Puerto Varas, Chile
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.
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.
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.