The Southern Menu
The capital of the Aysén region in Chilean Patagonia is gaining ground. With its “cosmopolitan gaucho” style, it invites visitors to soak up natural wonders, local culture and a revitalized culinary scene.
Text & photos: Evelyn Pfeiffer @evelynpfeiffer
Just pause for a moment on any downtown street in this city and you’ll feel its pulse. In the shelter of Cerro Mackay’s steep granite walls, next to the powerful waters of the Simpson River and mountains as sharp as knives, nature seems to provide a shield for this peaceful southern sanctuary. It’s a city of 55,000 inhabitants that, despite continued growth, preserves intact its timeless, glorious scenery.
Located 845 miles south of Chile’s capital, Coyhaique is experiencing a rebirth, especially on the culinary scene. The book Un festín patagónico, viajes culinarios por Aysén (A Patagonian Feast: Culinary Travels in Aysén) refers to the area’s cuisine as “cosmopolitan gaucho.” Don’t be misled by all the baggy pants, neckerchiefs, berets and mate (less a beverage and more of a Patagonia tradition – mate is a great excuse to socialize and break the ice).
Take Your Time
They say, “Those who hurry in Patagonia are wasting their time.” Here, people live at a calmer pace.
Nature seems to set the standard, and one of the region’s most timid and elegant animals is an attraction worth taking the time to see. The huemul, an endangered native deer, is relatively easy to spot. Simply hire a tour guide and head out to Portezuelo Ibáñez, 31 miles from Coyhaique. From here, you’ll set out on a stealthy procession of attentive eyes, trying to discover these elusive coffee-colored mammals amid the vegetation. It’s a nearly silent search through forests and meadows, at the mercy of a whimsical natural setting.
If you’re an especially patient sporting enthusiast, fishing is abundant throughout the region. Coyhaique is a world-class paradise for dry fly fishing, where the fly floats instead of sinking. The Simpson, Mañihuales, Aysén and Emperador Guillermo rivers are some of the most famous destinations for recreational fishing near Coyhaique. Nicolás González, owner of Trouters Patagonia Chile, knows all the nooks and crannies of these rivers, and he’s an expert on the trout that inhabit them. He patiently teaches novices and leads experts on adventures heavy on technique, with huge trophy fish as the reward.
For a rush of adrenaline, the Simpson River offers another treat, as you head down its rapids on a raft, past lush forests and gelid waterfalls that descend from the mountains. The company Patagonian Rafting Excursions offers three-hour expeditions year-round, even when it’s snowing.
Gradually, Coyhaique has revealed a renewed – and acclaimed – culinary flare. The varied offerings include restaurants that favor sustainable, organic products from the region, which has led to innovation in the local kitchens, where traditional recipes are revamped with even more flavors and aromas native to the area.
Ruibarbo is a good example. This restaurant does away with the preconception that Patagonia has nothing to offer but spit-roast lamb. Made with sheep-milk cheese and morillas (a regional mushroom and the second-most coveted fungus in the world after the truffle), the lamb-tongue risotto is an adventurous and delicious explosion of flavors that presents a different take on traditional Patagonian lamb.
Another place to enjoy a “slow food” experience is the award-winning restaurant Dalí, where chef Cristian Balboa creates true works of culinary art, both in terms of flavor and presentation. This Patagonian chef studied in Santiago before returning home to open his restaurant, and he continues to hone his craft. When he’s not in the kitchen, Balboa travels throughout the region, researching and sampling new flavors and finding new sources for local products like hare, lamb, duck, sea urchin, nalca (giant Chilean rhubarb) and native fruits and flowers, like the 25 kinds of mushroom that grow in Aysén.
And to drink? This region is home to pristine waters that several entrepreneurs have used to create no less than 18 brands of craft beer. The beer movement began with D’Olbek, a family of Belgian immigrants who first worked as ranchers before deciding to follow the flavors that formed part of their DNA. In the same location where they brew three kinds of beer, the D’Olbeks recently opened La Taberna, the perfect atmosphere in which to sample their products as well as dishes inspired by the Aysén countryside. It’s a great place for one final, leisurely toast, now that you know that life in Patagonia has a rhythm all its own. in
Daily flights to Balmaceda from Santiago.
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