Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Amazing Race 23, Episode 1

Los Angeles County, CA (USA) - Iquique (Chile)

The Amazing Race 23 started on a Hollywood Western movie set outside Los Angeles. But the “reality” TV show got more real, and more interesting, once the racers got to the city of Iquique on the Pacific coast of northern Chile.

Chile’s north coast is one of the least populated and least touristed parts of the country. That’s partly because it’s out of the way, especially for foreign tourists who, like the contestants on “The Amazing Race”, arrive in Chile by way of Santiago, almost 1000 air miles south of Iquique

The racers were required to fly via Santiago, but real tourists could have gotten to Iquique more quickly and with much less backtracking via either Lima (Peru) or La Paz (Bolivia). Don’t assume that the only air routes to a “provincial” city will be those from the national capital or some other hub in the same country. Direct international flights to and from provincial airports are less common than would sometimes be convenient (and don’t exist on some routes where many tourists expect them), but are more common than most tourists realize.

Tourists do go to parts of Chile even further from Santiago, such as the inland Atacama desert in the far northeast (visited by “The Amazing Race” in Season 11), or the far southern coast of Chilean Patagonia (“The Amazing Race 16”). But the northern coast doesn’t have the visibility in the tourist imagination of these regions or of the Andes, the wine country, or the mega-city of Santiago (all visited by “The Amazing Race 16”).

There’s a surprisingly good highway along most of the northern coast. Much of it is separate from the Panamerican Highway, more of which goes through inland valleys). The landscape through which it passes is one of extraordinary desolation, even by comparison with the driest deserts of Central Asia, such as the Taklamakan. The “deserts” of Utah, Nevada, or the Australian Outback look lush by comparison. (The coast of Namibia might come close, but I haven’t gotten there yet.) We rented a car and spent five days driving the Chilean coast from south of Iquique to north of Valparaiso, and outside the towns we saw not a trace of terrestrial life. Not a cactus, not a tumbleweed, not a land animal. The only hint of green was a greenish tint, perhaps from copper, in some of the rocks..

Ocean road
The coast road, south of Iquique: rocks, gravel, sand, and surf.

Because there’s no vegetation to decay into humus, there’s also no natural soil. Nothing grows without human intervention to supply both topsoil and water. And even in the cities, water is too scarce for much to be wasted on irrigating gardens, lawns, or trees.

The barren landscape in and around the city of Iquique was strikingly visible from the air on this episode of The Amazing Race 23 as the racers parasailed from the top of the coastal ridge down to the beach.

The obvious questions are why there is a city of more than 200,000 people in such a location, and where it gets its drinking water.

The answers to both questions relate to the copper mines that are the backbone of Chile’s economy. The Amazing Race 11 visited the largest of those mines, at Chuquicamata near Calama, and I have some pictures from my own visit from when “The Amazing Race 16” returned to Chile.

The mines are in the interior, and need (fresh) water for some of the steps in processing raw ore to separate the copper and other valuable minerals. Fresh water is also used to transport semi-processed crushed ore through “slurry” pipelines from the mines to the coast for further refining and onward shipping.

Where does that water come from? You might expect that a coastal city, or a mine, in the desert would, like Los Angeles, pipe in fresh water from the nearest mountains.

In northern Chile, it’s often just the opposite. The western slopes of the Andes are themselves so dry that there isn’t enough water, not even snowmelt, to supply the needs of the mines or the coastal communities. The mining companies have built huge desalination plants on the coast to produce fresh water from sea water, and pipe that fresh water hundreds of miles inland and thousands of feet up to supply the mines. Several more multi-billion US dollar desalination plants are under construction in the region, including some of the world’s largest.

Desalinated drinking water for coastal cities and towns is supplied from these plants by the mining companies, essentially as a byproduct of their mining operations. Some smaller and more remote settlements truck in fresh water, but for the most part there are towns or cities along this coast only where there are desalination plants.

These cities and towns themselves exist primarily to serve the mines, and to provide secondary services for the people who work for the mining companies.

“Artisanal” (small-boat) fishing is the only significant source of local employment unrelated to mining. In a region where agriculture is essentially impossible for want of soil or irrigation, the local fishing fleets are the only source of food that doesn’t have to be shipped in from far away.

Despite competition with large factory ships, every harbor is crowded with small fishing boats. Fresh fish is sold everywhere from street corners to large central seafood markets in every city and town.

Fish for sale
Chilean street-corner fishmonger

In this week’s opening episode of The Amazing Race 23, the racers had to row around the fishing fleet in Iquique harbor to collect fish from specific boats.

Fishing boats in the harbor
Fishing boats in a northern Chilean harbor

I was disappointed, however, that while each team had to collect five fish, all the fish appeared to be of a similar type. In reality, the most striking feature of Chilean fish markets is the extraordinary variety of seafood on offer — not just a profusion of species of fish whose names you’ve probably never heard of but exotic marine creatures like giant barnacles (“picorocos”).

My foodie friend and Moon Handbooks Chile author Wayne Bernhardson quotes Texas food writer Robb Walsh (from his book, Are You Really Going to Eat That?) as finding “a display of fishes and shellfish so vast and unfamiliar that I felt I was observing the marine life of another planet” at Santiago’s central seafood market — and that wasn’t even on the coast. Santiago is in the central valley, where seafood has to be trucked in from Valparaiso.

One of the highlights of each of the days we spent driving along the Chilean coast was a stop at the fish market, typically in a prominent central location, in one of the towns we passed through. Along with raw seafood for sale, there would always be at least a few cooked-food stalls serving seafood stews and other fish dishes.

The food at these places was among the best, and the prices among the cheapest (these were stalls in the market, generally not fancy restaurants), of any we found in Chile. Imagine the No-Name Restaurant on Boston’s Fish Pier, but with a much wider variety of fresh local ingredients to work with.

A typical Chilean seafood stew includes many more types of fish and seafood than a typical French (or French-Vietnamese) bouillabaisse or a San Francisco-style cioppino. It compares favorably with either, and pairs perfectly, of course, with an inexpensive Chilean dry white wine.

Ready to hit the (Chilean) road? Bon voyage, et bon appétit!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 29 September 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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