Thursday, June 23, 2016

Reflections on My Patagonia Trip

My trip to Patagonia ended seven weeks ago. As with all my travels, I have spent time reflecting on the trip.

In Reflections on My Turkey Trip: What I Learned About Myself, I compared life experiences to the tiles in a mosaic. Just as tiles are combined to create a unique picture or pattern, our experiences combine to create a mosaic of our unique selves. And just as a mosaic becomes clearer with a greater density of tiles, our true selves become more apparent as we acquire more life experiences.

The individual tiles in this mosaic are photos from the Patagonia trip.
You may wish to enlarge the image to fully appreciate the mosaic.

The Patagonia trip added more and more tiles to the mosaic of my life. Though some of these experiences confirmed what I already knew, others revealed new insights about Patagonia, Chile, and myself.

Things I Learned About Patagonia

There is No Reason to Be Concerned About Wildlife or Critters

Unlike wild areas in North America where one has to be concerned about encounters with bears, rattlesnakes, or ticks, there is no threat of wildlife or critters in Patagonia. We didn't even bother with hanging our food sacks at night!

Patagonia Exists at Both Ends of the Spectrum

At one end of the spectrum is extreme wilderness; at the other end is extreme tourist trap. A majority of Patagonia exists at one end of the spectrum or the other; there isn't much in-between.

After days-upon-days of biking in challenging conditions...without showers...while rationing dwindling food supplies...we were always anxious to pedal into a town where we could escape the winds, clean ourselves, and restock our panniers. But as soon as we got to the towns and saw the caravans of buses and the gobs of souvenir-laden tourists, we couldn't wait to escape back into the wilderness. Without a proper balance, we eventually (and surprisingly) tired of our time in the wild.

Everyone has a Different Definition of Adventure

South of the Carretera Austral we saw a number of tour operators that touted their adventurous vehicular tours. One such tour company was called Extreme Patagonia. It's tour vehicles were a cross between a bus and a tank; they could have safely carried passengers through war-torn regions in the Middle East. Not to mention that the vehicles were super-duper posh -- stylish, with fantastic shocks that seemed to float their passengers atop the varying topographies of the roads. As we struggled to pedal along the headwinds and beat-up roads in Argentina, we couldn't help but laugh at the adventure these tourists were having. The tourists snapped many photos of us crazy cyclists, as if we were actors paid to look like we, too, were having an extreme adventure.

While we were in Patagonia, a friend of mine shared a blog on Facebook called Kev & Em Go Global. The blog is written by a couple who are on a four-wheeled expedition around the world. In their post called Ambling Through the Wilderness, the couple discussed their expedition through Patagonia. The blog post reads: "The only thing that frustrated our bliss was the stress every time an oncoming car sped at us." Wow, if Kev & Em were stressed by oncoming traffic while they were sitting within the confines of a metal'n'glass-enclosed automobile, imagine the stress of oncoming traffic when sitting entirely exposed atop a bicycle saddle!

I suppose I wasn't surprised when Kev & Em later wrote about one of my favorite towns along the Carretera Austral, Coyhaique. "That night, we pulled into Coyhaique with, probably like most travellers, the express purpose of picking up some supplies and running a few errands. While the town itself wasn’t anything special, it was in a stunning locale and the people we met were really helpful." What?! Nothing special?! Try getting out of the little bubble that is your car and actually explore the town!

Biking the Carretera Austral is More About Mental Exhaustion than Physical Exhaustion

Before the trip, I had read many blogs about cyclists who had toured in Patagonia. They bitched about the wind and wrote that they could only bike a measly 30 kilometers a day. I dismissed these cyclists as buffoons. After all, I could easily sustain 70+ miles a day! Only after experiencing the winds and shitty roads for myself did I understand where these cyclists were coming from. These cyclists were reassigned from the buffon bucket to the oh-holy-wise-ones bucket.

For the record, it is truly a challenge to bike from south to north, against the prevailing winds. Cyclists traveling in the opposite direction would often coast for miles at a decent pace, with perhaps a soft pedal here-and-there just to keep their legs from falling asleep.

Things I Learned About Chile

Chilean Spanish is Not Spanish-Spanish

I took seven years of Spanish in school, and I spent a few months brushing up on my Spanish before leaving for Patagonia. So, you can imagine my disappointment when we arrived at the end of the world, and I could hardly understand any of the spoken Spanish.

The Chileans are quick to admit that they speak a different kind of Spanish. For one, they speak ridiculously rapidly. For two, they drop a lot of s's. Call me silly, but these s's are critical to Spanish comprehension! For three, they use a boatload of slang. And for four, there is only a minute overlap of vocabulary between Chilean Spanish and the Spanish-Spanish I learned in school.

Like I told Brian, unless you plan on spending a lot of time in Chile, if you want to learn Spanish, I suggest going to another country.

Books are Hard to Come By

Books are a very important part of my life, and the Patagonia trip showed me just how much I take books for granted.

When we spent time in Cohayique, our first "real town" in Patagonia, we were impressed by the town's library. It very much looked like a library you'd see in The States -- lots of books and computers and knowledgeable librarians. We were thrilled to get our own temporary library passes!

As we traveled further north and encountered towns with greater frequency, we expected to find even better libraries. And bookstores -- oh, we were hungry for books! Alas, Valparaíso, the second largest city in Chile, had a sad excuse of a library. And bookstores (or at least the ones we were familiar with) were hard to come by. What was the deal?

As it turns out, books were limited under Pinochet's realm. By the end of his heyday, books had fallen "out of fashion," if you will. Nowadays, books are very expensive in Chile. As for the library in Coyhaique, we learned that the library is a rarity; it was developed and funded by expats.

Things I Learned About Myself

Bicycle Touring is Best Suited for North America...

The first two and a half months of the trip were focused on bike touring. My preferred style of bike touring involves challenging days, simple meals, and sleeping under the stars. Not to discredit the beauty and uniqueness of Patagonia, but there were a number of times when Brian and I noted the similarities of our touring experience in Patagonia with our experience biking along My Mostest Favoritest Bike Trip: Central Oregon. We agreed that we didn't need the expense and hassle of transporting ourselves and our bikes to another hemisphere to have these experiences. After all, dirt road climbs, noodles, and sleeping in a tent are pretty much the same all the world over.

What did I learn? In the future, I'm leaning towards limiting my bike tours to North America -- the US, Canada, and Mexico. There are so many wonderful places to explore on this continent that are representative of geographies all over the world.

...Whereas Bicycle Traveling is Best Suited for Other Parts of the World

While we were bike touring, we met a ton of German, French, British, and Aussie cyclists, but we met very few Chileans. Constantly being on the move and constantly passing through tourist-centric towns made it difficult to interact with the natives. Only when we hunkered down in Chilean towns to live as the Chileans do (ten days in Coyhaique and six weeks in Valparaíso) did we begin to learn the culture.

When I travel overseas, I'm interested in acquiring unique experiences related to the cultures. These experiences are best obtained by staying in one place and living like the locals. These experiences, though, don't need to be exclusive of bicycling. Regardless of whether bicycles are a common form of transportation in a particular realm, I want to travel (whether to the market or to neighboring towns) via bicycle.

What did I learn? Future international travels will involve bicycle travel, as opposed to bicycle touring.

International Travel is Easiest With a Folding Bicycle

Traveling by bus, train, and hitchhiking isn't common in the United States. But it is common in other countries, especially those where car ownership is limited to the wealthy. Folding bicycles, such as Bromptons, are ideal for this type of mixed-modal transportation.

What did I learn? It's time to acquire a folding bike!

The Earlier a Foreign Language is Learned, The Better

I had considered taking an intensive language course when I first arrived in Patagonia, but the existence of traveling companions and a change in travel schedules altered those plans.

Unfortunately, I didn't begin to wrap my head around Chilean Spanish until well into our trip, when we spent time living in Coyhaique and Valparaíso. I feel as though I missed out on a lot of opportunities for conversation early on in the trip.

What did I learn? The next time I travel internationally and wish to communicate in the native language, I will study the language either before I leave for the trip or as soon as I arrive (or ideally both).

I Need to Live Near Nature

I very much need to be surrounded by trees and water and the quiet of nature to feel as though I am myself. Though I look forward to living in towns all over the world, it's important to me that these locales have access to nature. With its nearby trails and mountains, Coyhaique filled my need for nature; Valparaíso did not.

About three-fourths of the way through our six-week stint in Valapraiso, Brian and I were desperate for nature. We took a bus to the botanical gardens in the neighboring town, Viña del Mar, to spend the day amongst nature. Though the gardens were not at all up-to-par with botanical gardens in The States, we were thrilled to be amongst trees and to breathe in the fresh smell of eucalyptus.

What did I learn? In the future, I will choose to live in a foreign town that has easy access to nature.

I Prefer to Live Life While Traveling

When people travel, they often put a pause on their everyday lives. Of course, this is a necessity with respect to some aspects of living, such as visiting face-to-face with friends. However, in my opinion, pausing life for travels gives an unrealistic flavor to the travels. Plus, there is a lot of catching up to do when the travels end.

One thing I made a point of doing on this trip was continuing to live my life, to the best of my abilities. This was difficult to do when we were biking through the remote regions of Patagonia, but we were able to do so during our stays in Coyhaique and Valparaíso. Brian and I dedicated the mornings to leading our normal lives -- sharing email correspondences with friends and Skyping with family, reading books, and doing self-study on various topics. In the afternoons, we set out to explore the town on foot, to picnic in one of the many city parks, and to enjoy in local activities.

What did I learn? I will continue to live my everyday life while traveling. For me, experiencing the "mundane" activities of everyday life in different cultures is far more rewarding than eating in Americanized restaurants, staying in Europeanized hotels, or being shuffled along with hordes of tourists through overhyped tourist traps.

My trip to Patagonia taught me a lot. Not only did I learn about Chile and Patagonia, but I also learned more about myself. Those learnings will be invaluable as I move forward with my life and my travels.


  1. Wow! I love your recaps and reflections! There are so many things I could comment on, but I will go with these 1) I would go nuts without books as well. The main reason I carry my ipad is for the kindle, so I understand completely your hunger when there is a book drought, I woulda started to read the tags on clothing... 2) People do have a different definition of adventure. I know people who have gone to Rainier time and time again and only left the car for the visitor center! And finally 3) Nature is a must, I have to hear the trees breathe!

    OK not finally but this is, I look forward to coming along on all your future adventures!

    1. Thanks, Tony! Reading the tags on clothes is a grand idea! Why didn't I think of that? ;)Fortunately I had a bunch of books on my Kindle to read; it was wanting to browse through Spanish-language books that I craved. :) As for the different levels of adventure, I'm sure there are folks who look at my adventures and think..."wimpy." I reminded myself of this when I heard about a woman who unicycled through Patagonia. Now *that* is one heck of a hardcore adventure!

    2. That is amazing. And I have had people tell me they would never do what I have done as it is Hardcore and I look at what you do in amazement. Perspective it is!

    3. Indeed. It's all relative!

  2. i just want to know how you did the mosaic - that is so cool!

    1. Great question! I printed out all the photos from the trip, arranged them until I was happy with the layout, pasted them on a large piece of cardboard, and then snapped a final photo. :)

      Or...I might have just downloaded mosaic creation software from the interwebs. ;)


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