Misterios del Elqui Cabin accommodation in the heart of Pisco Elqui, which makes a perfect jumping-off point for visiting wineries, pisco distilleries and stargazing. Doubles from £120. D-485 19580, Paihuao, 00 569 3711 7541, misteriosdelelqui.cl/entorno
The Coquimbo Region forms the narrowest part of Chile and is 400km north of the capital, Santiago. Currency is the Chilean peso (CLP) and time is three hours behind GMT. Flight time from London is around 18 hours. In December, the average high temperature is high is 21C.
LATAM Airlines flies from London Heathrow to La Serena's La Florida International Airport, with two stops. latam.com
Chile Travel is the official tourist board and its website is full of helpful information and inspiration for planning your trip. chile.travel
Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler (Abacus, £9.99) wittily documents Wheeler's adventures from Northern Chile down to Patagonia. While being an enjoyable read, detailed information on Chilean culture, history and geography is helpfully scattered throughout.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses, unless otherwise stated
Street Food Anticuchos Popular street-food stall selling anticuchos (chicken leg skewers), a variety of empanadas and deliciously spicy sausages with local cheese. Simple and extremely satisfying stuff. From £1 per skewer. Corner of Lautoro and Carlos Galleguillos, Punitaqui
Bakulic Part of a collection of family-owned restaurants on La Serena’s seafront, backing onto the pretty beach. Order from a menu of hearty, super-fresh seafood dishes with a European influence. From £55. Avenida del Mar 5700, La Serena, 00 565 1233 8020
Cabildo Abierto Restaurante Try traditional foods like cheese and
shrimp empanadas and cazveca, a beef or chicken stew with corn and potatoes at this family-run restaurant. From £25. Federico Alfonzo,
30km south of Ovalle in front of Barraza Church, 00 569 9425 5367
Canta Viento Bohemian restaurant in Ovalle Valley focusing on the ancestral foods of the Mapuche and Diaguite people. The restaurant does not open unless booked in advance by phone. From £16. Monterrey, Monte Patria, 00 569 998 789
El Durmiente Elquino Charming mountain restaurant serving foods
traditional to the Elqui Valley such as pork ribs, quinoa and local goat’s
cheese. From £34. D-485 20980, Paihuano, 00 568 906 2754
Entre Cordillera A ‘cocina solares’ in Villaseca where all food is
cooked inside solar ovens. Generous portions of homely comfort
cooking. From £25. Beagle 71, Villaseca, 00 569 9640 60096
Porota’s Seafood restaurant near the beach. Serves an excellent range of local seafood dishes, with top-notch crab cakes. From £55. Avenida del Mar 900, La Serena, 00 569 8289 4875
Tololo Beach Beautiful beachside restaurant serving fresh-off-the-boat local seafood in generous portions. The sea urchin and chocha (a local mollusc) are particularly good. From £60. Avenida del Mar 5200, La Serena, 00 565 1224 2656, tololo.cl
Food and Travel Review
Flying into Chile over the snowy Andes is a spectacular – if somewhat bumpy – experience. Bright light bounces off jagged peaks in an unforgettable visual feast which doubles as a preparatory lesson for the story yet to unfold on the ground. A story of an awesome, powerful and unforgiving landscape and the people whose very survival depends upon it.
The Andes sustain life in the Coquimbo Region, which lies at the narrowest part of Northern Chile. While water is frozen at altitude, the region is in the midst of a severe drought and the land is dusty and arid. North is the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world; the last time it rained here was in 2017, and its cacti were so shocked by the precipitation that they suddenly bloomed, shimmering into life with millions of pink, white and purple flowers.
La Serena is the Coquimbo Region’s capital, a tourist destination where the population doubles each summer as holiday makers flock to its 16km of coast. The second oldest town in Chile after Santiago, it’s a charming mixture of colonial and neocolonial architecture and leafy plazas. Notable landmarks include Iglesia de San Francisco – a church built in the early 1600s – and the famous red and white El Faro Lighthouse. Waters here swirl with a force called the Humboldt Current, which runs from Southern Chile to Northern Peru. Upswells pull plankton and other life from the deep Pacific, mixing them with warm tropical waters; the result is the richest marine ecosystem on the planet, with an abundance of fish and shellfish of which the locals take full advantage.
Anka Baculik is one of three Croatian immigrant siblings who own seafood restaurants along the main coastal road of La Serena. Having been encouraged into the kitchen by her mother, she opened Porota’s, a restaurant where steaming bowls of bisque-like soup come packed with shellfish including mussels the size of a baby’s fist. ‘We’re very lucky because the ingredients in Chile are outstanding’ she explains, gesturing out of the window behind her. ‘We have the ocean right there.’ Sole, sea bass, octopus and conger eel are all popular in these parts, but the real star of the menu is the crab cake, bursting with the meat of the southern king crab and especially good with pebre, a ubiquitous table salsa of chilli, onions, peppers and fresh herbs. The more unusual seafood dishes come with papaya – the fruit is so popular here that locals are nicknamed ‘papayeros’. Around the size of a small mango, this ‘mountain papaya’ is sweet, fragrant and less musky than its South East Asian counterparts.
Further along the strip, Maricio Peyreblanque flings open the doors of his restaurant Tololo Beach, which backs right onto the ocean. ‘You need to be friends with the sea,’ he explains, gesturing at the roof of the restaurant where three wooden waves represent the devastating tsunami in 2015 (the word Coquimbo translates as ‘calm waters’ – a cruel irony). His kitchen certainly knows how to make the most of the ocean’s riches: pots of briny sea urchin are served with parsley and onion salsa and homemade mayonnaise, ceviche is made with chocha (a local mollusc with the texture of white fish) and there is pastel de marisco, a rich comforting bake of fish, prawns and scallops under a crisp cheese topping.
The shellfish in particular is of exceptional quality, as a visit to Tongoy, 40km south of La Serena, reveals. We drive there on a dusty section of the Pan-American Highway, a network of roads that stretches, almost unbroken, an incredible 30,000km up to Alaska. The sun-baked terrain here is peppered with succulents while men in wide-brimmed hats navigate horses around cacti, silvery sprays of needles backlit by the sun, while vultures perch on fence posts, scanning the terrain for a meal.
ON THE WATER
A small fishing town and beach resort located on a small peninsula, Tongoy means ‘noisy place’ – a moniker which begins to makes sense as we arrive at a bustling fish market where fishermen shout and chop fish with heavy cleavers. Tongoy’s ‘Root of the Scallops Tour’ is led by captain Jean Sactate Muñoz. On his boat made from local cypress wood, we chug out across crystal clear water (the bay ranks number two in the world in terms of water quality). Muñoz explains how each fisherman has his own patch, each with many layered baskets of scallop nets underneath, called lanterns. He pulls one up to the boat with considerable effort, and we try the scallops fresh from the ocean, topped simply with lemon and orange juice and a sprinkle of sea salt harvested from the wetland nearby. They’re soft, sweet and as fresh as they possibly could be – the perfect sashimi. We polish off a tray of more than 20 between the three of us before a portable grill appears to cook some with cheese, red pepper and parsley. To wash them down is mote con huesillos, a refreshing traditional drink served at every table. It is made by soaking boiled wheat in cold water with dried peaches. It’s a lot nicer than it sounds, the natural sugars of the peach making a syrupy and fragrant drink with a toasty back note from the plumped wheat.
Back at the harbourside a fisherman called Javier is slicing pieces off a rock with a small, sharp knife to reveal a ‘sea squirt’ called piure, a local delicacy which resembles a red jelly sac and must be squelched from its hiding place with a slippery finger. He cuts a slice for us to try. It’s a tough sell, the kind of seafood that makes you think it was a brave person who first tried it, but the flavour is like oyster mixed with sea urchin and is sweet and briny at once. It is only found here, off the coast of South America. ‘Everything you see here is local,’ says Carlos, a fisherman who has been trading at the market for 17 years. He piles sliced piure and scallops into pots with a citrus dressing called ‘tiger’s milk’ to make ceviche, which is then sold to hungry shoppers with pots of pebre and merken, a smoky chilli spice mix, for garnishing.
VINES OF CHILE
The sea is at the heart of the culinary landscape of the Coquimbo Region but it’s also essential for one of Chile’s most important crops: grapes. At Tabalí winery, located in the Limarí Valley, a cool coastal climate and volcanic soils with limestone veins make for refreshing, mineral wines. It is just 12km from the coast where the sea breeze blows Camanchaca fog (a type of fog which does not produce rain) across limestone slopes. Best of the whites is the Talinay Sauvignon Blanc with familiar green apple and gooseberry flavours alongside bracing minerality. Of the reds, Talinay Syrah stands out, an intensely vibrant violet colour with classic flavours such as leather, tobacco and pepper.
Further into the mountains in the Elqui Valley is Alcohuaz winery, the highest altitude vineyard in Chile and the second highest in the world at 2,206m above sea level. Here the mountains are like leathery folds of elephant skin dotted with bristly scrub. It’s a truly extreme terroir. Syrah grows well here, too, thanks to the granite, high altitude and strong sunlight which means great natural acidity. The Andes, as ever, are truly life-giving – if water did not run from ancient glaciers inside, the vineyards would simply not survive.
‘The people here speak of the Andes in a reverential way, as if they have a supernatural force. There's talk of channelling this energy into the grapes as they're crushed in the traditional way‘
One hair-raising drive up to the top of the mountain and the air is clear, gusty and cold. As we pick our way carefully through the rocky terrain, the sound of Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go carries across the slopes from a tinny radio; it’s about as incongruous a match for this epic landscape as it’s possible to imagine. A leathery faced man beams out from the vines he‘s been tending, ‘the grapes like the music,’ he insists. Pedro Romero lives up here alone but for the wild horses, condors and his dogs Benji and Ringo. It’s a simple and isolated existence which he enjoys immensely. ‘It’s easier and more comfortable... and there is no phone signal so if I want to speak to my girlfriend, I need to walk to the other side of the mountain.’ He flashes a cheeky grin.
Joking aside, the people here tend to speak of the Andes in a reverential way, as if they have an almost supernatural force. There is talk of channeling this energy into the grapes as they are crushed in the traditional method in a stone pool room, using the winemakers’ feet. We taste the wines in a spectacular cave carved from the mountainside, its floor sparkling with chips of quartz. They range from the young, easy drinking RHU, a blend of syrah, garnacha and petit sirah to a bolder 100 per cent syrah called Tococo, named after a common local bird. It has a very fine balance of acidity, which winemaker Marcelo Retamal proclaims is ‘vertical in the mouth, like the mountains’.
Where there is wine in Chile, there is pisco – the national drink and main component, of course, of the Pisco Sour. At Pisco Chañaral de Carén – a small, traditional distillery in Monte Patria, this ‘brandy’ has been produced in the same way since 1987. Luis Orejo is the man in charge of production, using fire to heat a small copper still then ageing it for up to one year. He siphons tasters from the barrel and we compare the oaky vanilla flavours of the aged pisco against the piercing clarity of the unaged. It’s a very small operation in comparison to Pisqueria Capel in Pisco Elqui town, an 80-year-old cooperative of more than a thousand owners, many of whom still use traditional methods. Arturo Marin V is an elderly grower who still ‘drives the tractor, waters the plants, prunes’. He has no interest in changing, working the same tractor he used in 1958. ‘I don’t use irrigation, it’s all traditional like it was in the colonial times,’ but it is backbreaking work. ‘It is hard,’ he says. ‘At times it is a sacrifice, at times good, like everything in the countryside.’ The grapes thrive in extraordinarily tough weather conditions, as do the people who have learnt to channel them to such great effect. In the Villaseca region of Coquimbo, where leafless trees with extraordinary silver trunks line the road like twisted skeletons, the sun gets very strong. Some restaurants, such as Entre Cordillera, have harnessed this natural energy to cook food using solar ovens, which are glass-topped boxes with reflecting flaps. Bread or meat – yes, they eat meat in Coquimbo, too – is placed inside to cook long and slow. The most popular meat here is goat, often cooked in a rich sauce with onions and carrots, or barbecued whole in the asado style – rubbed with salt and lemon juice and basted with beer.
‘Bread or meat is placed inside solar ovens – glass-topped boxes with reflecting flaps – to cook long and slow. The most popular meat is goat, often cooked in a rich sauce with onions and carrots’
The goats’ milk is used to make cheese to serve with churrascas, a basic but satisfying pan-fried flatbread or stuffed inside sopaipillas (fried bread) or empanadas. Often, it’s baked into a sweet dessert called leche asada, akin to a crème caramel, only lighter. The Chileans love sweet, creamy dairy and at Canta Viento, a restaurant specialising in ancestral foods of the indigenous Mapuche and Diaguita people. Here, chef Jimena Basualto is reviving traditional recipes. A standout dish is the papaya with cheese ice cream and manjar, the Chilean version of dulce de leche. It’s a labour intensive milky caramel, taking four hours to prepare to her grandmother’s recipe, ‘I want to pass her recipes on to my own children,’ she explains, ‘and I am collecting recipes from grandmothers in neighbouring villages. These important traditions of our culture must not be lost.’ Will she preserve them in a book? She grins, ‘I would like to but we shall see. For now I just have my notebook.’
‘I want to pass on my grandmother’s recipes to my own children, and I am collecting recipes from grandmothers in neighbouring villages in my notebook. These important traditions of our culture must not be lost’
The people of Coquimbo Region are passionate about sharing these traditional flavours, working hard to make the best of a challenging and often brutal environment where ancient forces seem so close to the surface. Harnessing the energy of this powerful landscape takes a great deal of creativity and determination, but the results speak for themselves: world class food and wine that is just waiting to be discovered.
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