Puerto Varas, Chile

Many of the backpackers I’ve met on this trip take offense if someone refers to them as a tourist.  “I’m not a tourist!” they protest indignantly, with more than a hint of self-righteousness.  “I’m a traveler.”

Tourists, they explain, stay on the beaten path, breeze through a place without bothering to understand the culture, and rarely meet anyone other than tour guides and fellow tourists.  Travelers, on the other hand, actively seek out unique experiences, interact with locals as much as possible, and immerse themselves in the culture of their destination.  In short, tourists are shallow and phony while travelers are deep and authentic.  (It can be tough to follow the logic, however, when it turns out the so-called traveler who just passionately denounced tourists hardly leaves the hostel and has spent the past three days drinking until dawn with fellow backpackers.)

In Puerto Varas I never made the leap from tourist to traveler.  I was burned out.  I stepped off the Navimag ferry in Puerto Montt and felt sad that my time in southern Patagonia was behind me.  I looked forward to meeting Marie in Santiago, but she wouldn’t arrive for almost a week.  The sky was gray and it was cold.  I’d slept well on the ferry but still felt tired.

Like most tourists I decided to bypass Puerto Montt and head 20 kilometers north to Puerto Varas, a small resort town on the shore of Lago Llanquihue, Chile’s second largest lake.  Thanks to an influx of German-speaking European immigrants in the 19th century, Puerto Varas has a Germanic feel.  Bakeries sell strudel, many of the churches are Lutheran, and a large percentage of the residents speak German as well as Spanish.  I had flashbacks of Swakopmund, the heavily German city on the Namibian coast.

Much of Puerto Varas’s popularity comes from its views of the picturesque Volcán Osorno, an active volcano topped by a snow-covered cone, and Volcán Calbuco, also active.  On clear days you can even see the summit of Monte Tronador, the mountain I’d visited during my stay in Bariloche, Argentina, just across the border.  But when I arrived in Puerto Varas all I could see was a wall of flat gray clouds rising from a gray lake.  It rained all afternoon.  I hid in my hotel room.

When I woke up the next morning I was grateful to hear rain outside my window because it gave me an excuse to skip pre-dawn photos and go back to sleep.  Later I walked along the shore of Lago Llanquihue until hour after hour of gray grayness numbed my senses.  I spent the rest of the afternoon reading.


Shrine in a Puerto Varas Park


The weather forecast for the next day looked hopeful.  The receptionist at my hostel suggested that I take a bus to Osorno and hike up one of the trails, which is what I should have done.  But I didn’t have the energy to deal with public transportation.  I booked a day tour instead.  I wanted someone to pick me up and drive me around.

We left the next morning in a mini-bus.  I joined seven other tourists, all South Americans.  Four were Brazilians and three were Chileans from Santiago.  They all seemed nice and several of them made an effort to include me in their conversations, but I just couldn’t motivate myself to be social.

So far there hadn’t been any break in the clouds.  We drove right past Volcán Calbuco and couldn’t see a thing.  Our first stop was Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, which, according to our guide, is the second-oldest national park in the word.  A little subsequent research revealed the guide’s claim to be way off-base, but the park, established in 1926, is at least one of the oldest in South America.  Teddy Roosevelt apparently visited the area in 1913 and suggested that Chile should follow the example set by Yellowstone and start protecting its most scenic land for future generations.


Boats on Lago Todos los Santos


We went for a short hike in the park and then drove towards Osorno.  The stubborn shroud of clouds covering the volcano finally lifted, at least temporarily.  We pulled over to the side of the road for photos.


Osorno Summit Above the Clouds


Volcán Osorno Hipstamatic


A series of switchbacks led up the side of the volcano.  We ate lunch at a small restaurant that on a clear day would have had amazing views of Lago Llanquihue, but the clouds allowed us only sporadic glimpses of the lake.


Lago Llanquihue from Volcán Osorno


A short drive from the restaurant took us to a ski lift.  Ski season hadn’t started yet, but the lift was running for tourists who wanted to ride to the top of the slope.  The chairlifts were vanishing into thick clouds that would ruin the views further up, so I decided to hike along a nearby trail instead.  On the way back down the volcano we passed a family of foxes near the road.


Trail Leading up the Osorno Volcano


Osorno Summit White on White


Chilean Fox


We returned to Puerto Varas before sunset.  I did a double-take:  for the first time in three days both volcanoes were visible.  Giddy, I ran to get my tripod.  There was no wind and the temperature had risen.  The peaks of Osorno, Calbuco, and even Tronador shone yellow-orange in the warm light of the early evening.


Osorno Volcano at Sunset


Sunset on Osorno and Calbuco


As I sat on the shore admiring the mellow post-sunset colors, a full moon rose just to the right of Calbuco.  What luck – I happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with a tripod already set up.  The photos, unfortunately, don’t even come close to capturing the beauty of the moment.


Calbuco and Full Moon from Puerto Varas


Hotel Cabañas del Lago in Puerto Varas


Hotel Cumbres in Puerto Varas


I can’t help but feel a certain amount of guilt when I hit a down period during this trip.  I’m almost always in an incredible place and I can basically do whatever I want, whenever I want.  What excuse is there for not fully appreciating every second?

And then I remember that a year is too long for someone to be constantly elated.  On a one-week vacation I can ride a travel high the entire time, but this is different kind of trip.  Sometimes I get burned out and act more like a tourist than a traveler.  Sometimes I feel lazy, uninspired, lonely, and cranky.  But it passes quickly.  I know that if I’m patient the clouds will eventually part.

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