Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales near Puerto Varas

View of golden-leafed trees and a snow-capped mountain beyond the welcome sign at the park's entrance.

Entering Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. Photo © Sam Beebe, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Established in 1926, Chile’s first national park is a geographical extravaganza whose dominant features are Volcán Osorno, a symmetrical snowcapped cone often called the “Fujiyama of South America,” and fjordlike Lago Todos los Santos, which forms an elongated lacustrine highway toward the Argentine border. The 251,000-hectare park also contains rushing rivers, steep forested canyons, and a scattering of alpine lakes.

It takes its name from Vicente Pérez Rosales, an adventurer whose mid-19th-century travels literally cleared the way for European pioneers: He hired the indigenous Huilliche to set fire to the forests near Lago Llanquihue. Pérez Rosales later made a name for himself during the California Gold Rush.

Boat traffic began to cross Todos los Santos around 1890, with the first tourists arriving in 1903. In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt was one of them. Long before Europeans saw the area, though, indigenous peoples had used the southerly Paso de Vuriloche to traverse the Andes, and Jesuit missionaries used a slightly different route south of Volcán Tronador, the area’s highest peak.

At Petrohué, Conaf’s Centro de Visitantes contains exhibits on the park’s geography, geology, fauna, flora, and history.

Sector Volcán Osorno

While it hasn’t erupted since the mid-19th century, Volcán Osorno’s youthful Holocene crater has active fumaroles and is potentially dangerous. From the deck of the Beagle, Darwin observed its eruption of January 19–20, 1835:

At midnight the sentry observed something like a large star, which gradually increased in size until about three o’clock, when it presented a very magnificent spectacle. By the aid of a glass, dark objects, in constant succession, were seen, in the midst of a great glare of red light, to be thrown up and to fall down. The light was sufficient to cast on the water a long bright reflection.

Adventure travel operators in Puerto Octay and Puerto Varas offer one-day guided climbs of Osorno, from about US$400 for one person, US$250 per person if there are two. Starting around 4 a.m., it’s a challenging ascent, requiring either technical skills on snow and ice or guides with those technical skills, especially to cross crevasses. Conaf, which regulates climbing here, requires one guide for every two climbers on commercial trips; for independent climbers, it requires proof of experience and presentation of gear before permits are issued.

Recent improvements have made Osorno’s ski area a viable recreational option in both summer and winter, though it’s not likely to draw big crowds away from more elaborate ski areas such as Portillo and Valle Nevado. As it has no accommodations of its own (though a local ski club operates a simple nearby refugio), most skiers stay in either Puerto Varas or other lakeside communities.

Facilities include a pair of decent lifts that carry skiers nearly 500 meters above the base elevation of 1,200 meters. At the base, reached by a paved road just north of Ensenada, there’s a small cafeteria and a larger restaurant, seating up to 150 patrons for lunch. Lift tickets are moderately priced, and rental gear is available; outside ski season, visitors can still take the lifts (US$20 adults, US$11 children) for access to the views and high country walks.

For more information on the ski area in both winter and summer, contact Centro de Ski & Montaña Volcán Osorno (San Francisco 333, 2nd Fl., Puerto Varas, tel. 065/233445). CTS Turismo (Santa Rosa 560, Local 15, Puerto Varas, tel. 065/237330, US$35 round-trip) provides round-trip transportation, remaining there for about three or four hours.

Sector Petrohué

At the west end of Todos los Santos, the source of its namesake river, Sector Petrohué is most popular as the port for the passenger ferry to Peulla, which leaves mid-morning and returns in early afternoon. Cruce Andino, which operates the ferry, also runs a daily excursion (Jan.– Feb.) for a minimum of 12 passengers to Isla Margarita, an island that rears its head above the middle of the lake.

Since most of Sector Petrohué lacks an integrated trail network, visiting remote areas requires either hiring a private launch or contracting an activities-oriented tour. But there are a few accessible options. From Playa Larga, the black-sand beach north of Petrohué Lodge, the five-kilometer Sendero Rincón del Osorno follows the lake’s western shore. Six kilometers southwest of Petrohué, on the south side of the highway, Conaf charges admission for the Sendero Saltos del Petrohué (US$2.50), a short riverbank trail that follows a series of basalt bedrock rapids and falls too rough for rafting or kayaking. Below the falls, Puerto Varas operators start their Class III–IV descents of the Río Petrohué (US$50–60 pp), which is suitable for novice rafters but interesting enough for those with more experience. Sites suitable for rock climbing are nearby.

Sector Peulla

Where the Río Negro and the Río Peulla empty into Todos los Santos, 20 nautical miles east of Petrohué, the hamlet of Peulla traditionally earns its livelihood from tourist traffic that patronizes Hotel Peulla and its restaurant, whether overnight, on day excursions from Petrohué, or en route to Bariloche. There is also a new luxury hotel to supplement the Peulla. Chilean customs and immigration is only a short distance east of here.

Day-trippers and through travelers have time enough to walk to Cascada de Los Novios, a waterfall just a few minutes from Hotel Peulla. Only overnighters will have time for the eight-kilometer climb of the Sendero Laguna Margarita.

Geography and Climate

Some 50 kilometers northeast of Puerto Varas via Ruta 225, Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales ranges from 50 meters above sea level near Ensenada to about 3,460 meters on the summit of Cerro Tronador, a dormant glaciated volcano on the Argentine border. Volcán Osorno’s 2,652-meter summit is its most conspicuous feature; other high peaks include 2,493-meter Volcán Puntiagudo on the park’s northern border and 1,710-meter Cerro La Picada, northeast of Volcán Osorno.

Several rivers drain into Lago Todos los Santos, most notably the Río Negro; at 191 meters above sea level, the lake is the source of the Río Petrohué, diverted southward into the Golfo de Reloncaví by lava flows that reached Lago Llanquihue’s shores just north of Ensenada.

The park receives about 2,500 millimeters of rainfall per year at lower elevations but up to 4,000 millimeters, much of it as snow, near the border. The lake moderates the ambient temperature, which averages about 16°C in summer and 6.5°C in winter, though it gets colder at higher altitude. Summertime highs reach about 25°C.

Flora and Fauna

Ecologically, up to 1,000 meters above sea level, the dense Valdivian rainforest consists of the southern beech coigüe mixed with glossy-leaved ulmos and the dense bamboo quila, as well as ferns and climbing vines. At higher elevations coigüe mixes with the related lenga; the rare coniferous alerce grows in a few steep areas.

Within the park are 33 mammal species, among them pumas, pudús, foxes, and skunks, and 117 bird species, including torrent ducks, kingfishers, coots, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds. Rainbow and brown trout have been introduced into its lakes and streams, though there are also native trout.

Getting There and Around

Several bus companies connect Petrohué with Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt. Puerto Montt’s Turistour (Del Salvador 72, tel. 065/437127) operates 7:45 a.m. buses (Mon.–Sat. mid-Sept.–mid-Apr.) to Ensenada and Petrohué via Puerto Varas, connecting with its own bus-boat crossing to Bariloche (Argentina). The rest of the year, the Bariloche crossing takes two days, with an obligatory overnight at Hotel Peulla; buses run Monday– Friday only, leaving Puerto Montt at 8:30 a.m.

At Petrohué, a dockside kiosk sells tickets for the three-hour voyage to Peulla, where it connects with the bus to the Argentine border at Puerto Frías and a relay of bus-boat links to Bariloche. Hikers and cyclists can also take this route; round-trip tickets to Peulla cost US$45 for adults, slightly less for children; lunch at Hotel Peulla costs an additional US$20 per person. From Puerto Varas, the fare is US$55; for more details, contact Turistour.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.

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