Puerto Varas – Los Lagos

I love to drive. Unfortunately, the geography of Chile doesn’t lend itself easily to driving. If attempted, the drive from Santiago to Puerto Varas would have been over 10 hours and 1000 kilometers on some sketchy roads. It’s the kind of time not available on an 8-day itinerary.  It’s an hour and a forty-five minute flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt, and then another 30 minute drive from the airport in Puerto Montt to Puerto Varas. Much more preferable than the drive, although a lot less adventurous. The flight was on a Airbus A321 on LATAM Airlines, basically the first leg of three to get us to Puerto Montt for a two day stay,  and then from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas for the part of our trip promising the most adventure and discovery in the Chilean Patagonia north of Puerto Natales.

Getting the rental car at the Puerto Montt airport was very straightforward. The drive from the Puerto Montt airport to our hotel in Puerto Varas was a meandering trek through sparsely populated Lakes District countryside on what continued to be a lovely sunny day, but a bit cooler due to being farther south. Puerto Varas is focused on tourism with hotels and restaurants all along the lakefront. This was evident as we entered the city by car from the airport, and made our way toward our hotel driving through the residential parts of the city.

 

Settling in

Puerto Varas reminds me of a lesser frequented Florida beach town – it’s touristy but not overwhelmingly so. On arrival to the Hotel Cabana del Lago, we checked in, and were pleased to discover that all the rooms were facing Lake Llanquihue, and all the rooms and cottages had panoramic views of the volcanoes across the lake. We had a cottage with a kitchenette, and a living room area. The main room in particular had lots of glass to take in the panoramic scenery.  Stepping onto the balcony was like stepping into the panoramic views.  it was just gorgeous, like the kind of scenery that can’t be truly represented with as many photos as one takes, and as carefully selected as one tries, it just doesn’t convey the same feeling as being there. The hotel was a multi building complex with plenty of amenities, including spa, workout facilities, swimming pool, restaurants, in short everything you expect from a high-end hotel. The most welcoming facilities for me were the glassed in informal dining/bar area, and the expansive terrace with panoramic views across the the lake toward the volcanoes.

 

Tour of Volcan Osorno

With the views so beautiful and enchanting right in front of me, I wanted to see the rest of it from a more intimate vantage.  So we hopped into our rental vehicle, a little Ford four-wheel-drive SUV not available in the States.  All wheel drive wasn’t a necessity, it’s what they offered at the airport rental counter. We took a tour around Lake Llanquihue, completely circumnavigating in a leisurely day trip excursion from the hotel. Along the way we stopped at several points to take in the scenery and bring back memories.

The trip around  Lake Llanquihue basically broke down to four parts.  For part one we stopped at the Parque Nacional Perez Rosales Laguna Verde. Certainly not a highlight, but the first stop in the circuit. For part two we drove to the Saltos Rio Petrohue section of the park, an area where we had fast-moving rapids, surrounded by picturesque scenery. Stop number three we arrived at a place where we could park the car and hike along a sandy path to the mouth of the Petrohue River at the junction with Lago Todos los Santos for some very cool photos of Volcan Osorno in the distance. This was a bit of a bittersweet experience because while the views were amazing, we had to contend with biting horseflies menacing us whenever we stood still to take a photo. You know you’re off the beaten path when there’s not a soul in sight and you’re horsefly chow. The final leg of the round-the-lake trek was the drive up Volcan Osorno Centro de Ski.  There were very few people wandering about as it was summer, and the main use of the facility was for skiing.  There was a self-serve zipline facility from near the top of the volcano.  But the most interesting part was wandering about, taking it all in, and returning with some hard to describe photos.

 

Discovery Trek

The town of Puerto Varas is basically the interior of the Lake Llanquihue facing resort complex of hotels and amenities. The interior of the town neither had a lot of pedestrian traffic nor a lot of automobile traffic. There was no need for an automobile unless leaving town as everything was easily accessible on foot. The weather was lovely mid-70s blue skies –  couldn’t ask for better walking weather.  With the low humidity, we had the sensation of being in the mountains with a little nip to the air, but in reality we were just a couple hundred feet above sea level.

 

Food Scene

We kept seeking out “local fare” with a bent towards seafood.  We asked for restaurant recommendations from the concierge.  I’m not sure I got the best of recommendations as I believe the staff was put off by us not dining at the hotel. My hunch is that the hotels do have the best fare in Puerto Varas as strongly hinted by the meal we had at Hotel Cabana del Lago.  The food at the restaurants we patronized to this point on the trip was good, but didn’t rise to any loftier level beyond good.

 

Las Buenas Brasas

This place was tucked away, needing a walk through little garden to enter the restaurant.  It was a mainstream restaurant catering mostly to tourists. This was one of the very few restaurants that had an English speaking waiter.  More seafood, and it was good, but of note was the Sea Urchin roe – Uni in Sushi Speak.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found it on the menu.  I asked the waiter how it was prepared, expecting to hear something bizarre I hadn’t come across before.  He offered to bring me a sample to avoid the effort of a difficult explanation.  The sample turned out to be more generous than what would pass for a $20 serving at a good US Sushi Bar. It was great. Absolutely fresh. Naturally I ordered it as an appetizer, and it turned out to be more Uni than I’d had before – like accumulated ever.  I have to emphasize how fresh this was, because this sort of thing is to be avoided if anything other than very fresh.  People that love Uni will know what I’m talking about.

 

Donde el Gordito

This place was featured in one of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episodes, and there’s a photo of him with the owner proudly on display.  It’s a hole-in-the-wall mom and pop run seafood restaurant featuring large seafood portions, hence gordito in the name. It was good, and there was plenty of it.

 

Hotel Cabana del Lago

This was our final meal in Puerto Varas before heading to the airport in Puerto Montt for our flight to Puerto Natales.  This was by far the best meal in Puerto Varas, which is why I suspect the better fare is at the hotels in this town.  The food was elegantly prepared and served. Everything was fresh, and the service was impeccable.  The view can’t be beat either.  Trying to go local for food, which is one of the things I like to do to accomplish immersion, is not what I would advise here. The local stuff was “meh”, and the hotel offering was superior.

 

Epilogue

In closing, Puerto Varas was the perfect stop off before getting to the epic portion of the Chilean trip – Patagonia and Torres del Paine National Park. There was enough to do to keep us well engaged for a couple of days. The circumnavigation of Lago Llanquihue, and the visit to Volcan Osorno was just as inspiring as it was beautiful, and memorable. And the little walkabout the town of Puerto Varas away from the touristy bits also was interesting. From a food perspective, The Uni experience in Puerto Varas will stand out as a memory for a long time.  All my favorite Sushi places will have a new mark to hit for Uni – but never to be attained for quantity, even if they hit the mark for quality.  The Lakes District, if not Puerto Varas specifically, would be a very interesting place to come back to for further exploration. There are lakes scattered all over the map leaving plenty of opportunity for exploration, and justifying why the rental car companies offer all wheel drive vehicles.  Surely there must be places where that feature would be put to good use.

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Chile Travel Planning – Santiago, The Lakes District and Patagonia

Chile travel planning

Motivation – Chile Travel Planning

Of all the countries is South America, why would I choose Chile as the first to visit for some personal vacation time. Personal safety comes to top of mind as a motivator. Chile is safe to visit, even for those that speak no Spanish, with a low incident of crime. Chile is tourist friendly, with a young vibe, particularly in the capital city of Santiago. In fact, I’ve never traveled to any country that accepted more variety of credit cards, in more places than Chile. I eventually stopped withdrawing local currency from ATMs in favor of using my Amex card in restaurants and shops, and found nowhere it wasn’t accepted.

But the strongest motivator for Chile would be its great outdoors. Having read all about the Lakes district near Puerto Varas, mesmerized with the photos of Chilean Patagonia, and hypnotized with YouTube videos of Torres del Paine National Park, a trip to Chile was inevitable for me.

 

Logistics -Chile Travel Planning

I selected the time around Christmas and New Year for the trip for 2 basic reasons. Opportunistically, I had time off from work as paid holiday and didn’t have to dip deep into vacation time. Late December, and Early January in Chile is essentially the beginning of Summer, and pretty good weather to do the outdoor activities I had in mind in South America – In particular it is a good time of the year to visit Chilean Patagonia, and Torres del Paine National Park.

Air transportation in and out of Santiago was convenient from Atlanta, my home airport, with direct flights available. Flights from Santiago to Puerto Montt in the Lakes District, and Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia were available through LATAM Airways, and surprisingly inexpensive. For example, a round trip itinerary from Santiago to Puerto Montt, Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, and finally the last leg back from Punta Arenas back to Santiago was under $200 per person. I had a very positive experience with LATAM airlines, a professionally run organization with good on-time performance, good personal service, and decent WIFI enabled entertainment onboard.

For ground transportation, rental cars were necessary in the lakes district, and in Patagonia. In the case of arrival at Puerto Montt, it’s basically a 30-minute drive to Puerto Varas, and no real options for alternate transportation like taxis. A rental car is also necessary to do a circuit of the lake, and to visit the volcanoes while in Puerto Varas. In the case of Punta Arenas, it would have been possible to take a bus to Puerto Natales, and another bus to Torres del Paine National Park, but this isn’t my style. It’s simply too inconvenient, time consuming (turn a 2 hour car drive into a 3 hour bus ride), and aggravating to deal with other people’s schedules. As it turned out, driving Ruta del Fin del Mundo was a must-have experience for me which framed part of the Patagonia experience in my mind, and couldn’t have been done without a rental car.

 

Itinerary -Chile Travel Planning

The basic itinerary selected was to spend 2 nights in Santiago, take an hour and 45-minute plane ride directly south to Puerto Montt, then rent a car and drive the leisurely 30 minutes to Puerto Varas. Spend 2 nights in Puerto Varas exploring the little city and its surrounding lake and volcanoes, then take the 2 hour+ flight directly to Punta Arenas. Rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle in Punta Arenas, and drive to Puerto Natales directly. Spend 4 nights in Puerto Natales, within a 2-hour drive to Torres del Paine National Park. I planned to visit 2 of the more accessible and jaw-dropping sights on the so-called W-trail in Torres del Paine National Park: Mirador del Torres at one end of the park, and the catamaran to the glaciers on Lago Grey at the other.

Other options would have been to spend some time in the Atacama high desert, but my motivation wasn’t there for a desert adventure, and the logistics would have been prohibitive as well, requiring a 2-hour plane ride from Santiago going north, while the both the Lakes District and Patagonia were several hours south, in the opposite direction, by plane. I also considered and passed on Valparaiso as a destination for this particular trip. It just didn’t fit with the “outdoor theme” as well as the Lakes District and Patagonia. Easter Island was never a consideration, although I was aware it could have been an option. Easter Island would have been a lot of time spent for little travel experience in return.

 

Resources -Chile Travel Planning

There are way too many behave-alike airfare search engines out there with little differentiation among them. For my time and effort, I find that I can’t do better than using google flights. I can’t beat it for accuracy, speed, and functionality. I searched and tracked the mainstream carrier round-trip flights to Santiago, as well as the local LATAM carrier flights from Santiago to Puerto Montt, and Punta Arenas through google flights, having made use to the tracking and notification feature to get good prices.

I find myself going to booking.com first for both hotel and apartment reservations anymore. I like their map function which displays available properties visually for easy decision making. Even better is the fact that it can filter both apartments and hotels together on the same map, giving a great comparison for availability and price across both property types. The actual decision to go with an apartment or a hotel room can be a little tricky, and on this occasion felt more comfortable with hotel rooms. Apartments for me require a higher level of independence, with no support for things like concierge service, for example. Given that this was my first vacation in South America, hotels made more sense from a support perspective.

I did not depend on cellular coverage being continuously available for navigation purposes, and it turned out to be a reasonable assumption as carrier service did drop when we got way outside the cities. However, google maps has a feature where you can download map areas to your device and use google maps while offline. This turned out to work very well, although turn-by-turn voice instructions don’t work in the offline mode, the app got the job done in getting us around Patagonia where the cell signal was the worst.

I booked a rental car in Puerto Montt, as well as Punta Arenas – both through rentalcars.com. The booking experience was ok, although it is one of those sites that require an up-front deposit to confirm the reservation, which I don’t like. The site did pose a problem on one of the rentals as it tried to charge for the entire rental at reservation time. It took 15 minutes on the phone with a customer service agent to straighten out the issue. I would prefer to book directly with a rental car company of my choice, but those operating in Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas were not on my “A” list for direct dealing, so I went with rentalcars.com which had reasonably good prices.

Tripadvisor has become an indispensable travel resource for me. The phone app is particularly useful for finding things close to your current location. The most import of which is finding a good place to eat on the spot, and in short order. When I use it for this purpose, I select near me now/restaurants and filter on “open now”. Then I sort by distance – not highest rated. When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best. But the bottom line is that I use the food pictures posted by the reviewers to make the final decision. Pictures are equivalent to a thousand reviews, and I can quickly find something close by accommodating my needs.

 

An Opportunity Missed

I didn’t realize this was possible until my arrival in Punto Arenas for the flight back to Santiago. For those of us that strive to visit every continent as a bucket list item, a trip to Antarctica, however short, is on our to-dos as we travel. Having done some research on taking a cruise to Antarctica, I was uncomfortable with the heavy seas crossing the Drake Passage, uncomfortable to the point that it was no longer an option on the list. But there’s a plane-only possibility for visiting Antarctica from Punta Arenas. Unfortunately, this was something that needed to be planned and scheduled well in advance, and couldn’t be done on the spur of the moment as the thought struck me. There are no regularly scheduled flights one might be able to find through google flights, for example. So, had I to do it all over again, I would schedule a round trip plane ride from Punta Arenas to Saint George Island, Antarctica, and cross the seventh continent off my bucket list. Maybe next time.

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Related Destinations –Chile Travel Planning