I spent two weekends in a row in the south of Chile, first backpacking in Torres del Paine National Park and next relaxing in Puerto Varas. Chilean Patagonia extends all the way from the southernmost point (Antarctic region) up to the Lakes Region, including Puerto Varas. While each was magnificent, the back-to-back trips made me think about the pros and cons of destinations set up for tourism.
Chile doesn’t seem as accustomed to tourism (especially American tourism) as I expected…which in general I appreciate. Although I’m easily recognized as a foreigner, Chileans still tend to speak to me in Spanish; this is different than in Spain, for example. Signs and menus are not usually translated, and downtown Santiago is not filled with the souvenirs or groups of megaphone-led tours of many major cities. Along the same vein, the relaxed sense of time and dispersion of information make advanced planning nearly impossible—we once tried to take a bus to El Morado glacier (two hours outside of Santiago), only to find that the route stopped halfway. The driver was not sure when or if there was another bus that continued, and each store owner seemed to know a completely different schedule!
Torres del Paine, however, was another story. It attracts visitors from around the globe—on the trail and at the campsites, we chatted with travelers from Spain and Brazil, and probably heard more English than Spanish. The infrastructure was evident solely in the amount of transportation—our flight to Punta Arenas got in at 1 a.m., and we hired a driver to transport us the three hours to Puerto Natales. We craned our necks to watch endless stars streaming past, and remarked over and over again, “We are really far south!” Something about being far closer to Antarctica than any other place in the world was astonishing.
After two hours of sleep, we trod to the bus station and embarked for two more sleepy hours. When I opened my eyes, the windows were covered with condensation. I cleared a hole with my sleeve and could suddenly see the Torres, three granite towers looming over aquamarine water. We wound our way through meadows dotted with llama-like guanacos that turned their heads curiously on our way to the welcome center. When we arrived, there was a rare English translation of a speech that preceded disembarking, and we got on yet another bus that would take us to the base of the Torres.
The hike to the Torres took us over and then through a lush valley flanked on one side by an imposing wall of black volcanic rock, and finally up an exhilarating rock scramble to the pool at the base. Giddy from the hiker’s high and the majesty of the view, we lay on a boulder and ate tortillas with peanut butter as the sun turned the granite orange-yellow. Below us, a group gathered around a ukulele and sang La Bamba, while others posed on the rocks and drank straight from the glacial water. While there were English translations, the funniest example of it still not being quite right was the sign before the final ascent. It said, in Spanish, “Trail open until 4 p.m. Respect the schedule.” However, the English translation read, “Trail open even at 4 p.m. Respect the time.” We wondered if American tourists had ever gotten to that point and thought, Great! It’s late afternoon but it will still be open!
After a violently windy night, we waited on the black-sand beach of Pudeto for a catamaran to Paine Grande. As the boat pulled away from shore, more and more of the Cuernos (horns) became visible, spiky with layers of tan and black rock. From there, we trekked toward Grey Glacier, winds propelling us along the path faster than we could move our feet. Throughout the trip, we added to a checklist of things to go back and see in ten or twenty years with more time and money, and on the boat ride back the following day, we met women who had met studying abroad several decades before! We said goodbye to the park, vowing it wouldn’t be our last time there. That evening, we arrived back in Puerto Natales and feasted at El Cangrejo Rojo, where two women kindly kept the restaurant open late, chatting and bringing out beautiful plates of seafood.
The following weekend, we went back south to Puerto Varas, a charming port town with German architecture. We were undoubtedly in the rest of Chile, where organization is not the top priority. In town, we inquired about renting kayaks. Most of the employees there were out of town, we were told. But they should rent them hourly down by the water. Along the shore, no kayaks in sight, we were told that they probably just weren’t there on Fridays. Maybe come back tomorrow. After asking around for a while, we had given up and decided just to walk along the water, when we stumbled into a tourist center. Can we rent kayaks? we asked. Of course, the woman responded. I’ll call them up right now. We paddled in the shadow of the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes.
The next day, we had arranged a tour to the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park. While we had originally been told it was private, the driver texted me that morning that he added two more people. Predictably, we were never quite sure what we were doing…the driver would stop and tell us we were now paying for a boat through the mangroves, or a buffet lunch, or visiting an old mill. Luckily, we still were able to see highlights of the park including the Saltos de Petrohué waterfalls and the magical shores of Lago Todos Los Santos. It can be charming to let the days take you where they will, and for a Type A American such as myself, there’s something to be learned by relinquishing control and slowing down to the pace of another culture!
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<p class="MsoBodyText" style="margin-top:.4pt; margin-right:20.75pt; margin-bottom:.0001pt; margin-left:5.5pt"><span style="line-height:103%">I'm a lover of adventure, whether that's climbing mountains or exploring a new city. This has taken me from my hometown in North Carolina to the arctic circle and beyond, and most recently to Chile! I'm majoring in Biology on a pre-medical track, and I am thrilled to be learning medical Spanish in Santiago this semester.</span></p>