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Day 77 – Puerto Natales Surprise

December 26, 2010

Location: Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile

Date: Sunday, December 26, 2010

Puerto Natales is in the middle of nowhere. It’s 153 miles (274 kms) from Punta Arenas, the closest “city.” Remember that crazy Patagonia weather of alternating rain, hail, sunshine, wind? Puerto Natales is in Patagonia, too. The sun doesn’t hit the sack until 11 p.m. but somehow manages to have enough energy to be up well before six. Here, in the middle of South America’s summer, it’s in the 50s F (10 C) in the day and below freezing at night.

It’s a surprise, then, that this place has quite a bit to offer including some good food. The population of 19,000 primarily supports and is supported by the tourism into Torres del Paine National Park. Accordingly, you’d expect hordes of restaurants serving overpriced food to tourists who, if they want to eat anywhere else, can either hop on a 3 hour bus or hit up the guy selling dried fruits and horse jerky to hapless Torres del Paine trekkers.

You’d be wrong. That’s because Puerto Natales isn’t just about tourists. It’s also about sheep, cattle, and fish. But mostly it’s sheep. Somewhere in the fields outside the town there are fields of them.

That means restaurants like Afrogonia can serve up quality meat. But they’re not alone. There are others.

For example, El Azador Patagonia, a parilla that specializes in lamb. Next door to a solid vegetarian restaurant called El Living, this meat lover’s paradise is a hidden gem. Perhaps it’s because it’s next to a hippy, animal lover’s café (you know, black looks blacker when next to pure white) but this place makes killer food.

Here’s a hint. When you eat the lamb, don’t cut off the fat. It’s the best part. I made the mistake on my first bite. Never again. Skipping on the fat is like watching the broadcast cut of Wild Things; with all the best bits left out, what’s the point? The thick layer of fat that lined the lamb cuts is where the action’s at, sort of like bacon or pork belly.

Don’t sleep on the lamb tongue salad either. It’s got a bit of bite from a mixture of garlic, vinegar, peppers, and onion–only a lonely farmer would want them any other way.

But there’s more. Walk the streets and you’ll find heladerias (ice cream shops) selling lucuma ice cream. Even the lomo a lo pobre (tenderloin served with an over easy egg over French fries) from the neighborhood restaurant is solid. It’s a town full of surprises.

Walk around the town, away from the main drags and you’ll discover some downright beautiful, rundown buildings. Amongst the colorful facades you’ll occasionally find homes made of unpainted sheet metal that shamelessly blind passersby with the reflected rays of the sun.

After six days of trudging through Torres del Paine, it’s a welcome bit of civilization. A piece that’s more civilized than one might first imagine.

GALLERY: Click through for bonus pics of things?

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