The steep, dusty road comes to an abrupt end. In front of us, a perfect bay, horseshoe-shaped, opens out into the Pacific Ocean. The curved shoreline is covered with a jumble of jaded wooden fishing boats. The sand is littered with ropes, nets, crates and floats of old Coke bottles. What seems like the whole small village of Hercon – men, women and children – are on the beach, between the boats, untangling fish and crustaceans from the nets, sorting fish, loading crates. Masses of gulls swarm and screech over the wooden benches set up on the perimeter of the bay, where piles of fish are being skilfully skinned, gutted, filleted and hung on wire hooks ready for sale. It is a frenzy of activity. In the midst of this, with all the bravado of rodeo riders, two horsemen flamboyantly crack their whips, coaxing their nags to haul boats from the water into a position on the packed shore. The scene is astonishing.
We eventually take a seat amongst the bric-a-brac at one of the waterfront restaurants. Our ‘Maitre de’, dressed in a waistcoat with black bow tie, takes our order and we watch as he then wanders amongst the melee inspecting the catch and negotiating the deal.
Within half an hour, we are served a platter of thick, firm white fillets of congrio, smothered in burnt butter. Fish doesn’t come any better.
Chile, the thin, long land, is, at its widest, only 177 kilometres. It extends from north to south approximately 4300km and its coastline meanders for 6500km. It is not hard to see why it is the primary fishing nation of South America and one of the foremost fishing nations in the world, supplying fresh fish, including salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel and fish product – fish meal and fish oil – to the world market. It has one of the largest aquaculture industries in the world and is the world’s largest exporter of farmed fish.
The cold waters of the western coast of South America also provide a plethora of shellfish that includes over 800 varieties of molluscs alone and the largest abalones and edible sea urchins in the world. Nowhere is this amazing selection as obvious as in the fish market of Mercado Central in Santiago and Angelmo Market in Puerto Montt, where wooden stalls bow under the weight of produce from the sea, much of which I’ve never laid eyes on before. Fishmongers tirelessly shuck huge piles of oysters as big as my fist, scoop the valued red sea anemone flesh from spiny casings and peel skin from giant squid. Small booths, often with one long table, serve seafood; whatever you want, however you want it. Huge pots of the national dish, curano, a stew of seafood, meat and vegetables, steam in the alleyways.
Chile is a land of contrasts. In the north, the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, has, over the last 100 years, recorded a total rainfall of around 25mm. In the south, the continent fractures into a thousand fjords and islands separated by a web of inlets and channels; a place of glaciers, ice and snow. From west to east, the country rises in places from sea level to more than 6000 metres. This contrast pervades every section of Chilean life. In no area is it more prevalent than the fishing industry, where traditional fishermen still survive at subsistence level using age-old techniques, whilst the aquaculture industry is amongst the most sophisticated in the world, generating over $2(Aust)billion in export revenue per annum.
Yet amongst all this sophistication, there are still visual cues that take the viewer back generations. There are places where the sands of time seem to move a lot slower and the people continue the practices of their ancestors, barely affected by the march of progress. This is the charm of Chile.