Man In A Suitcase

Puerto Varas, Chile

When we last saw our intrepid traveler he was about to reach Puerto Frias, Argentina, on his way to the Chilean border. Let's skip ahead a few hours, past his encounters with immigration officials of both countries and an hour and a half of bouncing along dirt roads between them, past the catamaran ride on Lago Todos Dos Santos from Peulla to the black sand beaches of Petrohue. We're finally on the last leg of the lake crossing, a much smoother bus ride from Petrohue to Puerto Varas.

Eleven hours into the day's trip, I was less than enthused by a stop at Petrohue Falls. All I wanted was to get to my hotel and crash. Besides, after Iguassu how impressed could I be? But these falls were worth the delay. What they lacked in vertical splendor they more than made up in the sheer force of rushing water. The falls also provided me with the best view yet of the Osorno Volcano, inactive these last 150 years but still a mesmerizing sight.

I finally arrived in Puerto Varas, a hamlet of 30,000 on the edge of Lake Llanquihue. Once again I thanked the gods of banking and networking. How did travelers survive before the worldwide ATM network gave us access to our money any time and nearly anywhere? And then I enjoyed the view from my window of the lake and that magnificent volcano. It was startling to be in a place with air so clear; Osorno was able to dominate my view and my thoughts from hundreds of kilometers away.

Isla Chiloé, Chile

Choosing a tour package involves placing faith in the judgement of people you don't know. They usually try to justify that faith by providing plenty of detail on the various elements of the package, inevitably described in those glowing terms reserved for the travel industry. My package included a day trip to Chiloé Island. Why, I had no idea; on this occasion my documentation was curiously (ominously?) silent.

What I got was a pleasant surprise. Chiloé is an isolated fishing and farming community at the end of the Pan American Highway. Connection to the mainland is by car ferry. There are two big cities on the island, big being relative: 25,000 in one and 20,000 in the other. The islanders are neither Spanish nor Indian; current theories place their ancestry among either Inuit or Polynesians. The locals have a decided preference for bright colors on their buildings, perhaps to ward off the long, dark winters, and on their boats, to make them easier to spot in bad weather. Much of the fishing takes place on the east coast of the island, in shelter from the rough winds off the Pacific. (Whoever named it Pacific obviously had a sense of humor.) The island's economic balance was affected dramatically by a 1962 earthquake that turned a bunch of vegetable farms into oyster farms. They think it measured 8.3 on the Richter scale. But no one is sure; before that quake the scale didn't go above 7.

Ancud, the smaller city at the northern end of the island, was the least touristy and therefore the most interesting stop on my trip. As picturesque and colorful as it is, there are constant reminders that it is, first, a place where people live and work. Most tourists never know it's there; my copy of Fodor's has only one tiny mention of the island. Folks, you don't know what you're missing.

It's a strange and fascinating contrast to for this marketing guy to take his digital camera down to the pier and watch people who have to work for a living. And equally interesting if a bit disquieting to get so close to my food before it arrives beautifully arranged on my plate. Every so often I need a reminder that not everywhere is like Silicon Valley and not everyone sits in an air conditioned office complaining about their work environment.

Santiago, Chile

In Brazil and Argentina, I went from big city to small town; in Chile the process was reversed. Although after Rio and Buenos Aires, Santiago doesn't feel like such a big city. I'm told Santiago has a population of five million; from what I saw I'd have guessed at less than half that number. There's a smaller, more provincial and more intimate feel to Santiago, from the city market's seafood and butcher stalls (with a smell that has to be experienced to be believed) to the central train station, designed (as my guide stated with pride) by Gustave Eiffel. (The Tower it's not.) In fact, I heard regular comparisons to Paris: the Metro's rubber tired cars, the broad boulevards surrounding tree-lined parks. But if the inspiration was Paris the result is something far different. In Santiago the result is friendlier, less intimidating, more likable. Although there's one thing Santiago shares with Paris: it can be a bitch of a place for someone who speaks only English.

Santiago has its faults like most cities. It can be awfully smoggy, making the view from San Cristobal look less like paradise and more like Los Angeles. (Which I hope we can agree is something less than paradise.) And it has perhaps the least attractive river I've seen in a long time. The last time I saw water that color was in Willy Wonka. But once you get away from the river and the noise of the main roads it's a pleasant place full of attractive people. Attractive and short; it was a nice change to be in a place where I was average height. That alone earns a couple of extra points in my book!

Two examples of industrial might, old style and new. The first is from a stroll through the railroad museum. Given the challenges of Chile's geography (desert in the north, the Antarctic in the south and mountains all along, all in a country that's never more than two hundred miles east to west), railroads played an essential part in linking the country together. And even in modern times there's something almost primal about a locomotive, that great symbol of the industrial age.

In our time, of course, it isn't about big. Now it's about brands. And what brand is more pervasive than Coca Cola, especially in South America? I noticed this example on the side of a highway in the northeastern part of the city. It wasn't easy to get near it to take a picture; I ended up walking a half mile along the highway, expecting the local gendarmes to pick me up at any moment. But all turned out well; I got my picture and neither the cops nor the oncoming cars got me.

Viña Del Mar, Chile

For a country with so much coast, especially given its total area, the Chileans sure put their capital and biggest city a long way away. It's a two hour bus ride from Santiago to the Pacific, crossing two mountain ranges and a lot of vineyards, before you reach the resort community of Viña Del Mar. No little beach town this; it's a crowded and expensive city of three hundred twenty-five thousand. We stopped in town to see this statue from Rapa Nui AKA Easter Island, one of only two to ever be removed from the island. Then we went on to the beach, which was attractive and crowded with sunbathers despite a chill wind that had me thinking about extra layers of clothing. But there was nobody in the water; the combination of rough surf, a strong undertow and pollution problems makes this strictly "look but don't touch".

Talk about a study in contrasts! Next to Viña Del Mar is the port of Valparaíso, an equally large but not nearly so picturesque city. Valparaíso is an object lesson in the fortunes of history. Once a major port for anything going from the east coast of the Americas to the west, it went into a major decline with the opening of the Panama Canal. One major exception to the general decay of the older buildings around town is this purple house perched precariously on (and partially over) one of the city's hills. Given its location, I suspect the owners know that neglect could easily lead to a drop in their property values: about a thousand feet straight down!

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California