I’m looking out over Lake Llanquihue from our hillside hotel window in the Bavaria-like town of Puerto Varas, Chile, with some apprehension. My spirits are high after my field trip by bus and boat to the mountain retreat of Puella, a resort hidden away in a national park near the border with Argentina. I am awed by the natural beauty of crystal clear lakes and rivers, snowcapped volcanoes, and lush green countryside.
As I gaze upon the compact pickup truck that Hertz dropped off out front, the realization hits me that I am committed to six weeks of driving the length of Chile. That’s a little intimidating. Most of the leading on this trip has been done by someone who knows the area, the language, and perhaps most important, the route. I’m good with directions. I can envision a route after reading a map. However, locating addresses and landmarks in cities I’ve never been to makes me as nervous as going to the dentist. (Is this going to hurt?)
The back seat is loaded and we’re off to our first stop, the coast city of Valdivia. Right away I love Route 5, the Pan American Highway of Chile. Accurate road signs are great, and the gas stations along the freeway are truck stop havens with restaurants, convenience stores, and showers. Most driving days require about four hours on the road, and we typically allow three days in each town. That’s pretty easy going with plenty of time to explore each spot along the way. We are in the aptly named Lakes Region of Chile which is lush and fertile with a distinctly rural feel. Locals pour into the area for summer vacations, and Pucón is a tourism paradise. The town is pretty dead when we are there because it’s not summer.
Spring is only a week away, but it’s still cold. Our host tells us they have already used an extra cord of firewood for heat this year.Heading north into the Rivers Region, we enter Chile’s agricultural heartland. Everything grows here – citrus, berries, vegetables, potatoes, olives, and grapes. Especially grapes, as Chile is now being one of the world’s leading wine exporters. Like the San Joaquin Valley of California, this area has the capacity to feed most of the continent. We leave the main highway opting for the coast route to Concepción, and we see hundreds of acres of eucalyptus trees growing on tree farms. Logging trucks slow our progress going uphill and tailgate like hell going downhill. AAGH!
I fast forward past Valparaíso, Viña del Mar, La Serena, Bahía Inglesa, Antofagasta and Iquique. Each location is worthy of mention. However, the Atacama Desert of northern Chile cannot go without elaborating. Average rainfall is measured here in millimeters. Absolutely nothing grows for countless miles. Vast areas look like the surface of Mars. Its beauty is almost haunting in its desolation. And in the middle of all this seclusion is
San Pedro de Atacama. Its treasures lie hidden behind high adobe walls and dusty dirt streets. There are restaurants, gift shops, hostels and campgrounds, hotels, spas and resorts. At first glance no one would expect the allure and incredible diversity of this remote outpost.
We have a week in Santiago before our departure. There is time to reflect on the Vacation of a Lifetime. I have had four months to see amazing places, to meet people I will never forget, and to recalibrate my perspective. This was unquestionably a lifetime highlight, and there is no conclusion to the story. I now treat every day as an extension of a vacation I waited too long to begin. I have dubbed myself global explorer. I will share my stories with anyone who is interested as I endeavor to live up to that title. I suppose that will be my legacy.