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CHILE: SOUTH AMERICA’S FORGOTTEN GEM

By: Dave Gordon



Not much is spoken, or widely known, about the Jews who belonged to the Spanish Conquistadors, who in the 16th to 18th centuries set out to colonize the Americas. These were the first Jews to set foot on Chilean soil, arriving there some 500 years ago.

Already by 1909, there was a large enough Chilean Jewish community to launch the first Jewish center, called Sociedad Unión Israelita de Chile (The Israel Union Society of Chile). The country’s Jewish population began to take off as the 20thcentury progressed, with an influx of Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire, and of Russian Jews fleeing pogroms, who struck deep roots in Chile. However, restrictions on Jewish immigration did not allow the number of new Jewish arrivals to climb above 12,000 between 1933 and 1940, when many European Jews sought to flee from Nazi Germany.

Today, according to some estimates, 20,000 to 25,000 Jews live in Chile.

Chile recently showed its support for Israel by barring its municipalities from joining the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. And two years ago, in October 2017, Chilean diplomat Samuel del Campo, who served as chargé d’affaires at the Chilean embassy in Bucharest, in 1941-1942, was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, for saving more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.

Jewish Santiago

Currently, there are three kosher restaurants and a kosher supermarket in Santiago, Chile’s capital, as well as two nursing homes, a golf club, and a Talmud Torah. The country is also home to a kosher winery, Luis Felipe Edwards Wines, which exports two brands, Terra Vega and Don Julio. The general population’s relationship with the Jewish community is said to be quite amicable.

Politically, some Chileans are frustrated that the country isn’t getting its due on the international stage. Having survived 18 years of the Pinochet dictatorship between 1973 and 1990, Chile has since turned its economy and standard of living around dramatically.
It isa flip version of Venezuela, on the other side of the continent, which prior to the 1990s was considered the shining light of South American success, and now, after socialist ruin, fares little better than most Third World countries.

Santiago has developed in recent decades its avant garde galleries, boutique shops and celebrated historical destinations. No stop in Santiago is complete without seeing the historical GAM cultural center, where remnants of the country’s long-dead socialist past are intertwined with symbols and stories of renewal and change. Outside, in the courtyard, see the walls designed with panel-to-panel graffiti, an artistic renaissance that is as compelling as it is politically poignant. Actually, painstakingly detailed wall art has made its way throughout many cities and towns in Chile, as self-expression bubbles up to the surface after so many decades of being stifled.

Santiago is a stunning pastiche of old-style architecture, and reflects the nation’s process of modernization. It is highly recommended to rent a bicycle and hire a guide to take you around the city’s parks, streets, and landmarks.

About an hour and twenty minutes away from the capital is stunning Valparaíso, a port city on Chile’s coast, where the second largest of the country’s Jewish communities resides. In the 1800s, a flood of European immigrants planted roots in the area, bringing with them their cultural architecture. It has lasted until today, and the area is still known as much for its steep and vibrantly coloredclifftop homes, as for the eclectic, corner-to-corner street art that stretches throughout downtown’s Plaza Sotomayor.

Off-the-Beaten Track to Puerto Montt

Chile boasts a great deal of wildlife, forest trails, (dormant) volcanoes, and island life. That is why visitors to Chile will definitely want to take the off-the-beaten track to the region of Puerto Montt, a two-hour flight out of Santiago.

While there, visit the municipality of Puerto Varas to see the famous Petrohué Waterfalls, in Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park. It is said that a stop here is an obligatory rite of passage for all Chileans, at some point in their life – probably like what Niagara Falls is to anyone within a three-hour driving distance. The difference here, though, is that the height is not what’s impressive; rather, it’s the marvel of how, in every direction, water leaps and bounds over ancient rock formations at gushing speeds. Think of it as whitewater rafting, but for the eyes.

After an hour driving along the south shore of Lake Llanquihue, with spectacular views of the ice-capped Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes, my group arrived at the El Solitario Hike, a 6-km trail. The thicket of the lush green forest, the clean air and pin-drop silence is a welcome change from the congested insta-world we live in.

Wild-growing food is plenty. Chaura berries (think red, tart blueberries), berberis (a fruity yellow bud), maqui (Chilean wineberry), the avelaana (Chilean hazelnut) and nalca (a vegetable that is celery on the outside and rhubarb on the inside) are all edible, and delicious.

The Markets of Chiloe

South of Puerto Montt is the island of Chiloe, where you can visit the bustling market in the town of Ancud. Soak in the stunning colors of locally-grown fruits and vegetables, aisle upon aisle of fresh fish, and shop upon shop of handmade clothing. I couldn’t resist buying my wife a combination of woolen sweater, scarf and hat – all of which, I was told, took days to fashion. The price was equal to that of a typical department store, buthigh on quality (and warmth!).

I thought a lot about why the fruits and vegetables had much brighter colors, and juicier tastes, than those in supermarkets. It didn’t take long to realize that much of the market’s fare had to be grown within driving distance, no doubt sown in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil. The comparatively dullish hues of our own fruit are likely caused by the eight months or so of inhospitable growing conditions, requiring our fruit to be shipped thousands of miles, after being pluckedweeks early, and to ripen on the truck, and later, in the store.

While in the Ancud community, I visited the Dimter Maldonado family in the Chepo region. There, I learned about the “curanto” tradition of cooking food: inside a specially-made wooden hut, firewood is placed atop stones in a pit, the wood is kindled, and when the fire becomes strong enough, the wood is removed. Chicken and beef are placed right on the white-hot stones, and all covered by pine needles. An hour later, the cooking is done and the food is enjoyed by family and guests.

Meanwhile, local wool weavers showed a demonstration of dyeing techniques, whereby specific colors are derived from boiling the wools in onion peels, blackberries, indigenous canelo tree leaves, and red wine. It’s said that many of these traditions were handed down from the Huilliche-Mapuche indigenous cultures.

The canelo leaves are also used for tea, of which I partook. It has a cinnamon, woodsy flavor, and is said to aid in digestion, boost the immune system and ease body aches.

If you’re into what nature has to offer, take a trek through Tantauco Park, an unspoiled evergreen forest that offers fabulous opportunities to spot birds and wildlife. Our group ran into the indigenous Zorro fox. As small as a housecat, the brown furry fella wandered around our camp, sniffing our picnic. It is harmless, relatively, but things would have gotten snippy had we not packed up and walked away.

Chile may be an unknown gem for most North American tourists, but it really ought to be a “bucket list” destination for anyone looking to enjoy a cultural cornucopia and a treat for the senses that cannot be found anywhere else.

Places to Stay

In Santiago’s Plaza Mulato Gil de Castro
 is the 70-room Cumbres, what an upscale traveler seeks in the heart of the city to enjoy a fine hotel experience. It’s also next door to an outdoor market, where locals peddle their handmade wares.

Tierra Chiloe is a luxury 24-room hotel in San Jose Playa, Castro, where each room contains hand-crafted furniture, wall-to-wall wood paneling, and
jaw-dropping views of the coastline
and clifftops.

Deluxe accommodations can be found at Awa in Puerto Varas, built by renowned architect (and owner) Mauricio Fuentes in 2016. The hotel is filled with local materials such as volcanic rock, cypress wood and flagstone, and the spacious décor molds modernity with traditional crafts throughout. Nearby options for excursions include fishing, hiking, kayaking, rafting, and cultural activities with local indigenous groups. Each room has a gob-smacking view of the hotel’s private beach, and of the Osorno Volcano.