Eat the Street -November 29, 2001
We've been in Isla Margarita off the north east coast of Venezuela for over a week now. There are probably 50 cruising boats from around the world at anchor here in Porlamar, the island's principal city. Margarita has an international reputation for sunny weather, fine beaches and superb windsurfing. Most of the cruisers are here for another reason - the island is a duty free zone. The provisioning opportunities are as good as you'll find anywhere in the Caribbean, especially for alcohol and fuel. For our thirsty auxiliary, a local penero (fishing boat) just delivered diesel to us in the anchorage for US 14 cents a litre. For our thirsty selves, we took a courtesy bus yesterday to a major shopping mall and returned with a case of quite decent rum priced at US $1.60 a bottle. Margarita can be a dangerous place for sailors who lack self-discipline.
We're enjoying another aspect of Margarita which we haven't experienced since we last visited Latin America a year and a half ago. We've been taking in the sidewalk cuisine. Of course, street food vendors are found the world over, from pretzel sellers in New York's Times Square to hot tea merchants in the dusty streets of Cairo. But it's hard to match the varied and tasty street food in the Spanish speaking countries of the Caribbean.
Virtually every downtown corner in a Venezuelan city will have at least one vendor selling something to eat or drink. Some of the offerings may seem deceptively familiar to a North American visitor. A couple of days ago, we stopped at a hamburger stand and ordered what we thought was going to be a simple chicken burger ("hamburguesa de pollo"). What we received was a huge sandwich containing a chicken filet, fried egg, slices of ham and cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato slices, guacamole, and (oddly enough) crushed potato chips - all prepared while we sat on stools on the sidewalk.
The more adventuresome gourmet will want to sample some of the local dishes. All manner of snacks are available involving a cornmeal pancake called an "arepa" and a variety of fillings - chicken, beef, ham, cheese, shrimp, fish - you name it. Equally popular is the "empanada", a deep-fried cornmeal turnover containing all of the same fillings and more. For dessert, there's usually no shortage of carts selling pastries and ice cream. Invariably, you'll encounter someone with a block of ice and a number of bottles of different flavoured syrups. With a tool somewhat similar to a carpenter's plane, he'll fill a paper cone with shaved ice and add the flavourings of your choice. Very refreshing on a hot afternoon (and all the afternoons are hot in Margarita!).
In our view, the best deals are the fresh fruit drinks. All the old blenders from the 1950's and 1960's in North America somehow made their way to the Caribbean where they've been given a new lease on life. With an ancient osterizer as his total capital investment, an enterprising Venezuelan can become a "batido" salesman. A batido is simply fresh fruit and ice thoroughly crushed in a blender. If milk is added, it's called a "merengada". The flavours depend on what's in season - mango, papaya, guava, pineapple, banana, cantaloupe and even watermelon (to name a few). And we never visit downtown without indulging in at least one glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. The oranges are squeezed by hand. Hard to beat at US 50 cents a glass.
Yes, Margarita is a dangerous place for those of us with poor self-discipline. We're having to loosen our belts a couple of notches.