Weekend in Tongoy, Chile – Vamos a la Playa!

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A bathtub of pisco, a truckload of animal parts for the grill, and Cumbia or Electrónica played at skull-rattling volume are the few essentials to a successful beach asado, or BBQ, in Chile. Of course you must add copious amounts of family and friends, and tuck in for a waist expanding good time. Hundreds of thousands of Santiaguinos bust out of the hazy capital during the hot summer months. A dusty beach town is highly recommended. The chillaxed feel of a slow-moving place makes a reveler feel not only invited, but expected to have a few brews, kicking a pelota around the sand. ¡No es para mí – es para el calor! (It’s not for me, it’s for the heat!)

Firstly, the culinary delicacy of an asado is not difficult to master. Inside of a rusty kettle drum, sawed in half, place a roll of confort, toilet paper that is. Let ‘er burn in order to spark up the carbón. When the coals are seared through and spewing stifling smoke, it’s hot enough to add the parts. Lamb or cow parts work best. Ribs, butt steak, strip steak and more. Simply season with plenty of coarse sea salt and you’re a chef! Pull off the grill and tear with your teeth. You can slap it on a bun and slather in mayo if you insist on being civilized. It doesn’t hurt to have a chela in your hand, chilling on a sunny patio overlooking a seaside town, such as Tongoy. (Asados run the gamut from a super relaxed situation to a high maintenance affair, depending on with whom you choose to associate.)

Pelicans Chilling on Fishing Boats

Pelicans Chilling on Fishing Boats

The town of Tongoy in the Coquimbo area is small enough for the appropriate vibe, and sits on a plaza with plenty of liquor stores, and dozens of mom and pop restaurants about one block north, lining one side of the petite peninsula. Each has its own special seafood empanadas (fried, filled turnovers). I ate one shrimp and cheese empanada at a nameless place hidden in the town center, which kicked off a three day tour of testing, let’s call it. Eleven shrimp and cheese empanadas later, and they each hold a special place in my heart. The pale peach shrimp; I can’t say no. Plus fresh pebre (Chilean salsa), mozzarella goo gobs and the perfectly flaky, heaven on a fork type crust seal the deal. Next time, maybe I’ll start at La Pink, if not for its prominent location, then for its very suggestive sign looming above, complete with a pink, taco-shaped empanada. From there, methodically I’ll move one by one and try every marisco empanada I can get my greasy hands on, followed by some Tums.

After sampling both fruits of the land and fruits of the fryer, fruits of the sea lie just a bit further along the coast. Inside wooden restaurants and small kiosks are smatterings of fresh whole fish, mussells, clams, sea urchins and oysters para servir (table service) or para llevar (to go). Plenty of styles of ceviche can be had to snack on while you wait for a sun leathered seaman to wrap up a selection; from feathery chunks of whitefish swirling in harmony with lemon, garlic and cilantro or the seafood cornucopia dressed in a red sauce – both dishes of the central region of Chile. If you’d rather the full service of polite accomodation, there are many clean and classic tables to choose from. The harbor view provides plenty of yellow wooden boats festooned with a dozen pelicans each. Comparing the painted names on the wooden sides such as El Neurótico provides pre-snack entertainment. Nothing more taxing than that.

The pristine, south peninsula beach beckons for sand napping where bird calls mixed with laughter float listlessly towards your ears, bumping lightly up against the edge of consciousness. To snap back into it, jump in the cool, Pacific waters. Or up north a bit from the harbor, remnants of an old foundry beg investigation. Hundreds of meters are blanketed in minerals and volcanic deposits that were spit up from the ocean. Chile’s Pacific coast stretches 6,435 Km, all of it on the Ring of Fire. 36 historically active volcanoes make this country 5th in world rank. I found one particularly interesting chunk of rock streaked through with iron and oxidized copper, a vibrant shade of blue. The giant algae covered rocks lining the shore are home to a variety of sea life suctioned to their sides. Upon close inspection red sea spiders can be seen, no bigger than a millimeter.

I drifted back to the veranda above, overlooking this unassuming beach town. The grill was sparked back up for the newly arrived guests. Caipiroskas were in the making. A few people were trying to perform the national dance, the Cueca, with dish towels standing in for the delicate handkerchief. The sun gave way and hundreds of stars took over, challenging the nocturnal scene of any big city. It was time to get out of sandy clothes and into dancewear, in order to shake it all night long at the local pub, where the pisco is cheap and the live cumbia band is in full effect.

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