In the northern Chilean desert, San Pedro de Atacama’s artists draw inspiration from landscape and wildlife

A tile mosaic on the side of a one-story building in San Pedro de Atacama captures the animals and scenery that visitors will see around this small town in northern Chile. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the ninth post about my adventures. See September 10, August 27, July 27, June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.

When I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, artisans were about halfway finished installing a tile mosaic on the front of a one-story building in this dusty small town in the Chilean desert.

The mosaic illustrates the natural wonders that draw tourists to this region: a snow-capped Andes peak, rendered in shades of blue, tan and white, capturing the slanting play of light on the mountain; long-legged, black-tailed pink flamingoes; furry tan vicunas, members of the camelid family; and green cacti reaching skyward on a reddish-brown mound of sand, signifying the desert.

I think the left side may have been portraying the ragged cliff and rock formations of the Valley of the Moon, an evocative, close-by destination perfect for a challenging hike.

At the top, in a deep blue sky, was a Gaviota Andina, a black-headed gull, white wings spread in flight. Below, the sky gave way to a wide, lighter blue panel.

The lower half of the mosaic was yet to be completed. Stacks of colorful tiles, cans of adhesive and a wheelbarrow were among some of the tools and supplies on the sidewalk in front of the artwork.

The building was about a five-minute walk from the hostel where I was staying, and so over the four days that I called San Pedro de Atacama home, I passed it about eight times as I made my way to and from the center of town.

Every day, a bit more work was completed. It was beginning to look like I would get to see the mosaic in its entirely before I departed.

San Pedro de Atacama predates the tourist boom, its surrounding acreage rich in copper and quartz. Nowadays it’s abundant lithium that’s drawing multinational mining corporations to this South American country. Yes, the lithium that powers your smart phone batteries and so much more.

For visitors, the scenery and wildlife are the attractions, and many of the 4,000 or so residents have some hand in the tourism industry. They might run a hostel or hotel — or work in one; they might give tours out to the national parks’ salt flats, where the flamingoes play; to the stark landscape of the Valley of the Moon; or drive the predawn mountain run so passengers can catch the El Tatio geysers spouting off at sunrise (see July 8 post).

Earth tones and brighter colors often combine in tapestries, table runners and woven tote bags made by local artists. I bought a small, supply-laden llama figure like those on the second shelf at left. 

Or they might be craftsmen or artisans, making a living selling their brilliantly colored cloth wares and pottery. In stalls and markets, hand-woven fabrics and spools of yarn, covering the spectrum of the rainbow and then some, provide a glorious contrast to the white walls and red-brown clay adobe architecture.

When the sun is as bright and unrelenting as it is here, it’s best to harness it, as one craftsman was doing in front of a shop. A piece of multicolored striped cloth was draped over his head and shoulders, completely shrouding his face.

No high-tech equipment for this artist, who was making the most of the sun’s rays to burn a decorative lizard into plank of wood.

He was sitting, bent over a long, thin plank of wood, with just his hands and heavily tattooed forearms visible. (If not tattoos, then tattoo-like sleeves covered his forearms.)

In his right hand he held a large magnifying glass horizontally over the plank, concentrating the powerful rays to burn the lines and curves of his design into the wood. At this moment, he was forming the tail of a crowned lizard, splayed at the top of the plank.

With his left hand, he was grasping the plank between his thumb and fist, steadying it, balancing it across his blue-jeaned knees.

On the ground to his left was a sign written in Spanish. Coins were tossed atop it, obscuring some of the words. Mostly likely it said something about donations being welcome.

The afternoon light shining through the wooden slats made a pleasing geometric pattern on the ground at a small craft mall near my hostel.

At one of the smaller craft malls between the center of town and my hostel, the sun again played an ornamental role. In a large open space, horizontal and vertical lines composed a geometrical pattern on the ground, the shadows cast from the overhead wooden slats lining the top of open metal framework.

Caracoles Street is the busiest in town, with shops, restaurants and lodging nearby, if not on the street itself. The small church, the Iglesia San Pedro, was touted in guidebooks as an oasis of white in a sea of adobe. That description was off the mark.

Several guidebooks I’d read before my trip indicated that the wall around Iglesia San Pedro and the building itself were totally painted white. As you can see, that wasn’t what I found.

It’s in a small plaza, just to the north, of the western side of Caracoles, closer in fact to a street called Padre la Paige. I don’t know whether some sort of renovation was under way, or the townsfolk decided they just wanted a change. But not a speck of white paint remained on the exterior. Just adobe, adobe, adobe.

The tree-lined plaza was decorated with balloons and signs noting that it was hosting a “Mountain Do” event, three simultaneous trail runs of 42 kilometers, 23K and 6K, from town out into Valley of the Moon. I met a man from Brazil who was visiting specifically for the race, and he competed in the middle distance.

One of the few tree-lined spots in the middle of San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama in looks has much in common with the American Southwest of the 1800s and early 1900s — from the mostly one-story adobe buildings to the wind-blown tumbleweeds, to the cloudless azure sky to the unsparing sun. Some November mornings can be blessedly cool, but by early afternoon, knee-baring shorts, ample shade and a cold drink are in order.

Yes, I got to see the finished mosaic. Green shrubs sprouted around and under the hooves of the vicunas, against the white-rocky terrain in the foreground. The flamingoes were given a blue lagoon, their habitat in the national reserves. At the bottom edge, a pretty border of light gray and tan separated the art from the sidewalk.

Quick reference: Latam has many flights from Santiago to Calama, the closest city of size to San Pedro de Atacama. At the airport, several companies offer minivan transfer to San Pedro. The ride is a bit over an hour on a national highway that was in excellent condition when I visited.

San Pedro has a wide range of accommodations. The closer to the center of town you stay, the more you’ll pay. I stayed at Hostal Solar, Volcan el Tatio No. 737, Licancabur, San Pedro de Atacama. It is about a 10- to 15-minute walk to town (website has a map). It has only 10 rooms. I made the reservation online; the site was mostly in Spanish, but it has been updated to include English. My en-suite room (very small bathroom) had a queen-size bed. Towels were provided. Remember, you are in the desert: Rainfall is rare. Therefore, take very quick showers. No television or radio. A small interior courtyard ringed by the rooms is a gathering place for guests. Made-to-order breakfast is included. Most days it was eggs, bread and cheese, served with good, strong coffee. A full-size refrigerator is in the entryway, provided for guests’ food and drink. The refrigerator by the breakfast room dispenses cold, filtered drinking water. In the evening, thermoses of hot water, cups and materials for tea and coffee are available in the entryway. No staff are on the premises overnight, so guests have keys to unlock the hostel’s front door in addition to their room keys.


Two quick-and-easy recipes to help get an impromptu party started

Three-bean chili and corn muffins will put some heat into your next gathering. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Did September sneak up on you? Did the summer heat and humidity make you long for cooler temperatures and keep you out of the kitchen except for the most basic preparations to feed your family?

Now that standing over a stovetop for more than 10 minutes isn’t so taxing, are you eager to get together with friends and watch some football (or your favorite sport)?

With these recipes for vegetarian chili and corn muffins, you can prepare both and be ready to eat in less than an hour. Get the chili going first, then turn your attention to the muffins.

Buy (or make) your preferred appetizers, put the beer, soft drinks and water on ice, and get cooking! (Have your friends bring dessert.)

This vegetable chili might become one of your favorites, based on its simplicity and depth of flavor. Aside from dicing the vegetables, it’s really just opening a series of cans. Purists can rehydrate their own dried beans overnight, of course.

This also works nicely as a last-minute weeknight meal, served with a mixed green salad.

My Southern friends might be appalled that the corn muffin recipe doesn’t contain lard or anything else that unhealthy. And they may well consider it blasphemy that the cornbread isn’t prepared in a cast-iron skillet.

But as I’ve said in this space before, all recipes are suggestions. It’s up to you to tailor the basics to your palate. So … sometimes I make this cornbread as muffins, sometimes in an 8-by-8-inch well-greased glass dish.

I always have powdered buttermilk on hand. I like Saco Cultured Buttermilk Blend in the 12-ounce round container, available in Walmart, many grocery chains and online. It keeps for months in the refrigerator. Directions for substituting  powdered buttermilk for liquid buttermilk in recipes are on the container’s label.

King Arthur Flour also makes dried buttermilk, sold in a 16-ounce bag. I’ve never tried it, but the company’s products enjoy a solid reputation. Its website says that the reconstituted powder is not for drinking out of a glass. That likely applies to the Saco brand also.

If you don’t have powdered or liquid, don’t worry. You can make your own “sour” milk. Put 1 tablespoon white vinegar or 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice in a measuring cup. Add regular milk (I use 1 percent) to 1 cup mark. Allow to stand for about 5 minutes. Stir lightly. Use as directed in the recipe.

Now, you are ready for some football — not to be confused with soccer, as our British friends would say.


I use light red kidney beans, black beans and cannellini beans, but feel free to substitute your favorites.

Vegetarian Three-bean Chili

Hands on: 10-15 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes, longer if you like thicker chili

Serves: 4-6

You’ll need a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven to make this chili, and if you are doubling the recipe, either a huge Dutch oven or two on separate burners. As with all chili, if you like toppings such as sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese or onions, by all means, let your guests add them at the end.

I’ve also made this chili with bite-size pieces of boneless, skinless chicken breast. But I prefer it without the poultry.

If using dried beans, reconstitute enough so that you have 1 3/4 cups of each type. Any three types of beans can be used in the recipe, not just the ones in the ingredient list. Canned beans range in volume from 14 ounces to 16 ounces. Size variations are acceptable.

If you like a very tomato-e sauce, used 2 (8-ounce) cans of tomato sauce and reduce the vegetable stock or water to 1/2 cup.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup onion, cut in dice (I prefer Vidalia onions)

1 cup red bell pepper, cut in dice

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped (optional)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried coriander

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 cup vegetable stock, or water

1 (16-ounce) can cannellini beans (white kidney beans), rinsed and drained

1 (16-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 (16-ounce) can red kidney beans (light or dark), rinsed and drained

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (28-ounce can) diced tomatoes (with juices)

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels (unthawed)

1 tablespoon granulated sugar (optional)

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper and jalapeño, if using. Cook vegetables, stirring frequently, for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until they begin to soften.

Add cumin, oregano, coriander, cayenne pepper, chili powder to the Dutch oven. Cook, stirring constantly, to allow the spices to bloom, about 1 minute.

Add the stock or water, the three types of beans, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes and juices, and corn. Add the sugar, which will help cut some of the acidity from the tomatoes.

Cook over medium-low heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Stir often, scraping the bottom, to make sure the chili doesn’t stick or burn. If the chili seems too dry, add 1/2 cup water and cover the Dutch oven.

Add salt and pepper. Restir and taste. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Serve in large bowls, with optional toppings, and corn muffins.

Leftovers can be refrigerated, up to 5 days, in an air-tight container, or kept frozen for about 3 months.

Adapted from “The Earthbound Cook: 250 Recipes for Delicious Food and a Healthy Planet” by Myra Goodman with Pamela McKinstry, Sarah LaCasse and Ronni Sweet (Workman Publishing, 2010, $20.95)


Using paper liners in muffin tins makes clean-up a breeze.

Basic Corn Muffins

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 30-35 minutes

Makes: 8-9 large muffins, or about 15 regular-size muffins

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter or margarine

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon granulated sugar (or more to taste)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk (see note above)

1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (unthawed, optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a microwave-safe container, melt the butter or margarine. Set aside and allow to cool. I use a large glass bowl for this step.

Grease muffin tins or line with paper cups (like you would use for cupcakes).

In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. Mix lightly with a fork or whisk.

In a small bowl, whisk egg until smooth. Add buttermilk and whisk to combine.

Pour buttermilk mixture into the cooled butter or margarine and whisk to combine. (Make sure it is cool; you don’t want to cook the egg at this point.)

Gradually add flour mixture from the medium bowl to buttermilk mixture, stirring until evenly moistened. Do not overmix; it “toughens” the muffins. The batter may have small lumps. That’s OK, but if it bothers you, mix a little more. Add kernels, if using, and mix.

Fill muffin cups three-quarters full. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The tops will be golden when baked.

Allow muffins to cool completely, if you can wait that long. This step helps the paper liners to peel easily from the muffins.

Serve with butter, jam or honey. Or your favorite chili.

They’ll keep for about 5 days in the refrigerator. To rewarm, lightly toast before serving. They also freeze well. Wrap them individually for best results.

Adapted from “The Totally Muffins Cookbook” by Helene Siegel and Karen Gillingham (Celestial Arts Publishing, 1995)

The tale of Hoa Hakananai’a, an Easter Island statue nearly 8,500 miles from home

On the back of Hoa Hakananai’a’s head, two stylized canoe paddles flank a standing bird in right profile. At shoulder level are facing carvings combining bird heads and human feet. The moai is one of the most popular displays at the British Museum in London.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the seventh post about my adventures. See August 27, June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.

In 2010, the BBC, in conjunction with the British Museum, aired a radio series with the characteristically understated title “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” based on the museum’s vast — and I mean vast — collection, “exploring world history from 2 million years ago to the present.”

Each program was 15 minutes, written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, then-director of the British Museum. A book of the series was also compiled. (MacGregor stepped down in 2015.)

An Easter Island moai, transported nearly 8,500 miles, clocks in at number 70 of the 100 objects. This well-preserved, long-eared, square-headed stone giant, with the name Hoa Hakananai’a is today on display atop a square plinth in Room 24, under searingly bright overhead spotlights.

It’s also one of the most popular pieces in the museum, if the number of people pausing to take photos in front of it, are any indication. In May, when I stopped for several days in London on the way home from Portugal, I revisited Hoa Hakananai’a (“Stolen Friend” or “Hidden Friend”), which I had seen on previous visits to England’s capital.

Cambridge University-trained linguist James Grant-Peterkin, a native of Scotland but living on Easter Island since 2000, takes issue with the translations of the moai’s name. He believes “the breaker of waves” is more accurate.

Having now been to Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) and understanding far more of the history and culture, I wanted a fresh image of Hoa Hakananai’a, both in my mind and from my camera.

This nearly 8-foot-tall moai (missing his bottom half) was taken from Rapa Nui by the HMS Topaze in 1868. Some sources say that it was a “gift” from island chiefs, newly converted to Christianity, who at one time believed the moai protected Rapa Nui’s inhabitants and embodied their ancestors’ mana or power.

The moai’s original home was the Orongo ceremonial village, on the southwestern tip of the island, far away from the quarry at Rano Raraku, and from other moai in general.

Orongo, an isolated, cliff-top site, is archaeologically linked to the cult of the Birdman, which British researcher Katherine Routledge detailed in “The Mysteries of Easter Island,” published in 1919, based on her 17-month stay on the island. Thus the avian and fertility carvings on the back of Hoa Hakananai’a make perfect sense.

The drawing at right, part of the informational boards at the Orongo site on Easter Island, details the moai’s carvings more clearly. The two photos at left show Hoa Hakananai’a at the British Museum.

Online, I found a photo claiming to be taken in 1868 of the moai on a ship, with all the carvings distinctly outlined in paint. No viewer has to strain to see the standing bird figure, in right profile, in the center of the head, and the stylized canoe paddles topped by mini-moai heads sandwiching the bird.

Or the two facing birds, shoulder high, with human-like feet, just above the rainbow-shaped girdle at midback. Their upraised beaks touch, at neck level,  below the bird on the moai’s head.

Nowadays, the paint is gone, and even with the moai so elevated at the museum, these details are plainly evident, though a little harder to see.

The birdlike figures also match hundreds of petroglyphs found on the boulders at Orongo village.

American archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has been studying and excavating on Rapa Nui for decades, says this moai was carved from basalt — not the volcanic tuff that the majority of the moai are made of — and buried upright to its shoulders in one of the stone homes at Orongo. Its back was to the home’s door.

One school believes the carvings on the back were added much later.

Reports say that 300 crew of the British ship and 200 islanders dragged the 4-ton statue, secured with ropes, down the cliff and to the waiting frigate.

HMS Topaze also brought back a second statue, known as Moai Hava (“Dirty Statue” or “To Be Lost”), weighing less than four tons and in poorer condition than Hoa Hakananai’a. Moai Hava, taken from the Mataveri area, near the present-day airport, has periodically been loaned to other institutions, but it is not on view at the British Museum.

Back in 19th-century England, the Lords of the Admiralty offered both moai to Queen Victoria, who donated them to British Museum in 1869.

Rano Kau, on the southwest corner of the island, is Rapa Nui’s largest volcanic crater. The dip in the rear indicates that the cliffs below are eroding into the sea below. A long time ago, the crater lake supplied fresh drinking water to this side of Rapa Nui. Freshwater reeds form the mats that sit atop water that’s about 46 feet deep.

The Orongo village site, occupied only seasonally, was among the most significant ones that American anthropologist-archaeologist William Mulloy explored and helped to restore. (See my August 27 post for much more on Mulloy.) It is directly west of the crater of Rano Kau, one of the island’s three main dormant volcanoes, and hugs the cliffs towering about 1,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean.

This is another gorgeous Rapa Nui vista, though the wind can be annoyingly persistent. Beware the swiftly moving clouds, threatening to bring intermittent rain, as was the case when I visited last November.

A small display and visitor center explain the Cult of the Birdman in illustrations and text, and the restorations done at Orongo.

Moto Nui is the biggest islet; Moto Iti is in front of it, and Moto Kao Kao in the foreground. Competitors in the Birdman Competition scaled down the cliffs and swam to Moto Nui to await the first egg of the migrating sooty terns.

From the village, looking south to the sea, are the tiny specks of land known as Moto Kao Kao (“thin islet” in the Rapa Nui language), Moto Iti (“small islet”) and Moto Nui (“big islet”). There are 12 other islets, but they don’t figure in this story.

Archaeologists date the site to the 1600s, when the moai-carving era was coming to an end. Some posit that the clans were warring at this point, that the moai were being toppled in fits of revenge, and no longer exerting “power” over the islanders.

If these conditions were, indeed, accurate, they signaled a shift away from the influence of the chiefs and priests (think rank and status), and the near-revolutionary rise of the warrior class, with its own ideas about leadership.

Henceforth, physical ability partially leveled the playing field, with selected representatives participating in an annual, grueling athletic contest to determine the dominant clan for the coming year.

And thus the Birdman Competition — a combination of climbing agility, swimming ability and patience, with a religious component to boot — was inaugurated as part of a monthlong celebration.

In spring, September in the Southern Hemisphere, islanders eagerly awaited the migration of thousands of white-breasted sooty terns, who laid their eggs on the offshore islets. As the birds arrived, the athletes and the most important members of their tribes would make their way to Orongo.

The slab-stone houses provided protection from the wind, high up on the cliffs at Orongo. American anthropologist-archaeologist William Mulloy and a team of islanders restored 54 of these houses in 1974.

The tribesmen lived in slab-stone houses, with Rano Kau providing the large sections of basalt used in construction. In 1974, Mulloy and the islanders restored 54 of these sturdy dwellings, most of which faced the islets, all the better for watching the Birdman Competition. Some of the structures were even interconnected.

The Birdman winner was the athlete who got his hands on the season’s first egg laid on Moto Nui, obtaining it being no easy feat. First the competitors descended via a path in the crater, out its back and then down the ragged cliffs to the sea. Next they swam, hauling meager supplies on a bundle of buoyant reeds, to the islet, a distance of more than 1 mile (about 2 kilometers).

There they passed the time in a cave, until the egg-laying began. Once the all-important egg was secured, the victor signaled to the spectators back at Orongo of his success. His goal on the return swim, with the egg in a small basket tied around his head, was not to break the egg.

The athlete was rewarded for his efforts, but it was the chief he represented who ascended in importance, as did his clan. For five months of his year-long reign, the new Birdman lived alone, a servant bringing him nourishment.

The Birdman Competition continued until about the 1880s, when Christianity came to the fore. Present-day islanders pay tribute to the competition during the annual Tapati Festival in February.

No eggs are involved, but physical tests for the scantily clad competitors include canoeing across the lake’s crater at Rano Raraku (on the northeast side of the island), a footrace where each barefoot competitor carries heavy, arm-filling clusters of bananas, and then a swim across the lake on a reed “surfboard.” Competitors must be Rapa Nui men.

Hoa Hakananai’a was brought to England on the HMS Topaze, and presented to Queen Victoria, who donated the moai to the British Museum in 1869.

More than 6 million people visited the British Museum in 2016. Fewer than 60,000 make the trek to remote Rapa Nui, 2,300 miles west of Chile, each year. Is it better to have Hoa Hakananai’a spark people’s imaginations where he is, to dream of one day seeing the hundreds of moai on Rapa Nui in person? Or is it time to send Hoa Hakananai’a and Moai Hava home, returning these important cultural works to the people of Rapa Nui?

Quick reference: For more on “A History of the World in 100 Objects”:

For more on Jo Anne Van Tilburg’s work, see the Easter Island Statue Project’s website:

For more on Moai Havi:

In Portugal: Contentedly indulging in rich custard tarts and sweet port wine

Sugar-dusted mini custard tarts and ruby port were delivered by hotel staff as a welcome gift in Lisbon.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth post covering my spring trip to Portugal. See June 2 for a post about unexpectedly meeting TV travel host and author Rick Steves in Lisbon, July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto, and August 20 about cork and its importance to this western European country. 

Shortly following afternoon check-in at my hotel in Lisbon, there was a gentle knock at the door.

Hmmm. What could this be about? I hadn’t asked the desk staff for anything. I had barely said hello to my friend Sylvia, who had flown in from a different American city, and who had checked in several hours earlier and already taken a nap.

Standing at the threshold of our room was a smiling young woman holding a tray, upon which were four mini custard tarts on a plain white plate and a red-foil capped, 375-milliliter bottle of ruby port from brand Niepoort, founded in 1842, and based in the northern city of Porto.

That’s what I call a welcome “welcome”: two of Portugal’s best-known foodstuffs generously provided by the hotel with its compliments.

Custard tarts, known locally as pastel de nata, feature a flaky puff pastry shell, filled with a not-overly-sweet egg-and-cream center, usually served hot from the oven. What looks like small brown scorches — they don’t taste burnt — are the results of being baked in a 500-degree-plus oven. (Some sources says they’re baked at 800 degrees, but that would have to be at a commercial operation.) Those in the know sprinkle a bit of cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar lightly on top before diving in.

As part of the pastry tray at breakfast, as a midmorning or midafternoon snack, or as dessert after dinner, there really isn’t a wrong time to indulge.

And a bounty of bakeries around the country are there to help. You can’t walk too far in Lisbon without one of these specialties — or some other interesting confection — beckoning to you. Each bakery has its own version of the recipe, and you’re not likely to be disappointed.

Employees at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém work swiftly to package custard tarts for customers to take home. 

Among the most popular places to enjoy a custard tart is at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, across from the waterfront, in the Belém section of western Lisbon. According to one guidebook, it turns out up to 10,000 handmade tarts a day following its super-secret recipe, and up to 20,000 on weekends.

For those taking away, special paper tubes help to protect the tarts on their journey.

In the kitchen, away from prying eyes, long ropes of puff pastry dough are rolled out and then sectioned off into single pieces. The dough chunks are flattened into a round, then pressed in the bottom and up the sides to the rim of individual tart tins.

They are placed close to one another, 60 at a time, in a high-sided baking tray. Next, they are filled with an off-white creamy custard mixture, before the trip to the sizzling oven. (You can see the process on the bakery’s website. See link below.)

The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, composed of white limestone, is a monastery and abbey near the waterfront in the Belém section of Lisbon. The Praça do Império (the square with the trees and greenery at left in the photo) is directly south of the monastery.

Antiga Confeitaria traces its secret recipe to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The enormous, white-limestone monastery and abbey of the Hieronymite religious order is listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.

It’s just a block from Antiga Confeitaria. The monastery is the final resting place of explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) and 16th-century poet Luis de Camões (c. 1524-1580), who wrote an epic poem about da Gama’s first voyage to India. Da Gama is said to have spent his last night before his departure at the monastery.

In the early 1800s, a sugar cane refinery and small store were next to the monastery, which was shut down by 1834 following abolition of the religious order (delayed fallout from Napoleon’s territorial ambitions of the Peninsular War).

A clever soul, eager to find a new way to survive, began making the tarts in a building adjacent to the refinery. Visitors, peckish after a tour of the monastery and the Belém Tower farther west on the riverfront, spread the word, helping to make a viable business of selling custard tarts. Few know the recipe, but today’s rendition at Antiga Confeitaria is claimed to be exactly the same as the original from 1837.

The line forms to the right for patrons who want to get their custard tarts to go from Antiga Confeitaria.

While we were there in the waning hours of a Saturday afternoon, the line of people waiting outside to order to-go tarts wasn’t too long. At busier times, the idea of queues extending down the sidewalk wasn’t hard to envision.

We decided to go inside for a more leisurely break. The restaurant can seat 400 patrons at once, many of whom order just the tarts, known here as pastéis de belém, or with another light snack.

Blue-and-white seemed to be the color scheme, with hundreds of tiles lining the walls. Some of the scenes depict Belém in the 17th century, when, with access limited to boats, this area was considered to be a good distance from Lisbon. It’s now easily accessible, connecting via metro and trolley.

The specialty of the house, pastéis de belém, right out of the ovenat Antiga Confeitaria. All the tarts need now is a sprinkling of cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar. 

We each ordered a tart; Sylvia had coffee and I had a bottled mango juice drink. The tarts, by the way, cost just 1.10 euros each (about $1.23).

Service was quick and the tarts arrived nice and toasty. At our hotel, I had been having my morning mini tart unadorned. This time I tried the cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar on top, the deep red spice imparting that extra “oomph.”

Portion-size was just right, as the tarts kept at bay any hunger pains until we headed toward dinner.

Back home, I searched for a recipe to attempt to duplicate the tarts. Many online assertions were made as to authenticity, but the recipes varied so much, it’s unlikely that any of them were the real thing.

Some called for up to 12 egg yolks; others half or three-quarters that amount. Baking directions cranked the heat up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit (my oven tops out at 500) and leaving the tarts in for 10-12 minutes. Or 400 degrees at 20 minutes.

Some suggested pricking the puff pastry and blind-baking it before adding the custard. Others skipped this step entirely.

I tried another approach: I got a 2009 cookbook from the library written by an American of Portuguese descent who visited Antiga Confeitaria, and was given an “official” tour, though no secrets were divulged. I prepared this version.

The tarts were edible, as in I didn’t have to toss the whole batch into the garbage. But overall: Not. Even. Close.

And what’s especially odd, is that an online version from the same person in 2016  is markedly different — from number of yolks, to amount of sugar in the custard to making the pastry from scratch. The earlier version allowed for store-bought frozen pastry and using heavy cream instead of milk, among other alterations.

So for now, I’m still searching for a recipe that’s a reasonable facsimile to what we enjoyed in Portugal.

Quick reference: Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém 84-92. 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, October to June, to midnight July to September.

Inspira Santa Marta Hotel, Rua de Santa Marta 48, Lisbon, Portugal. Excellent breakfast buffet, large rooms and friendly staff. The hotel is about a five-minute walk along the upscale Avenida da Liberdade to the Avenida metro stop.