Some might say (and often do) that I don’t have a good sense of direction. While my sister is known as a Scottish Sat-Nav there have been times when I couldn’t direct someone two streets from my family home. The Egg Poacher claims a better internal compass, but considering recent escapades that include getting stuck on the side of a volcano and taking a 45 minute detour to a pub around the corner, I suspect what he actually possess is an ability to sound like he knows where he’s going. A relaxed approach to research and our strange insistence on not using a map can mean we find ourselves wandering streets for longer than sanity or an amicable relationship normally allow. And yet we continue to eschew Google and turn our noses up at guides, for this haphazard manner can reveal hidden corners and unmarked paths – normally safe before nightfall. This was to be the case in Chile, too, where an itinerant approach brought us some unexpectedly excellent cafes (and there’s little more satisfying than a surprisingly good coffee after you’ve been walking the streets for hours).
Nusta Cafe, Arica, Chile
Our first stop in Chile was the strangely uninspiring Arica, full of promise with a long stretch of coastline that turned out to be somewhat lacklustre against the backdrop of high-rise hotels and arid desert. Despite a wonderful stay in Hotel Apacheta we were ready to move on, and with time to waste before our bus out we sought out a cup of coffee from the clapboard cafe opposite. Though tiny and boasting a highway view, Nusta Cafe was a surprise, offering fantastic coffee and a small food menu served by a friendly and generous couple. It was here we’d experience the concept of ‘yapa’ first hand: the idea of a little extra for valued customers, usually offered by cholitas (stall owners) across the country, here embodied in the extra glass of smoothie I got, as well as a tour of the miniature space and its retro miscellany before our bus arrived.
Diablo Cafe, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Our most common introduction to a town – the bus station – isn’t always the most appealing. Though San Pedro’s was nicer than some (no visible cockroaches, relatively non-scabby dogs, minimal shouting) we weren’t expecting much, but after a long overnight bus we decided to linger for a much needed caffiene injection before finding a hostel. There are a couple of cafes to choose from, but Diablo’s striking wall art drew us in; inside, there were soothing tunes and local crafts on the wall and an incongruous promise of WiFi from somewhere so obviously surrounded by desert. A gleaming machine produced decent enough coffee, while from the tiny kitchen came enormous empanadas and various continental breakfast options, all excellent fuel for the short but intensely hot hostel hunt that was to follow.
Mackalo Cafe, San Pedro Atacama, Chile
Book-ending our trip through the Atacama and into the Bolivian Salt Flats, we’d returned to San Pedro before commencing our journey south. While waiting for our passports to be stamped at the nominal border post in town we spotted the ever-promising signs – chalk-covered A-board, gleaming chrome food truck – that suggested coffee was nearby. And so it was: a short menu offering various filtered options in Styrophome cups, it was expertly brewed and happily accompanied by crisp and delicious pastries presumably baked some distance from the truck’s diesel engine. There were plenty of cafe and restaurant options in the town itself, but few so unexpectedly good as this.
Cafe Forestal, Santiago, Chile
Through repeated experience we’ve finally learnt that the world – at least from a tourist’s point of view – closes on a Monday. Museums, galleries and parks are shut and despite the likelihood of a host of lost foreigners wandering the streets with nothing to do, restaurants and cafes often follow suit. During such a days’ amble past padlocked gates and ‘Cerrado’ signs we spotted the pretty exterior of Cafe Forestal, toying with us with its bunting, chalkboard walls and solitary Chinese cat waving from behind closed windows. When Tuesday came we filled our boots, visiting all the public buildings we could find and beating a path to Forestal’s door. And it was worth the wait – a tiny space with a few pine stools, the coffee was the best we’ve had in South America, with high-quality and Fairtrade beans shipped from Colombia and brewed with care. Coupled with some truly decadent cakes and a very friendly welcome, this unassuming little place would be on our map – if only we remembered to carry one.