A Culinary Tour of the Southern Cone – Part I

Everybody loves food, and even better to write about food is to show it! Now in Bolivia, we have completed our tour of the southern cone (which to me means Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay – but we visited Paraguay as well, so I’m just going to include it here). Given the length of time we spent and the variety of delicious foods, Argentina will just have to occupy its own forthcoming post (which will do little to diminish their ever-present vanity for all things Argentine).

Thus, a sampling of what we ate in Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay:

Chile

Pino empanadas – beef, a hard boiled egg, and an olive. A Chilean classic!

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The most famous of the famous Chilean sandwiches, the Chacarero. Along with half a jar of mayonnaise, the base is thinly sliced beef, fresh green beans, and spicy peppers. Best paired with aji, a delicious and salty Chilean hot sauce. It usually as big as your head, unless you have a really big head. We shared this one at supposedly the best chacarero place in Chile, Fuente Alemana

02-IMG_2086-001Another famous Chilean speciality – the completo! A hot dog, or in this case two hot dogs, smothered in yet more mayonnaise, cheese, vegetables, and various other toppings. This was purchased from the also famous Sibaritico in Vina del Mar, where Anthony Bourdain even got one once. They also make their own mayonnaise there, so Hellman’s lost some business on that one.

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Cuddly guanacos, a llama cousin, make for great photo opportunities, but also fit nicely on a plate.

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Curanto is a seafood medley encompassing clams, mussels and multiple varieties of fish, in addition to various meats and potatoes, all cooked in a hole in the ground. The tinfoil did not taste as good as the rest.

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Churros! Need I say more?

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Uruguay

Confusingly, the Southern Cone at one point ran out of food words, and starting using the same phrases in different countries to describe completely different things. Thus while Lomito refers to pork in Chile, in Uruguay it serves as the national beef-based sandwich, competing with the Argentine Milanesa and Chilean Chacarerro alike. Simple but with tender meat, Uruguay in our opinion takes home a well-deserved second place in the regional sandwich game (but don’t tell the third place Argentines that!)

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While in Chile a large hot dog with everything you could imagine on it is a completo, in Uruguay it’s a pancho – both ertain the ratio of a kilo of mayonnaise per hot dog.

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Uruguay also does up its Sunday bbqs – in this case we got a pizza chicken, or literally cheese and sauce atop a grilled piece of chicken.
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Paraguay

Poor Paraguay is often overlooked, but it does has some specialties of its own commonly found on the street, such as a food drink salad and chipa guasu (i.e. Paraguay cornbread).

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If you ever find yourself lost in the chaos of the markets of Ciudad del Este, take a deep breath, walk west, and don’t stop until you hit a Quiero Fruta. While juices are found everywhere in all four countries, this stand has it going on.

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Meat is just often so much better when grilled on the side of the street. Throw in some yuca too for girth.

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And of course, don’t forget that you can get an entire chicken meal for a few bucks!

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The Damn Itaipu Dam

A Guest Post by one Christine Ribeiro 

On the Paraguayan side of the tri-border area (Argentina and Brazil) where you visit the Iguazu Falls, the main attraction is the Itaipu Dam. This dam was the largest in the world, until the Chinese built Three Gorges just recently. It provides over 80% of all of Paraguay’s electricity and about 15% of Brazil’s. In reading the brochures at the hotel, I discovered that the dam offered not only tours, but also a nighttime illumination show on Fridays and Saturdays. We happened to arrive on a Thursday afternoon, so I thought, we can do both, right? The only site to see, might as well. The hostel receptionist convinced us it would be best to do the tour that day and the lights the next night. We set out on a local bus and arrived about 45 minutes later. They information center sent us to an auditorium where we watched two 10 minute videos on the dam in Spanish, most of it above our heads. Then we got on a bus with the other visitors and went to see the dam. It spans the river between Paraguay and Brazil and thus, after crossing the Brazilian border earlier that morning, we crossed again, with no controls (again), to see the dam from both sides, before heading back to town in the local bus.

Dam in action!

Dam in action!

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Sunset at the dam

We learned that the next day, the bus could take us to the ‘light show’ but that it did not run late enough, so we would have to organize a taxi back. After two locals told us we absolutely had to do the show, with the lights set to music, we decided to arrange the taxi through the hotel. They told us the show was about 2 hours and so the taxi would pick us up at 9:30pm. At this point, I am very excited about the light show. I am imagining the Eiffel tower on Bastille Day, with lights and fountains choreographed to music. It was something not mentioned in the guide books, but what all the locals did. It was going to be great! We got on the local bus around 6:15, as check in was at 7pm. This bus was even slower than the day before and, as 7 approaches, my anxiety rises. I don’t want to miss the show. We get close the entrance, which we are familiar with from the day before, and I tell the bus driver but he refuses to stop. He tells me that is not where we go for the light show, and continues on a little while. I try to argue, but really, what do I know? He lets us off at the commercial entrance to the dam at 7:07. We are already late. We find a guard and he tells us that it used to be there, but that we would have to go back down the highway to the reception area. Anxiety levels rising. What are we to do but run down the highway in pitch black (sunset is around 5pm here) in our jeans through the humid weather. We make it to the reception at 7:15 with no issues, minus being out of breath and our jeans sticking to our legs from all of the sweat. We check in and they tell us the bus does not leave for the lighting until 7:45. So glad we ran. At least we didn’t miss it, right? We head to the water fountain we knew from the day before, behind the main auditorium, and chug three cups of cold water to try to cool down. There is live music playing and artisans selling. I relax now, knowing that we made, we were going to see the show.

Concert in motion, time to relax

Concert in motion, time to relax

our favorite water fountain

our favorite water fountain

We get on the bus and drive out to the look out spot on the Brazilian side (yet another uncontrolled border crossing for us!) and move up to the front row. The MCs come out for an introduction and say they are going to show a short documentary. Guess what, it is one of the two movies we sat through the day before. We sit through it yet again and then, the screens go dark and the music starts to play. This is it! The show is beginning. Over the next 5 minutes, dramatic classical music plays as the dam slowly lights up. And then, the show is over. I thought I was seeing a two-hour show, what is this bull?? Everyone else is oohing and aahing, snapping pictures, because, well, they had not been there the day before. What crazy person would come see this dam twice in a row?

Illumination!

Illumination!

We head back to the bus, deflated. All of that effort, four total hours, for that? What is worse, we are back at reception at 9pm but our taxi is not scheduled to come for another 30 minutes, and there is nothing around us. Even the security guards for the dam come to check on us, given how weird it is to be lingering around for so long after the show and everyone else has left. In fact, the driver doesn’t even get there until 9:40pm. I guess there is a reason this is not written up in any book. At the same time, I can finally say I have fulfilled a life-long goal to see a 300 second light show at a South American dam while straddling two countries!

illumination selfie

illumination selfie

‘Lawlessness’ in the Tri-Border Area

A quick Google search describes the Tri-border area between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina as “lawless,” “a classic terrorist safe haven,” and “Hezbollah’s Western Base.” Somehow they always seem to forget to mention it as the site of the spectacular Iguazu waterfalls – which are a rare mega-tourist attraction that lives up to all the hype. That was our main draw to cross through the region, starting one day in Argentina and ending in Paraguay, while spending the middle part in Brazil – but the allure to see how “lawless” this region actually is, was another significant draw.

Also in the tri-border area

Also in the tri-border area

Much of the source of concern dates to the post-September 11th era, and fears that financing to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and even Al Qaeda emanated from the area. Fears not necessarily unfounded without a body of evidence, but the true extent of the threat may have been exaggerated in some accounts. It was almost a niche sort of item in the terrorism studies field at the time, basically a way to show-off – “oh you don’t know about the tri border area?? Well let me enlighten you with my vast array of obscure terrorism-related knowledge . . . “

The region is home to an estimated Arab community of 25,000, who mainly came from Lebanon after WWII and during the civil war in the 1980s. Combined with its renowned reputation as a contraband “oasis,” concerns were raised to the point where the United States even established a joint intelligence center on the Brazilian side of the border. At any rate, much of that concern dated from the mid-to-late 2000s, with nearly half a decade elapsing by the time I showed my face in the area (which perhaps is never a good thing in the vicinity of a Middle Eastern-focused intelligence center, especially two months into a beard).

Starting in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina that day (we had seen the Argentine side of the Iguazu waterfalls the day prior), we left early on a bus for the Brazilian side of the falls. The border processes there were simple enough – on the way past the Argentine side, our bus driver collected all of our passports and got the exit stamps himself, while on the Brazilian side we had to individually appear, but it went quick enough (note: want to talk about suspect financing?? I had to obtain a Brazilian visa in Buenos Aires for $160 just to be able to visit the falls! Even if it is a ten-year, multi-entry affair).

We toured the Brazilian side, which offers significantly different but equally as stunning views as the Argentine side, then made our way on a city bus to the main terminal in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. Things began to get a bit more interesting here – there is a normal city bus that runs between Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, as they are just across a bridge over the Paraná River from each other. We waited at the stop for the frequent bus, and headed for what was technically the fifth country of our trip (if you count 5 hours, at the cost of $160, in Brazil).

I had read a bit before that this border crossing can be a bit confusing, as most people do not stop to do the border check. That is correct – the bus typically just runs in between both countries without stopping at all between the borders; rather it is up to the individuals on the bus to decide whether or not they are in the mood to chat with customs and immigration authorities that day. It is this sort of lax approach to border controls that led Ciudad del Este in particular to be described to us as the “contraband capital of the region,” in turn igniting similar fears with regards to support for terror networks from certain communities in the area (I still have no idea why this border has developed this way, and wondered if it could really be possible to just fly into Paraguay and travel throughout Brazil without an expensive visa, if you entered and left the country through the tri-border area?)

Anyways, we had to get off the bus to get a Brazilian exit stamp (or rather I did), so we told the bus driver at the beginning that would be the case. He handed us a slip of paper so we could get back on a different bus – as this one would not wait around for us to complete our formalities. We got off at the border control, willingly I might add, while the bus plowed across the bridge, barely even slowing down. It took us about 5 minutes to complete Brazilian immigration (given that we were the only ones who showed up), then waited for the next city bus to come. We contemplated walking across the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge) as it was broad daylight, but had heard rumors that this was not safe at all, Not sure how really – it was had a narrow pedestrian walkway on either side – maybe someone could pin you against the edge and threaten to push you off whole taking your bags, but it was crowded and narrow enough that I would doubt they’d get too far. At any rate, we did not bother to find out, as the next bus came in less than seven minutes.

We flashed the slips of paper handed to us by the other bus driver, and hopped on the back. Once we had crossed the bridge we expected the bus to stop at the Paraguayan border control, so we could get off and complete formalities there – a reasonable expectation in my mind, even if most people do not get off the bus. This it did not do. Rather it sped right across the bridge and past the apparently optional immigration office into town – we were already in Paraguay!

the site of our illegal entry into Paraguay!

the site of our illegal entry into Paraguay!

We cried for the driver to stop, not wanting to invite any sort of troubles for illegally crossing over. He did a few hundreds meters past the border and at the start of the expansive contraband market that dominates the first few streets on the Paraguayan side (although there a number of geographically-oriented and orderly shopping malls as well, such as ‘Mina India’ and ‘Bonita Kim’). Getting off we looked around confused – maybe that wasn’t the actual border post and we were supposed to go a bit further? But we were clearly in Paraguay now – you could tell immediately upon crossing the bridge that this was a much poorer country (street food, market stalls, dust, taxi drivers harassing us – you name it, all the elements were there).

the path towards Brazil

the path towards Brazil

We decided to walk back to the office immediately after the bridge – they could redirect us if they had to. We went in the first door we saw, hoping no one realized we were coming from the wrong direction (i.e. from Paraguay already), and encountered an disinterested man sitting at a desk, a tv blaring beside him. I approached and he did not look up initially, but grudgingly turned to us – I guess since this border process seemed to be “optional,” with most people choosing not to exercise that option, he did not quite have the experience or people skills I would’ve expected.

He looked over my passport and visa in less than two minutes, giving me an entry stamp. I was surprised by how quick this was, how few (re: none) questions he asked, and the fact that he did not appear to care about the contents of my luggage, nor barely looked at my face to confirm the passport. I was so taken aback that I asked in broken Spanish if there was anything else we needed to do, since I personally love completing as many formalities as possible at South American land frontiers, but he just waved us off to be gone (actually, I had read some horror stories of people not receiving the proper entry stamps during some of their South American travels and being forced to return to their point of entry to acquire them before they could exit the country, so was determined not to let the laziness of an apathetic border official put us in a similar situation).

Following we went back to the area we were dropped off, and boarded the next and third city bus of our 30-minute journey, unsure of where it was going or even if it was the right one (turned out to be fine). It took us past the market section of Ciudad del Este – which actually is a bit chaotic but replete with anything contraband you could want, from electronics to clothing to kitchen goods. A lot of likely not contraband goods as well – we saw an entire selection of Kirkland Costco products in the upscale Mona Lisa department store – and Brazilian & Argentines frequently cross the border to purchase supplies (when you are not slowed down by any border controls, why not?). We even had a tour guide later at the grand Itaipu Dam tell us you could buy a brand-new car for $200 in Ciudad del Este – an intriguing idea, but given my inability to drive without endangering the lives to today’s precious youth, one we never looked into.

shopping galore

shopping galore

Anyways, Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, the heart of all this ‘lawlessness,’ is actually a very pleasant city after leaving the market area. At the same time, there isn’t much else to do there – everyone we asked just told us to go shopping, especially given that the city was only established in the 1950s and thus lacked the deep history of monuments, buildings, and other pretty things to look at that occupies our time in many a other locations. Regardless, we stayed about a 20-minute walk from downtown in a newly-constructed suburb around a lake, at a hostel with a great view and a pool. So nice it was that Christine, who was previously scared to even set foot in the city after I had informed her of its reputation, expressed serious consideration into purchasing property there (it did help that we also located the best empanada and juice spots of our entire trip nearby). We never did get involved in Ciudad del Este real estate market during our short stay, but at the rate of $200 for brand new cars, perhaps we should have!

Quero Fruta juice - fit for lawless contraband smugglers and colorful parrots alike

Quero Fruta juices – fit for lawless contraband smugglers and colorful parrots alike

I was also determined to find some of the supposed ‘Arab’ terrorist sympathizers, and we did (well the Arab part at least)! Mainly we were in it for the food, hoping to score some delicious shawarmas, as we stumbled upon a tall green building in the city center, which contained a food court, barber shop, mosque, and apartment building. The shawarmas lived up to their billing, and as much as I was intrigued, we left discussions of political allegiances and sympathies to a minimum.

a mosque, apartment building, food court, and barber shop all in one!

a mosque, apartment building, food court, and barber shop all in one!

In short, I can see that the lax (or non-existent) border controls in the area and the endless rows of shops and markets stalls plied with counterfeit goods (along with ever-menacing ‘Arab’ population) in Ciudad del Este may give rise to concerns for some, but calling the region ‘lawless’ is simply inaccurate. Perhaps many of those articles were written from afar, but from our experience on the ground, admittedly a few years later on and without serious investigation, it seemed more an intriguing mix of cultures and an orderly-enough place, despite the lax border controls between neighbors who evidently feel comfortable with each other’s citizens. So nice it was, that we may even be future property investors!

Not a bad spot to hang

Not a bad spot to hang!