Visiting Puerto Montt: Gateway to the Chilean Lakes District

View of a snowcapped mountain on the way to Puerto Montt.

Summer snow on the way to Puerto Montt. Photo © Eduardo Zárate, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Map of Puerto Montt, Chile

Puerto Montt

No Chilean city enjoys a more impressive setting than Puerto Montt, where a cordon of forested mountains and snowcapped volcanoes stretches south along Chile’s island-studded “Inside Passage.” While the midsize port can’t match the prosperity and cultural diversity of cities in comparable surroundings, such as Seattle and Vancouver, b.c., improvements are underway: part of the waterfront, with its dramatic views, has become a park; anchor businesses are helping make downtown a retail mecca; handsome high-rise apartments are filling once-vacant lots; pedestrian malls are sprouting chic sidewalk cafés; and pubs and bars are proliferating.

Puerto Montt owes part of this growth to shipbuilding, extractive industries such as forestry, and the fish-farming sector. As a city whose potential, to this point, exceeds its achievements, the capital of Region X (Los Lagos) remains primarily a gateway to the Andean lakes district, the Chiloé archipelago, Chilean Patagonia, and parts of Argentina. As a transport hub where mainland Chile ends and archipelagic Chile begins, it enjoys air, land, or sea connections in all directions but west. Cruise ships call at its port of Angelmó, though there’s barely room for them to maneuver in and out of the congested harbor; the largest vessels have to anchor offshore and shuttle passengers to the pier.

From Puerto Montt, travelers can head southwest toward the Chiloé archipelago or southeast on the northernmost sector of the Carretera Austral. Only in summer is it possible to commence the full Carretera Austral in this direction, as the Hornopirén–Caleta Gonzalo ferry link operates only in January and February; otherwise, it’s necessary to take the ferry from Puerto Montt or Chiloé to Chaitén.

History

Puerto Montt dates from 1853, when German colonists landed at the north end of the Seno de Reloncaví in what was then called Melipulli, a Huilliche word whose definition—Four Hills—aptly described the site. It grew slowly until 1912, when the railroad cut travel time to Santiago to 26 hours and it became the jumping-off point for southbound colonists headed for continental Chiloé, Aisén, and Magallanes.

In 1960, a massive earthquake destroyed the port and most of what Jan Morris called “structures in the Alpine manner, all high-pitched roofs and quaint balconies.” Rebuilt in a mostly utilitarian style, Puerto Montt is only now beginning to sport newer buildings of distinction. The earlier style survives in nearby Puerto Varas.

Orientation

Puerto Montt (population about 190,000) is 1,016 kilometers south of Santiago via the Panamericana, which bypasses the city center en route to the Chiloé archipelago. Like Valparaíso, it occupies a narrow shelf at the foot of a series of hills, but neither so high nor so steep as those at Valparaíso. Westbound Avenida Diego Portales becomes Avenida Angelmó, the main approach to the ferry, fishing, and forest-products port of Angelmó, which draws tourists to its crafts fair and seafood restaurants. Eastbound, it becomes Avenida Soler Manfredini, the starting point for the discontinuous Carretera Austral, a series of both paved and gravel highways linked, where necessary, by ferries. This highway ends at Villa O’Higgins, 1,240 kilometers to the south in Region XI (Aisén), but most travelers cover at least part of the route via air or ferry from Puerto Montt or Chiloé.

Getting to Puerto Montt

Other than Santiago, Puerto Montt is the main gateway for air, land, and sea connections to Chilean Patagonia and across the Andes to Argentina. Only in summer can overland travelers begin the entire Carretera Austral by heading southeast from here, as Naviera Austral’s Hornopirén–Caleta Gonzalo ferry link operates in January and February only; otherwise, it’s necessary to take the ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, or the occasional sailing from Castro or Quellón.

Read more about getting to Puerto Montt

Air

LAN (O’Higgins 167, Local 1-B, tel. 065/253315) flies several times daily to Santiago, usually nonstop but sometimes via Valdivia, Temuco, or Concepción, or a combination of those. It also flies at least twice daily to Balmaceda/Coyhaique and three or four times daily to Punta Arenas, occasionally stopping in Balmaceda/Coyhaique. Once a week, usually Sunday, it flies from Santiago to Puerto Montt and on to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.

Sky Airline (Benavente 405, Local 4, tel. 065/437555) flies frequently to Santiago, far less frequently to Balmaceda/Coyhaique, and to Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales.

No carrier has lasted long on the air-taxi route to Chaitén, a major starting point for overland trips on the Carretera Austral, but Aerocord (tel. 065/262300, www.aerocord.cl) and Cielomaraustral (Quillota 254, Local 1, tel. 065/264010, cielomaraustral@surnet.cl) have resumed flights to nearby Santa Bárbara (US$85). These leave from Aeródromo La Paloma, on the hill immediately behind the downtown area.

Bus

After a major renovation that includes its own hotel, Puerto Montt’s Terminal de Buses (Av. Portales and Lota, tel. 065/283000) is about one kilometer southwest of the Plaza de Armas. Services are frequent to rural, regional, and most long-distance destinations, as well as to Bariloche, Argentina. Buses to the Chilean Patagonia destinations of Coyhaique and Punta Arenas, which pass through Argentina, are less frequent but reliable. Cruz del Sur (Av. Salvador Allende and Av. Presidente Ibáñez, tel. 065/483127) and its affiliated companies have opened a new terminal on higher ground near the Panamericana but continue to use the downtown terminal as well.

Several companies go to Puerto Varas (US$1.50, 30 minutes), including Expresos JM, Expreso Puerto Varas, and Thaebus (tel. 065/420120, less frequently). Thaebus also passes through Varas en route to Frutillar and Puerto Octay.

Buses Fierro (tel. 065/289024, US$2.50) goes to Lenca, the southerly access point to Parque Nacional Alerce Andino, five times daily except on weekends, when it goes only twice. Buses JB (tel. 065/290850, US$2) goes to Correntoso, the northern access point to Alerce Andino, five times daily between 7:40 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., except Sunday, when it goes at 9:10 a.m. and 12:30 and 8:30 p.m.

Monday–Saturday at 8 a.m. and at 1:30, 3, and 5 p.m., Buses Jordán (tel. 065/254938) goes to Hornopirén, also known as Río Negro (US$8, 3.5 hours), the summer ferry port to Caleta Gonzalo and the gateway to Parque Natural Pumalín and most of the Carretera Austral. Kémelbus (tel. 065/256450) runs similar routes but, still, many more visitors use the ferry from Puerto Montt or from Castro or Quellón, on insular Chiloé, to reach Chaitén.

Numerous carriers serve the capital city of Santiago (US$40–75, 12–13 hours) and intermediates including Temuco (US$14, 5.5 hours). Turismo Futaleufú goes to Futaleufú (US$53, 11 hours) via Argentina Thursday at 7 a.m. Trans Austral (tel. 065/270984) goes to Coyhaique (US$45, 21 hours) Sunday and Thursday via Argentina. Chiloé destinations include Ancud (US$7, two hours) and Castro (US$10, three hours).

Several companies operate between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas (US$85, 28 hours) via Argentina, including Buses Pacheco (tel. 065/252926), Pullman Bus (tel. 065/316561), Queilen Bus (tel. 065/253468), and Turibús (tel. 065/253245), all of which normally begin in Castro (Chiloé) and pick up passengers here and in Osorno. These are through-buses, not permitted to drop passengers in Argentina. Queilen also goes to Coyhaique (US$60, 22 hours) Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at noon.

Five companies cross the Andes to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina (US$23–27, six hours), via Osorno and the Cardenal Samoré pass: Andesmar (tel. 065/252926), Buses Norte Internacional (tel. 065/254731), Cruz del Sur (tel. 065/254731), Tas Choapa (tel. 065/254828), and Vía Bariloche (tel. 065/253841).

Andina del Sud (Antonio Varas 437, tel. 065/257797) sells tickets for the bus-boat shuttle to Bariloche (US$230) via Puerto Varas, Ensenada, Petrohué, and Peulla. These leave Puerto Montt in the morning, arriving early evening in Bariloche; summer departures are daily. During the rest of the year departures are weekdays only and require an overnight stay in Peulla.

Sea

From Puerto Montt there are passenger and passenger/vehicle ferries or bus-ferry combinations to Chiloé and Chaitén in Region X, Puerto Chacabuco (the port of Coyhaique) in Region XI (Aisén), and Puerto Natales in Region XII (Magallanes). Since these routes follow the sheltered inland sea, seasickness is usually a minor problem except on the open-ocean crossing of the Golfo de Penas (literally, Gulf of Sorrows), en route to Puerto Natales. In the new passenger terminal, the two main companies are Naviera Austral (Av. Angelmó 1673, tel. 065/270430) and Navimag (Av. Angelmó 1735, tel. 065/432 360); vehicles, however, still board at the Terminal de Transbordadores (Av. Angelmó 2187), about 500 meters west.

Naviera Austral runs routes between Puerto Montt and Chaitén (8–12 hours) five times weekly on the cramped, aging rustbucket Pincoya and the newer, sleeker Don Baldo. Fares are US$45 per person for reclining seats. Vehicle rates are US$185 for passenger vehicles and small trucks; bicycles cost US$20 and motorcycles US$41.

Substitution of the Evangelistas for the smaller Puerto Edén has reduced some of the passenger pressure on Navimag’s Puerto Montt–Puerto Natales route, but reservations are still advisable in the summer peak; if in Santiago, visit the Navimag office there. Still, it’s worth trying for a last-minute berth or cabin. Fares depend on the season and the quality of the accommodations but range US$300–2,470 per person with full board. Bicycles cost an additional US$50, motorcycles US$127, passenger cars US$417, and light trucks US$492; other vehicles pay a linear meter rate.

From September–May, Cruceros Marítimos Skorpios (Av. Angelmó 1660, tel. 065/252996) operates luxury cruises to Laguna San Rafael that begin in Puerto Montt; rates on the 140-passenger Skorpios II start around US$850 per person and range up to US$2,150 per person. Cruceros Navimag, a branch of the ferry company, began similar services in summer 2011, but buses its passengers to board at Castro, on the Isla Grande de Chiloé.

Getting Around Puerto Montt

To the Airport

From the bus terminal, Buses ETM (tel. 065/256253, US$2.50) connects to inbound and outbound flights at Aeropuerto El Tepual (tel. 065/252019), which is 16 kilometers west via the Panamericana and a paved lateral.

Car Rental

For car rentals, try Econorent (Antonio Varas 126, tel. 065/481261), Hertz (Benavente 690, tel. 065/485993), or Europcar (Antonio Varas 162, tel. 065/286277). Note that taking a vehicle into Argentina requires notarial permission.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.

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