There are a lot of things I could talk about – the strange prevalence of English-language 80s covers as the ambient airport music, the unnerving little trash can in every bathroom stall with warnings about not flushing paper down the toilet, the casual companionship of street dogs, the acute self-consciousness at my utter inability to speak Spanish or even fake it convincingly, doubly embarrassing for someone trying to be a naturalized Californian – but all the details are less important than the settings. And boy, does Chile have settings. There were three towns in particular that struck me, in increasing order of appeal.
First was Puerto Varas, a town of just under 40,000 in the lakes district. Despite being largely settled by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, my own German skills availed me naught (until Easter Island, but that’s another story). But PV was a town that reminded me of Hida, Japan: old world small town architecture, volcanic mountains, sprawling lake. It felt more like South Lake Tahoe than anything, because it was obviously the jumping-off point for all manner of young backpackers and hikers and international party types. I am not athletic or young enough for any of that sort of thing, but there were plenty of folks around who were and they gave every impression of having a fine old time of it. This was the starting point, and it was a great one. Riding through the rural hills to this ranch or that market, seeing the occasional tiny grocery at roadside with a Coca-Cola-sponsored sign out front, it was possible to squint your eyes and imagine yourself in the backroads of rural north Alabama – and there was one place where we had a feast of pit-cooked shellfish that had so much carefully cultivated hydrangea and painted-tire planters that I would have sworn we were at my Mamaw’s house.
Punta Arenas, on the other hand, felt exactly like what it was: an Old World town of a hundred thousand that just happened to be plunked at the end of the world. It felt like a frontier, rather like I expect St. Louis felt when the Mississippi was the border of “real America”. It is the springboard for many Antarctic expeditions, so much so that it is under the ozone hole itself, and so far south that the landmass across the water on the horizon? That’s Tierra Del Fuego. You’re at 53 degrees south latitude and seven thousand miles from home, and I could feel every one of those seven thousand miles out on the square at sundown. You’d have to go back to Budapest in 1992 to find the last time I felt so far from home – and I’ve been to Ireland, Switzerland, Paris, London and Tokyo in between.
Two and a half hours northwest, though, is Puerto Natales, the capital of the province of Ultima Esperanza – Last Hope – and really the only town there. The population is barely 19,000, mostly supporting tourists headed for the Torres del Paine national park and its mountains and glaciers. It feels like a small town in the middle of nowhere, the sort of place where you expect to see Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman riding into town on motorcycles – or Clarkson, May and Hammond on whatever they could buy for a million pesos (about $1500). The sky was gray and overcast, the air was clear and cold, the wind wasn’t quite at Punta Arenas levels (no hurricane gusts here) and the first hotel in town had its latitude prominently displayed and looked like it had been bodged together from 2-TEU intermodal shipping containers. And yet, the hotel bars were thoroughly equipped and there was a gourmet food and wine shop that was very generous with their restroom and their craft beer selections alike, and a brick-oven pizza place with an Italian-language Swiss Consulate sign out front, and glowing-green Branca Menta served with ice and lime at only 25% ABV.
And it hit just the right note. This is away from it all. This is Patagonia, the wild wild south. This is rural and isolated and you’re two hours drive from the only city of 100,000 to be found for a thousand miles or more in any direction. And yet, you have cozy accommodations and plenty of places to get a beverage and perfectly good wifi and cell coverage (and, one assumes, satellite TV under the DirecTV brand, judging by the dishes on every house). And in Punta Arenas, I was reminded more than anything of the hotels on my first trip in 1992 in Eastern Europe: the feeling that you were far from home and on the edge of the known world, only with a refreshing glass of Fernet con Coca instead of making poor decisions around Campari or beers I’d never tried before.
It felt right. I said to my friends that being sat in a hotel lobby bar with a drink in one hand and my Signal-equipped iPhone SE in the other was my most natural state, and this trip did nothing to dissuade me of that notion. And we haven’t even reached the extremes yet, about which another post will soon follow.