Lakes, Peaks, and Forests of the Andes
This itinerary tours Chile’s favorite vacation area, the lakes and volcanoes south of the Río Biobío. All along the route, it offers a wide range of outdoor activities, including hiking, climbing, cycling, mountain biking, and white-water rafting. The weather here is fickle and you may need to be flexible in organizing your activities to take best advantage of the finest days.
Arrive at Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez and transfer to a Santiago hotel. In the afternoon, visit central historic sites such as the Barrio Cívico, Plaza de Armas, and poet Pablo Neruda’s Bellavista home, La Chascona. After enjoying Santiago’s sights, take a comfortable overnight sleeper bus to the city of Temuco, or take an early morning flight.
In Temuco, take a rental car to the Lago Villarrica town of Pucón, Chile’s adventure travel capital; if you’ve taken the overnight bus, pick up your car downtown rather than at the airport. Spend the afternoon enjoying the views and relaxing or, alternatively, rafting the Río Trancura. For a little more peace and quiet, consider staying in the nearby town of Villarrica instead of Pucón.
Plan an excursion to nearby Parque Nacional Huerquehue, where a steep but well-maintained trail climbs from Lago Tinquilco to Lago Verde, a small wooded alpine lake. Alternatively, take a day hike to the forests of the private Santuario Cañi.
A strenuous climb will bring you to the rim of smoking Volcán Villarrica, a snowcapped peak where the sight of the active volcano and the surrounding panorama makes it all worthwhile.
Depart midmorning for Termas de Puyehue, a European-style spa dating from 1908, but with up-to-date infrastructure. About an hour east of the city of Osorno, the gateway to its namesake national park, the site enjoys a mild climate all year but is near enough to high Andean hiking trails, lakes, and streams for fishing and, in winter, a ski resort.
Ask the hotel to pack a lunch for a hike to the crater of Volcán Puyehue, a stiff four-hour climb from a small inholder farm known as El Caulle, about 15 kilometers from Termas de Puyehue. The lower part of the trail passes through dense Valdivian rainforest, but at higher altitudes the volcanic landscape is utterly barren.
At the south end of Lago Llanquihue, Puerto Varas is one of the district’s most picturesque towns, running a close second to Pucón for adventure tourism. Because Puerto Varas is less than 100 kilometers from Puyehue, try a leisurely drive through Puerto Octay and the east side of the lake for a backroads perspective, with views of Volcán Osorno and a stop at the village of Ensenada.
In the afternoon, tour the streets of Puerto Varas and its historic neobaroque, neo-Gothic, and neoclassical houses, eight of which are national monuments.
After breakfast, drive east toward Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales and its centerpiece, Lago Todos los Santos, a glacial finger lake extending more than 30 kilometers to the east. For a leisurely afternoon, take the passenger ferry to Peulla, with a grand old hotel that needs an upgrade and a newer hotel that’s just opened, or return to accommodations at Petrohué or Puerto Varas.
Following breakfast, take a Class III rafting trip down the Río Petrohué and, afterward, a drive southeast toward the village of Ralún, where the Río Petrohué enters the fjord known as the Estero de Reloncaví. If time permits, continue south toward the equally scenic village of Cochamó before returning to Puerto Varas.
The southern lake district’s largest city is Puerto Montt, only half an hour south of Puerto Varas; its port of Angelmó has the area’s largest crafts market, lining both sides of the street for several blocks, and seafood restaurants that are modest in décor but rich in fish and shellfish.
After an early lunch at Angelmó, take the highway southeast to Parque Nacional Alerce Andino, whose hiking trails lead to large groves of alerce trees, the “Chilean redwoods.”
From Puerto Montt, head southeast overland and a short ferry trip to the verdant archipelago of Chiloé. This is Chile’s most “traditional” area, still isolated from the continent by the Canal de Chacao, the strait that separates the largest island from the mainland. Perhaps visit the penguin colony near the city of Ancud, where you will spend the night.
The city of Castro, with its landmark cathedral and stilted palafito houses over the water, is a brief stop before continuing to the southern Chanquín sector of Parque Nacional Chiloé, on the island’s wild Pacific coast. Return to Castro for the night.
Travel overland to Puerto Montt and catch a return flight to Santiago. Since flights to North America leave around 10 p.m., you’ll have most of the day to spend sightseeing between Castro and Puerto Montt. The market village of Dalcahue is a great place to load up on crafts souvenirs, especially woolens; if there’s time, you can take the frequent short ferry crossing to the offshore island of Quinchao and drive to the scenic, typical village of Achao.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition