The Young Man and the Sea
Puerto Montt, Chile’s last call for ships heading around Cape Horn to Argentina and beyond. Tucked up into a deep, protected bay, this port town has been an incredibly viable refueling station for boats heading around South America. Now, the town’s aqualture industry is exploding, mainly in salmon. There are dozens of hatcheries, canneries and processing plants along the industrial shore of this Patagonian port, each involved in some part of the process to catch a lot of fish and send it somewhere else. It’s not pretty, but Puerto Montt’s grittier personality was a refreshing switch from the tourist trap circuit.
I woke up to a gray, drizzly morning, the kind of weather friends and family back home in Seattle have been bitching about for the last 4 months. The cynical side of my accepted it as typical weather for the day I planned to spend walking about Puerto Montt’s historic Angelmo district, trying to find the best plate of seafood available. But, the rain and salty air felt a bit homey and I struck out in good spirits.
Angelmo is the city’s older seafront district, which basically translates to ‘gift shop center’. When I got there, around 11 in the morning, most shops were closed, not yet open to the tourist masses that must congregate here at some point in the day. Those that were open were extremely typical; each one selling items identical to the shop next to it, making everything seem ordinary and undesirable. Puerto Montt inscribed stocking caps, key rings, coffee mugs and necklaces, all fluttering in the early afternoon wind, all guarded over by the same middle aged women, all uninteresting, and all not selling.
At the end of the gift shop gauntlet was a series of buildings, many with second levels connected to each other by catwalks and to the ground by a series of suspiciously rundown staircases. On the bottom floors were the fish monger stalls, where the day’s catch was cleaned and sold either to the public, or to the dozens of restaurants occupying the second floor. The parking lot was nearly empty, but the mosaic of broken clam and mussels shells alluded to a flurry of shellfish activity.
I had come at an awkward time. Most of the fisherman had not yet returned with the morning’s catch and restaurant owners were busy wiping down tables, anxiously awaiting the day’s products. I chose to wait until something more exciting happened, passing the time reading by the water. I found it hard to read, not because reading is difficult, but because I was constantly distracted by a new boat coming in, a sea lion coming up for air, or a cormorant surfacing after a surprisingly long dive for the little fish that flocked around the sea wall.
Eventually, enough boats had returned and the smells of cooking drifted down to where I was sitting. Though still not terribly hungry, I was excited to eat and decided to have lunch. When I returned to the maze of restaurants, it was a whole new experience. Though the men had finished bringing in their own catch, it was now their female counterparts, the owners of the restaurants who were casting their nets. At each closet sized establishment, I was accosted by women asking me if I wanted to eat. It was like walking through a gauntlet of concerned mothers. “You want to eat? Look at you, you’re skin and bones! Come on inside, it’s nice and warm”.
I chose the place that had the most people in it. In most cases, the locals know where the best food is served, and I trusted them. I ordered the curanto because the lady suggested it and I had heard from others that it was the most famous dish in Puerto Montt, served by nearly every restaurant, but perfected by only a handful. I knew it was some combination of meat and seafood, but wasn’t really sure about the details. It started off innocent enough, with a small basket of bread, a tiny pisco sour, the national cocktail of Chile, some fresh salsa and a cold beer. By the time the curanto arrived, I was nearly full, but it didn’t matter. Even if I had starved myself for days, I could not have mustered the appetite necessary to overcome the aquatic genocide presented to me.
On a serving platter that you might normally reserve for Thanksgiving turkeys was a mountain of food. Mussels, clams and unidentified fish made up the girth of the plate, but there was also about half a chicken, a very large piece of ham, a full sausage, two potatoes and a few slices of incredibly dense fried bread. Speaking in relative terms, I believe the cook considered the chicken leg to be garnish.
I didn’t even say thank you when the waitress brought it out. I merely groaned and put my head in my hands.
The next 45 minutes were filled with a sick pleasure only possible with eating too much good food. It was hot, it was fresh, and the atmosphere was perfect. My seat right next to the window, looking out onto the boats which had undoubtedly brought in the very mussels I was now enjoying, only an hour or so before.
In pain, but extremely satisfied, I crawled back to the city center to kill the few hours I had before my bus left. An immense, shiny building near the waterfront peaked my interest, so I decided to investigate. It turned out to be a mall and I soon became lost inside. At least there were some familiar sites; a McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut took their place alongside their domestic competition. I was disappointed to see that the KFC did not offer the irrefutably American “Double Down” sandwich, but was pleased to find that Chilean McDonald’s renamed the Big n’Tasty to the McNifica, which I think we can all agree, is a much better name. Eventually, I found my way out of the mall and back to the bus station on time. I rolled out at 7 o’clock for an overnight to Valparaiso and the proper coast of Chile.