Puerto Varas is undeniably beautiful, but being there was a bit of a culture shock. Everything screams, “Hey, tourists! Come in here and give us your money!” There are hotels everywhere, restaurants with menus in English, and a massive casino. The campsite I stayed at cost more than twice as much as any other place I camped, but was about a tenth as friendly. The owners (managers more likely; the owner could live in Miami for all I know) never told me their names, and the only guest who talked to me was a four year old girl (“What are you doing? What’s your name? Who did you marry?”) and then later on, her parents.
I can’t really fault the place; after all, I normally don’t expect to meet people when I stay at hotels, and I certainly don’t resent being asked for my passport and entry papers or having to fill out forms. I had simply gotten used to a different kind of traveling, and a very different kind of environment.
Towns like Puyuhuapi, according to the tiny museum they have there, were formed when the Chilean government offered free land to anyone who was willing to settle in the middle of nowhere. In Puyuhuapi’s case, some young German guys took advantage of this offer and immigrated in the 1930s. The place was completely isolated and only reachable by water; there’s a picture of the first Jeep coming over with its front tires in one small boat and its back tires in another. When the Carretera was constructed, local residents pushed to have it routed through Puyuhuapi, finally giving them road access to the rest of Chile. And the road is still largely dirt and rock, often without services of any kind for miles and miles.
What this means is, people help each other. I told Marilyn I was astounded by her generosity, that I could never be as nice as her family, but when a bus broke down in front of me and the driver asked me for rope, I didn’t hesitate. Not because I’m nice, but because we are in the middle of nowhere and other people have saved my ass repeatedly and I instinctively feel that it is in my own self-interest to promote a culture where people help each other. If the same thing had happened in Puerto Varas, I would have probably looked at that same $4 strap I gave him and thought, buy your own damn rope. Find a mechanic; call a tow-truck; this is not my problem.
That might be my favorite thing about the Carretera — the sense that everyone is in this together. And, though I was always grateful to arrive at sections that were paved, I do wonder if the road improvements currently underway will change that culture. Hopefully not.
A wacky museum in Puerto Varas stuffed with art and random old things.
Across the street from the museum.