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Trip 39 — Quinchao Walk

Day 1: Punta Coyumbué to Curaco de Vélez
Wednesday, 27 December 2023

Today: 11321 steps/8.91 km/5.54 mi/1h 41m

There was no dim sum to be had in Panama City's center on Christmas, but the seafood market was in full swing. Of the 30 or so restaurants, I sat down at Econo Fish, not because (or in spite) of its name but because Tony wasn't too pushy in trying to usher me in.

I'd arrived after walking around the historic city center, past the brick ruins of a Dominican monastery destroyed by fire in the 1700s and under the bougainvillea canopy flanked by souvenir stalls along the waterfront. The stalls had also been open, to my surprise. That's where a man, after some conversation, offered me a walking tour but settled for $2 for coffee, mentioning that the seafood market would be open. That was the best information that $2 could have bought.

It was hot, and I wanted something light and cold: a mixed-seafood ceviche and a frozen lemonade. The red sauce on the ceviche was too creamy for my liking, so I moved on to a corvina ceviche in a spicy green sauce.

That should have been the end of the meal, but it was a pleasant place to sit, and Tony was engaging and lively, punctuating most of our exchanges with fist-bumps. He was a dark-skinned Panamanian who had lived in the United States growing up, as his father had been in the U.S. Army.

"I could have gotten my U.S. citizenship," he said. "But the United States is racist. I went to high school in Missouri. The KKK was recruiting. My classmates said, 'You should go sign up,' and they laughed."

"It's still racist," I said. "Social racism has come down a bit, but institutional racism is still fully there."

"If you and I are sitting next to each other to apply for a job, they're going to give it to you."

"It sucks." That's all I could say; he knew the issue better than I, and I wasn't going to end inequality over lunch.

I didn't need any more food, but I'd seen a couple receive their two fried whole fish, which rose up from their table like model dinosaurs in museums. I was intrigued. "How much is that?" I asked.

"Eighteen dollars." (Panama uses the U.S. dollar. The country, according to its constitution, doesn't print paper money, although it mints coins in its own currency, the balboa, which is at parity with the dollar.)

"What kinds of fish do you have?"

He ran through the options.

"What's your favorite?"

"I like the mero," he said. A kind of grouper. "It has the sweetest taste."

"I'll have that one," I said. "And a local beer."

"Panama or Balboa?" (Much is named for the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, whose 1513 expedition battled the jungle and the inhabitants of the Panamanian isthmus to become the first Europeans known to reach the Pacific Ocean after crossing the Atlantic.)

"Which is your favorite?"

"I like Balboa."

"OK, I'll try that."

"One or two?" he hinted.

"You want one? I'll buy you one."

He fist-bumped me again and fetched the beers. He poured his into a cup of ice, to conceal his drinking on the job. He worked in a call center, but he helped his cousin with the restaurant on weekends.

"You should be here for Mardi Gras," Tony said. "Bring your family."

"I live alone," I said, and then I made a cheap joke. "Maybe I'll find somebody here." I instantly regretted saying it. I didn't want Tony to surmise that I thought Panamanians needed salvation by Americans, or even that I'd assume a Panamanian would be glad to have me. "If it's allowed," I added meekly.

But Tony wasn't offended. "Of course it's allowed!" he said, offering another fist-bump.

I walked by the ocean, along a pedestrian and bike path lined with palm trees. People were selling grilled meat and drinks; families were relaxing or playing games. A dark cloud threatened to "Bah, humbug!" the activity, but it never took action.

It costs 35¢ to ride line 1 of Panama City's metro; line 2, which is newer and includes the year-old airport stub line, costs 50¢. If you ride both lines, as one does between the historical center and the airport, you pay the total, 85¢. When I'd boarded at the airport, I'd bought a card for $2 and loaded it with $2 at the suggestion of the person helping me with the machine. (Nowhere on the machine did it say how much a trip cost. It just sold cards and recharged them, doling out coin balboas as change.)

I'd taken a short trip on line 1 in addition to my trip from the airport, so I had 80¢ left on the card — a nickel short for my ride back. How would the turnstile handle this? Different systems deal with this differently. At one extreme, there's London, which lets you have a negative balance on its Oyster card (though the card costs a whopping £5, so they have that wiggle room). At the other extreme, there's Dubai, which has the absurd policy of requiring you to have enough on your Nol card for the maximum possible fare in the system to enter, even if you're going only a few stops.

The moderate setup, such as in Washington, D.C., is to have a machine near the exit gates if you've taken a trip not covered by your card. But I hadn't seen any such machines in Panama City. I arrived at the airport and the gate wouldn't let me through, but the attendant opened it and waved me along with a "Feliz Navidad."

My flight to Santiago, Chile, arrived at 3:11 a.m. A taxi driver told me the first bus into the city wasn't until five, despite a sign promising 24-hour service. The driver was more or less correct, however. It was 4:53 before a bus came by to collect those of us wondering how to interpret the sign. (Twenty-four hours, but out of how many?)

The bus happened to terminate across the street from my hotel, but the hotel's main gate was closed at that hour. A security guard explained how to go: down the elevator in the bus terminal, then right, then right, then right, then right again, or so it seemed (wouldn't that have put me where I started?). In the end there was adequate signage through the parking lot under the bus terminal, which led me to a foreboding sign saying "Escape" — which I did, up the elevator to the lobby.

How early is too early to try checking in to a hotel without paying extra? My dad and I once landed in Dublin and the kind receptionist put us in our room at 4:55 a.m. without our even asking. A hotel in Lima took me just after six. But the Ibis Santiago Estación Central in Santiago wasn't that generous, and besides, they had been full the previous night and couldn't have let me in at 5:30 even if they'd wanted to. I sat in the lobby, content to be in a safe place.

By around eight there were rooms available, but they would have charged me half an extra night to go up then. They have the right to enforce a check-in time, and I wasn't going to complain, but I feel that if a room is ready within 12 hours of check-in, they should let people use it. Any marginal extra electricity or water used by a guest checking in at 8 a.m. is going to be offset by the electricity and water not used by a guest who doesn't check in until midnight. When you consider all check-ins over a hotel's lifetime, the average actual check-in time probably isn't too far away from the published one. Of course, it would help if some hotels just gave you 24-hour periods from whenever you arrived, as was the case in Dubai on my first visit.

I had some energy, so I thanked the receptionist for the offer and headed out to reacquaint myself with Santiago, which I'd last visited in 2000. I walked past the train station (there are not many rail services) and up the dusty avenue named for independence fighter Bernardo O'Higgins. People sold breakfast sandwiches, bottled drinks, headphones, and medicinal ointments. I reached a larger open-air market with clothing and new-year decorations; the stalls were just opening for the day.

Copa Airlines' inflight magazine gave me some morning ideas, as well as my dinner spot. I took the metro out to the Mercado Urbano Tobalaba, which opened earlier this year. It's one of those trendy faux-warehouse complexes with industrial iron decor, housing food stalls, artisan stores, a children's play space, and a roof garden. It did look appealing, but nothing was open yet except for a cafe, and I wasn't hungry. Still, it was a calm place to sit for a while and enjoy the aroma of the day's bread being baked.

Five minutes' walk away, the 62-story Costanera Center had risen since my last visit. At 300 meters, it's South America's tallest building. I gazed upon Santiago's sprawl from the top. The city is short on built landmarks — I couldn't even find most of the buildings depicted on the information panels — but it does have a lot of green space, and the Andes poked out through the haze to the east. Below were the muddy Mapocho River and the hills that divide the city.

The main thing I remembered from 2000 was lunch at the central market. The large middle hall had the upmarket dining and general merchandise; crammed into the side halls were fishmongers and tiny restaurants. I settled into Richard, the Seafood King, and enjoyed conger eel served paila marina style (in an earthenware bowl with shrimp, mussels, and scallop), accompanied by a glass of "Viagra" — I had to ask about, and then try, this tall glass of seafood juice with bits of scallop, clam, and such, sort of a drinkable ceviche.

The eateries in the artsy Bellavista neighborhood were also new. Peumayén Ancestral Food drew from recipes of indigenous people and offered various tasting menus along with a la carte options. My "land" menu had 18 little foods, the first eight of which were breads representing the country from north to south (plus Rapa Nui or Easter Island). Chiloé was represented by a milcao (potato pancake) and then by a chochoca, a cylinder of potato dough filled with a pulled-beef stew and covered by a mushroom sauce. Other unusual dishes included veal tongue with avocado salsa, blood sausage with cheese and caramelized onion, and pickled rabbit.

The area was so inviting that I stopped for a beer in the Patio Bellavista food complex, sort of an outdoor mall but so much more inviting, as the restaurants were distinct but seemed to complement each other. The Spoh brewery catered to mathematicians with its Fibonacci amber ale (a "mathematical harmony of caramel malts and hops") and its Pi session APA, with a 3.14% alcohol content. I went for the Animal IPA, "a real caged animal...dangerously drinkable."

It wasn't dangerous enough for me to miscalculate the distance to the Baquedano metro station, however. I had plenty of time before the last train. But I arrived at the station to find two entrances with their gates shut and one in the process of being locked.

"Is it too late?" I asked the man with the key.

"Read the sign," he said. "The station closes at eleven."

"But there are more trains." Several more. The last one wouldn't come through for 20 minutes.

"Still, the station is closed now."

He had to open the gate for two people to exit, one of whom had a bicycle. I considered slipping in around him, but I thought I'd have more success with a gentler approach. I stepped to the side and asked, "It's really not allowed?"

"Oh, go ahead."

The turnstiles were still processing fares. I caught a train a couple of minutes later, and it wasn't even the last of the night. How does this setup make sense? How can they justify closing the station almost a half-hour before the last train comes through? And stations near the termini have even later final departures.

I flew to Mocopulli (sometimes signed as Castro, the main city on Chiloé Island) on Sky Airline, a regional budget carrier. I entered the security queue at Santiago's domestic terminal and there seemed to be about 300 people ahead of me. But boy, did that line move fast. I was through in 15 minutes. I've waited longer behind 30 people at those horrible middle terminal B gates in Newark.

Sky Airline had few frills, but for $55 each way including seat selection (the base fare is as low as $12 for off-peak dates), it served me well. The clear day allowed for an excellent view of the crossing between the mainland and Chiloé Island — the route I'd have taken in the absence of Mocopulli's tiny airport.

The airport's access road is about a kilometer and a quarter. I wasn't the only one to walk it. Someone was ahead of me, and he crossed the main road and then waited at a bus shelter.

"Are there buses to Dalcahue?" I asked him.

His answer was vague, pointing me this way and that for possibilities. I didn't mind walking the hour and a half to Dalcahue, where I would then catch the ferry to Quinchao. In the absence of any concrete information, I continued, but he soon called me back: A minibus was approaching. I thanked him and boarded behind him.

Dalcahue was a delightful town, with a few artisan markets and lots of eateries. A statue of an accordion player and a guitarist stood next to what I thought was a restaurant but turned out to have several stalls inside, like a miniature version of the Santiago market.

I picked one and had a huge serving of curanto. In its truest form, according to Dr. Daughters's book, a curanto is a festive event consisting of shellfish, potatoes, and whatever else happens to be on hand covered with leaves and baked in the earth over hot rocks. It's a social custom that goes on for hours. With slim odds of attending one myself, I was grateful to get the idea of it, although here it was cooked in the kitchen. Along with about 30 mussels were clams, a sausage, a cut of pork, potato, and potato dumplings. One of the mussels was crowned with a barnacle, and I took great pleasure in extracting the infinitesimal piece of meat inside.

The crossing to Quinchao took about three minutes and was free for foot passengers. The steep road up from the ferry was lined with vehicles waiting to make the crossing, and with cars (and an Achao-bound bus) coming up from the ferry, there was not much of a place to walk until they had all made the ascent.

The incline went on for a kilometer and a half. It finally leveled off, but there were many ups and downs to come. I was greeted by cows, horses, pigs, chickens, and sheep. There were dogs, but they were all fenced in or tied up, and most did not seem as vicious as those on Aruba and Bonaire. There were also multitudes of white and yellow flowers. I'd expected temperatures in the 50s, but they were in the low 70s and the day was bright and sunny. The terrain was green. This was a lovely island.

Today's walk was a short 101 minutes to the town of Curaco de Vélez. A highlight on the main square was one of Chiloés characteristic wooden churches, this one with a green frame and a tower visible from out of town. A boardwalk ran along the waterfront, excellent for bird watching and inhaling the salty air.

After Usedom's early sunsets, I welcomed Quinchao's long daylight hours, until almost 10 p.m. It was important to keep an eye on the clock: Waiting until dark to think about an evening meal meant missing it. I found most places closed, even at seven. But up the main road to the ferry, Tejuelas was the place to be, for some of Quinchao's oysters baked in parmesan and pan-fried hake with fries made from the island's famous potatoes.

All the heat went away after sunset; I was glad I'd brought a jacket to dinner. I descended back through town and walked along the boardwalk, pondering the scruffy sea at low tide. Hundreds of birds had been arrayed hours before, facing the same way as if in a meeting; now there were but a few. I returned to my lodging and from then on all was quiet except for the occasional bark of a dog or squeal of a bird.

Go on to day 2