Sleepless In Valdivia

You gotta love insomnia. We stayed three nights in a pleasant, secluded neighborhood in the (almost) seaside town of Valdivia. For two of those nights in a row I barely slept at all. We went from Valdivia to the absolute dump of a city that is Puerto Montt and I finally managed to nod off. Part of the insomnia was due to hard beds and biting cold. We’ve hit the region of Chile that’s chilly and wet all the time and none of the rooms we’ve found are heated. Sure, they’ll layer five heavy blankets on the bed, but that doesn’t help the rest of the time. At least our hostel in Puerto Montt keeps a fire going in the kitchen.

Tick.  Tock.  Tick.  Tock.

A big part of what kept me up, though, is that we’ve hit a stage in the journey where we have to invest a lot more energy and stress into planning ahead and that’s prompted me to start thinking about our lives once this saga is over. It’s become harder to figure out the basics of housing and transportation in our short-term future (given that we’re heading into tourist season and things are booking up more quickly).  That’s got my mind churning about the long-term future as well, dwelling on the difficulties of returning to the States and resuming our lives in whatever form they take.

Colored tile is in style in Valdivia.

How hard will it be to find jobs and an apartment? What unseen problems are going to crop up while trying to reestablish our lives? Will I eventually be able to make money from my writing, or will I have to go back to management and customer service? Will our cat even remember us? That’s a lot of uncertainty to process at 3:00 in the morning when the cold is causing condensation from my breath to build up on the inside of my C-PAP mask, which is also lovely.

Anyway, one positive thought to emerge from my middle-of-the-night ruminations was the decision to assemble and publish an anthology of my short stories that saw print during Phase One of my writing career (2008-2015) while I push forward on Phase Two. Next summer, dear readers, I expect you all to buy copies of The Unwinding House and Other Stories. Here endeth the sales pitch – for now.

On with the tourism!


Valdivia is a city just one or two river-bends from the Pacific. It’s here that the Lake District wears its German heritage on its sleeve. Many place names and businesses are German, as are the family names in the cemeteries. If I were a beer geek I would happily have tried the local German-style brews and compared them to the real thing, but unfortunately I can’t stand the stuff. Lea and I did, however, sample the local German cuisine.

Crudos. Because it’s too much trouble to cook meat.
Kuchen. This one is merely dry pound cake under a thin layer of raspberry.

The German food that’s popular in southern Chile isn’t the sausage and sauerkraut that I was expecting. Instead it’s kuchen, a word used for pie, cake, and cobbler that don’t resemble any German pastries I’ve ever seen, and crudos – or “raw” – which is the specialty of Das Haus 1959, Valdivia’s premier German eatery. Crudos is a thin layer of beef tartar spread over toast (see above). Lea enjoyed it, but my digestive system is firmly against raw red meat so I had to pass.

After four months of travel, Lea and I have become jaded toward the normal tourist stops. A museum of ancient artifacts? Sure, I guess. A collection of colonial Spanish art? If we have to. Ruins? Oh, please, no more. The first question we have of any place we visit now is, “What do you have that we haven’t seen yet? Is there anything original or unique?

Valdivia provides in the most German way possible – with a U-boat! Behold the Chilean naval submarine O’Brien:

Permission to come aboard, Cap’n?

The O’Brien was in active service from 1976 to 2005 and is now permanently docked in Valdivia as a museum. Tours run once an hour in both Spanish and English. Inside, the sub is amazingly cramped and endlessly fascinating. That 75 sailors lived on board for 50 days at a time is almost unimaginable, and to think that I’ve complained about the size of some of our hostel rooms. On the O’Brien I couldn’t even stand up straight without banging my hardhat.

The steering wheel.
The engine room.

Other sights in Valdivia include a Foucault’s Pendulum on the riverwalk, a lovely botanical garden on the UACh campus, and the nearby Parque Saval which features a sculpture garden and a pond full of lotus plants currently in bloom. On our last day we took a bus in the rain out to the Fuerte de Niebla, the old Spanish fort overlooking the Pacific and the mouth of Valdivia’s river. After that we took our final inter-city bus ride down the west side of the continent.

Blooms at Parque Saval.

Puerto Montt

There’s no nice way to say this – Puerto Montt is ugly. Puerto Montt is so ugly that if I were to take a picture of it, my camera would turn to stone. Puerto Montt is the port that marks the end of the Lake District and the beginning of Chilean Patagonia – channels, fjords, and inaccessible glaciers. We looked really hard at taking one of the cruises that sails from Puerto Montt and explores that region, but the cost and timing were both prohibitive.

However, there’s still stuff to do. Puerto Montt is just south of Lake Llanquihue and another of Chile’s most active volcanos, Volcán Osorno. We took a day trip to visit the lake, the volano, another lake (Todos Los Santos) from which several volcanos are visible, and the glacial blue Petrohue Falls. Before we leave Puerto Montt we’ll take another day trip south to Chiloe Island, but more on that next week.

Volcan Osorno from Lago Todos Los Santos.
Osorno and Puntiagudo from Petrohue.
The Falls at Petrohue.

It feels really weird to be typing this, but we’re almost at the halfway point. Months ago in Ecuador, in order to show “proof of onward travel” at border crossings, we booked a flight for December 19 from Puerto Montt down to Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego. That fixed date has always looked so far away, but now it’s upon us. Back then we also booked our accommodations for Christmas week, thinking all the places to stay might fill up before we got there. Beyond that we hadn’t planned much until recently.

Now, though, January has turned into a logistical nightmare. As I said earlier, we’re coming into High Season for tourism in the vast, barren wasteland that is Argentinian Patagonia. We’re going to cross from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, then north to see the glacier at El Calafate and the Marble Caves near Los Antiguos. The trouble is that those towns are packed out already, especially Los Antiguos which is having its annual Cherry Festival during the time we wanted to be there. There are no rooms available at all during the festival, so we’ve had to work our plans to get there ahead of it and still, barely, have a place to stay.

The rare bird that will hold still for a photo.

The great news is that in a few weeks Lea’s sister Lisa is coming to travel with us! Lisa is a travel pro who’s lived overseas, been on five continents, speaks multiple languages, has a degree in International Communications, and knows people everywhere. We’re really looking forward to sharing the road for a while.

Which reminds me… If any of you folks fancy taking a vacation south of the equator this spring, let us know and we’ll see if our paths can cross!