TORRES DEL PAINE, MAGALLANES, Chile — It was 6 a.m. and my sleep-deprived brain was wrestling with a very important decision, even more important than choosing between blueberries or chocolate chips in my pancakes. Would I get out of bed and hike one of the most beautiful vistas in South America, or would I play the part of human slug and remain in bed for another precious two hours of sleep?
The hike in question, to the stunning Mirador Las Torres, is one of the most iconic in Patagonia. The reward for the strenuous six-hour climb is a view of the three granite towers that give Torres del Paine National Park its name, along with bragging rights and the chance to post heaps of eye candy to Instagram and Facebook. But on this particular morning I was exhausted from other hikes and adventures. The minutes ticked down. The van to the Mirador Las Torres hike would soon be departing.
What would Bear Grylls do? Certainly not what I did.
I breathed deeply, turned off the lights, and pulled the covers back over my head. Decision made. I was in Chile for vacation, and sometimes vacation involves staying horizontal on a pillow-top mattress. I’m not going to frost this bagel and call it a doughnut. I felt guilty as sin for missing the hike, but I was in Chile to recharge my internal battery, which was about as charred as a defective Samsung Galaxy 7. I know I could have accomplished the hike, but at what cost?
Before you dismiss my actions as those of a lazy, unappreciative pantywaist, please let me explain. I had been running around and exploring the wonders of Chile for a week. It’s a big, beautiful, colorful country. By the time I reached Patagonia I was working with a broken toe and a mysterious rash spreading across my face like a pestilent wildfire. When I looked out of my puffy, rash-ridden eye and hobbled along with the damaged toe, I could easily have been mistaken for an outdoorsy Quasimodo.
I needed rest and a few pisco sours, not another day in hiking boots that felt as if a rabid chipmunk was nipping at my arches. A well-planned vacation should include days for both adventure and relaxation. I’d had adventure, I needed to unwind. True, my excuses for missing the hike were about as flimsy as the plot of an Adam Sandler movie. At least I can honestly say that there is plenty of science to back up my gobbledygook.
The journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life published a study where researchers in the Netherlands found most people were not happier after a vacation. Nearly 1,500 adults were asked about their happiness before and after travel. The majority of active vacationers reported no change in happiness. What is the benefit of turning your vacation into “The Amazing Race,” and then sauntering into the office declaring that you need a vacation from your vacation?
“Vacations are usually most effective when you change your focus from doing to being,” clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis wrote in Psychology Today. I liked the cut of his jib, so I put my focus on being. On this particular morning it was being in bed.
Please don’t think I had missed out on the wonders of Chile (thank you for your concern). I spent several days in Santiago followed by exploration of the vivid cliffside homes and endless murals of Valparaíso and the beaches of Viña del Mar. After a few days of urban vacationing I took the three-hour flight from Santiago south to Punta Arenas, and then a five-hour van drive to the Hotel Rio Serrano. It’s the largest hotel in Torres del Paine National Park. After the five-hour van drive, I put on the rabid chipmunk hiking boots and got back in the van for another hour drive to Los Cuernos lookout point on a three-hour group hike.
The hike led us to the stunning, milky blue glacial Nordenskjöld Lake, where we saw guanacos grazing in the distance. The backdrop was snowcapped mountains that stretched more than 8,000 feet above sea level.
But the following morning, still carsick and jet lagged, I needed downtime. I made the fateful decision to stay in bed, and unwind at the hotel. Despite the guilt of missing the Mirador Las Torres hike, I didn’t feel as if I was missing out because I could see the mountains from the hotel. After breakfast, I sheepishly went to the activities office and asked if there was a hike I could do myself. One that was reachable by foot and not a dreaded van ride. There was a three-hour hike up the side of a smaller mountain to a place called Hidden Lake. It was strenuous, but not too strenuous.
This hike was exactly the kind of palate cleanser I needed. I could go at my own pace, not listen to guides try to explain everything we saw, and stop and obsessively take photos every step of the way. I was the only person on the trail and the quiet was delightful. This was my vacation from the vacation. I reached the top of the trail, and sat by the side of Hidden Lake, where I could stop and think about the things I’d seen in Chile. I could, as Michaelis wrote, focus on being rather than doing.
When it was time to get in the van the following day to see the electric blue glaciers and icebergs at Grey Lake, I felt no hesitation. Bear Grylls be damned. I had taken a vacation day in the middle of vacation and it was glorious.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Mutherand on Instagram @Chris_Muther.