“Fish,” the man cried in English. I looked around me. I was in the fish market in the coastal town of Caldera in northern Chile surrounded by glistening wet fish. I nodded in agreement and smiled. “Yes, fish.” The man repeated,“Fish!” and grinned. “Yes, a lot of fish, ” I replied and tried to move off, but the man wasn’t letting me go that easily. “Fish!” he exclaimed, even more vociferously. By this time a curious crowd had gathered. I wasn’t sure if the man was trying to sell me fish, practise the only word in English he seemed to know, or maybe he was the village idiot.
In fact, fish is one of the great delights in Chile. My favourite dish so far is Paila Marina, a kind of soup piled high with all types of shellfish, some of which are not easily recognisable, but still delicious. After I’d managed to escape from the most repetitious conversation of my life, I had lunch in a restaurant in the market next to the port. And yes I had fish. Below the market sea lions basked in the sun on the rocks below waiting for … fish.
Caldera is a slightly rundown town, but has a certain quirky charm, especially in the off season. Just down the coast is Bahia Inglesa, where there is a small and pleasant beach which certainly doesn’t live up to the excessive praise the guidebooks give it. It’s pleasant but nothing special. But then, you don’t really come to Chile for the beaches. In the 17th century English pirates came to sack the place, hence the name Bahia Inglesa (English Bay).
The coastline from Caldera all the way up to Antofagasta is certainly striking, but in a rugged, desolate kind of way. There are few sand beaches, just rocks and cliffs. The inaptly named Pacific Ocean batters the shore with huge waves and in many places a persistent fog lingers over the coastal areas. The road hugs the coast for much of the way making for a spectacular journey.
It’s desert here, but not the rolling dunes of Lawrence of Arabia. This is desert in the sense that nothing grows. The towns and villages are small and the buildings are rarely more than a few storeys high. They’re surrounded by dust and have an unkempt feel. And everything looks brown. Very brown.
I was anxious to get to San Pedro de Atacama, but it was a long haul by bus, so I decided to break the journey in Antofagasta, despite the fact that the guidebooks don’t give it much of a write-up. Guess what? It’s actually okay for a night, with a dramatic sea front in the suburbs with waves crashing in and a nicely renovated pier in the centre.
Antofagasta has an interesting history and some old buildings survive from its prosperous past as a major export centre for the mines in the interior. It used to belong to Bolivia until Chile captured the area and Bolivia then also lost its access to the sea in the War of the Pacific in 1879. The British had a strong presence here too and the main square has a clock tower that is allegedly a replica of London’s Big Ben. Well, there is a British flag on it next to the Chilean one.
Most bizarre thing I saw in Antofagasta: two scantily clad women salsa dancing in a bingo hall of all places. I wonder how many distracted patrons missed that all important number.
Most interesting thing I saw in Antofagasta: in a temporary exhibition on the railroads there was a telegram from Winston Churchill thanking the city for the good wishes it sent him on his 90th birthday in 1964, just a few months before his death.