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Review: Puerto Varas


Puerto Varas, Chile

A week in the Chilean Lake District

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2513 reviews

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  • Nov 2008
  • Husband

192 people found this review helpful

We hired a car for a week to explore the Chilean Lake District. We picked up the car in Puerto Montt. It was the first time Michael has driven a car with left hand drive. The first hour was nerve racking while he got used to the car and traffic and I got used to the lack of road signs. Within minutes I had managed to navigate us into the fish dock, followed by the bus depot. After that things did improve.

We ended up heading southwest on Ruta 5 so we decided and decided to turn right and see where it took us. It was a good road with little traffic so gave Michael time to get used to the car and me the map. We ended up in Maullín, a small town which doesn’t get a mention in any guide book. There was a broad main street with a brightly painted church in the middle and some well maintained old buildings. Off this was a small market with fish and vegetable stalls. Locals were quietly going about their business and didn’t give us a second glance. A few miles beyond was Carelmapu, a small fishing village with huge nets of shellfish waiting collection by the fish quay. We drove back to Puerta Varas through gently rolling farmland with no settlements apart from a few old wooden farm houses and buildings. This is non tourist Chile and we enjoyed it.

We had a week booked at VIcky Johnson Guest House in Puerto Varas, see separate review.

PUERTO VARAS is a pleasant tourist town on the edge of Lago Llanquihue with a small sandy beach and lovely views across the lake to the snow capped cone of Volcan Osorno. The area was colonised by German settlers at the beginning of the 20thC and the pretty wooden wooden church was modeled on the Marienkirche in the Black Forest. We enjoyed walking through the streets admiring the large family homes built by the settlers. There is a large and good supermarket and selection of shops and cafes.

It is a good centre for exploring the area. We did all the touristy things in the Lake District. There are many National Parks with short walks to viewpoints, waterfalls etc through the forest.

We spent two days exploring the area around LAGO LLANQUIHUE, the second largest a lake in Chile. It is bright blue in sunlight fringed by woods and green fields with the mighty volcanos of Osorno, Puntiagudo and Calbuco reflected in the water on still days. We spent the first day driving out along the southern shore to Ensanada. It was a lovely run with views of the lake through Rio Pescado with its small wooden chapel and watermill. The Notro (Embothrium coccineum) was in full flower turning the hillsides red. Ensanada is a staggered crossroads with basic services. We took the road heading to the Argentine border which gradually began to climb through dense forest.

There is a huge car park for visitors to SALTO DEL PETROHUE. The waterfalls are reached by a lovely walk down through the woods, past a small craft shop selling a range of goods including good quality alpaca scarves at $10 for two which solved all my christmas presents. The river drops down through a series of channels carved out of black volcanic rock. The water can look green because of algae in it. As well as the waterfalls walk there is another trail called Lovers Walk which is less popular which follows the river through the trees below the falls.

We followed the river to the end of the road at LAGO TODOS LOS SANTOS. From here there is a boat across the lake to Puella where there is a short road to Puerto Frias and boat to San Carlos de Bariloche. This is a popular route between Argentina and Chile. There were a few houses and a small beach at the end of the road. The lake shores are covered with dense forest with snow covered mountains. There was a good breeze blowing down the length of the lake. It was pretty but we wouldn’t rate it as exceptional. we turned round and headed back to Salto del Petrohue to do the waterfalls walk again. The sun was catching the falls at a different angle giving them a completely different appearance.

From Ensanada we took the road which continues round the shore of Lake Llanquihue towards Las Cascades. This runs well above the lake shore across volcanic ash and lava flows from an eruption 150 years ago. Trees managing to find a foothold in the rocks were small and stunted.

The second day we drove round the west and northern sides of the lake as far as Las Cascades and back. First stop was at the small and very non-touristy town of LLANQUIHUE which hardly merits a mention in the guide books. It has a pleasant main street with small shops with older wooden houses on streets behind this. It had been settled in the mid 19thC by Germans who had built a pier for shipping on the lake.

Next stop was touristy FRUITLIIAR BAJO, a delightful small town on the edge of the lake and still has a strong cake making tradition. We found a small baker’s shop with a cafe behind near the Lutheran church. There were about 20 different cakes to choose from. The cakes were about 12" diameter and about 4" deep, made of layers of sponge, meringue, cream, fruit, nuts … slices were huge. You wouldn’t manage two. It was still out of season and a great fuss was made of us as we were seated and tea and cakes brought to us.

We also visited the small German Colonial Museum which is surrounded by spacious gardens. Old buildings typical of the area have been reconstructed on the site. There is a beautiful country house with large glass windows and small balcony with period furnishings and utensils. There is a large circular barn (campanario), now housing agricultural machinery and carriages. Traditionally horses and donkeys without shoes would walk in circles on crops to separate the grains from the chaff. There was a waterwheel and smithy with furnished house attached.

This was an interesting visit although there was little information in English.

Avoid Frutillar Alto at the top of the hill. It is newer and a dump.

From Fruitilar we left the main road and took the road which runs above the lake. It was a slow drive as there were road works but it was through pretty farming countryside with good views of the lake.

PUERTO OCTAY had been an important port on the lake around 1900. The own declined rapidly once roads and railway arrived. The church, the large convent building on the hill, some large merchants houses and the remains of some of the old warehouses date from this time. It is a plain little town which was trying to revitalise itself but seemed to be suffering from vandalism of improvements.

Beyond Puerto Octay was farmland with small and large farms. We dropped down to the beach at Puerto Fonck to try and find the remains of the pier used by shipping services across the lake at the end of the 19thC. Al that remains are a few bits of wood. There was a pretty church and we went for a walk along a track past small holdings with animals. This is well off the tourist beat.

We spent a long day driving to PUYEHUE which is on the main road to Argentina. From Puerto Octay there was a long stretch of ripio (unmade road) which was very, very slow through lowland forest with little settlement until we reached Ruta 215, the main crossing into Argentina. Coming back we stayed on the main road through Osorno which was longer but quicker.

There were a few nice views of Lago Puyehue and the Rio Golgol but there was a lot of forest scenery and it felt a long drive. This is an area of high rainfall and the lower slopes are covered with ‘humid evergreen forest.

We parked in the car park for PARQUE NACIONAL PUYRHUE. There was a map showing the different short walks. We started with El Puma trail first, which was shown leading to a viewpoint, past a small waterfall. It was a steepish but easy climb up through woodland with a superb view across the Golgol valley to Volcan Puyehue from a seat three-quarters of the way up. The top bit of the trail was much steeper and in retrospect not worth doing as the view wasn’t much better than from lower down. To our delight we saw a Magellanic woodpecker flitting through the trees. This is a black bird with bright scarlet head with a small crest. Michael tried taking photographs but it was impossible to focus clearly.

We then did the Saltas del Pudu walk, which we thought might be flattish but were soon disillusioned as it was longer and harder than El Puma. The waterfalls at the end were worth the effort. We finished off with a quick trip on the Salto del Indio trail to the waterfalls on the Rio Golgol.

We spent about six hours walking and only saw two other people. We had enjoyed the day inspite of the long drive.

On our last day we decided to head west away from the lakes towards the coast. Tourists don’t get into this area – it doesn’t figure in the guide books and I couldn’t find anything in English about the area on the Internet. We were hoping it would give us a flavour of the real, rural Chile. There was a network of gravel roads on the map with few settlements. Signing was non existent so I was trying to count road junctions and hoping they were all shown on the map. It was the kind of area you could get lost in for months and perhaps never be seen again…

We found a small village called PARGA with shop, school, church and a few houses. We parked by the church and walked down the road, stopping to take a picture of one of the houses. The road became a footpath with street lights and headed towards the river. An old man on a bicycle appeared peddling furiously after us shouting something. At first we thought it was along the lines of "You can’t go down there." We then picked up the word empanada and realised he was trying to sell us some. As it was getting near lunchtime we decided to take him up on the offer. Michael has a very limited amount of Spanish and he had no English so this was all done by sign language.

We assumed we would be taken to the house and buy a couple of empanada from his wife. We followed him and were taken through the back garden past with all the vegetables into a large wooden shed at the end, where there was a production line in operation. One old lady was rolling out the pastry and another two were filling and cutting out the empanadas. These were then handed to someone else who deep fried them in a huge saucepan of boiling oil over a wood burning stove.

In our innocence we indicated what we thought was one empanada each. We were sat down at a rickety wooden table like honoured guests with a piece of kitchen towel as a table mat. Someone disappeared to the house and came back with two china cups so we could have tea to drink. What we hadn’t realised was that one empanada meant one bowl with 12 empanadas … and every one stood and watched as we ate. They were delicious but very filling. We managed about three each before getting full. The remainder were carefully wrapped up and given to us – so guess what we had for tea that night. A message about us must have gone round the village as more and more people appeared to see us (and collect a bowl of empanadas too.) It was a definite highlight of the holiday. Our H&S police would never allow it to happen here…

This was part of a longer trip to Argentina and Chile. I wrote a summary review which can be read here:

Our pictures are here.

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