Some 100 km northwest of Santiago sits the coastal city of Valparaíso, welcoming the waves of the Pacific Ocean. Literally meaning “paradise valley,” Valparaíso’s historic zone was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003. The city is spread out over multiple hills, scattered with colored houses that slope sharply towards the ocean, as if yearning to dive.
It seems that life here has always revolved around the all-imposing, glistening element of nature. The ocean’s influence is evident in the bustling port activities and the copious seafood readily at hand.
Though a variety of finely kempt restaurants exist, as well as an increasing availability of gourmet cuisine, it doesn’t get much more authentic than satisfying your appetite for seafood on the port itself. Albeit busy almost from end to end, full of cargo ships and other industrial activity, quiet spots can always be found, if you’re willing to look.
One of the best places to try a greater variety of fresh fish than one could dare to dream is in the Caleta el Membrillo, a picturesque fishing cove tucked away just under the Playa Ancha hill, to the West of the city. The main restaurant here, large enough that it can’t be missed, is simple and well-maintained, with seating options both inside and on the seafront deck.
The setting offers views of endless azure, but its uniqueness truly lies in its ownership. Run by the local fishermen’s cooperative, this is the place where they themselves enjoy their catch of the day.
The cove has existed as a spot to taste fresh seafood for over a century, with an 1882 painting of the cove and accompanying restaurants currently hanging in Valparaíso’s Museo Bellas Artes.
A charming route to the small fishing cove could begin at the famous Paseo Atkinson, located in Cerro Concepción. This pedestrian road is lined with stately, shutter-lined old homes, with murals and street art nearby, and offers sweeping views of the ocean and city below, as far as neighboring city Viña del Mar.
Descending Cerro Concepción, you can either walk along the busy docks towards the cove, or wander through the historic city center and catch the Ascensor Artilleria, which will bring you up to the esplanade of Paseo 21 de Mayo.
Continuing from here in a Northerly direction, the scenery changes as museums and street traders soon give way to the domestic neighborhoods of Cerro Playa Ancha, with the Caleta El Membrillo fishing cove finally revealing itself as you near the beach. In the afternoons, fishermen sit in front of the compound, whistling playfully to visitors and indicating that food is served.
Having reached the little white tables overlooking the ocean, a light, salty breeze welcomes visitors. Though a large variety of seafood is available, the women in the kitchens only serve the daily catches, supplied by the fishermen on the level just below.
The salmón a lo pobre, which ironically translates as “poor man’s Salmon,” consists of a huge plate of delicious fresh salmon, fried eggs, onions and french fries — anything but poor.
The machas a la parmesana, pink surf clams baked with parmesan cheese and a splash of white wine, are delectable here. Now a Chilean classic, this dish is said to have been created 50 years ago by an Italian immigrant in neighboring Viña del Mar.
Depending on the season, other classics available include camarones al pil pil, a hearty and slightly spicy dish of shrimps sizzling in red sauce and garlic, paila marina, a delicious, herb-filled traditional seafood soup, or good old fried fish with fries.
By Daphne Karnezis