After finishing up our adventures in Bariloche and Bolsón, Argentina’s Río Negro lake region, we crossed the border back to Chile. The drive from Bariloche across the border provided spectacular views as we snaked through towering mountains of green and white.
We climbed in elevation, passing over the mountains. Trees wore white cone hats of snow and stood in deep white up to their knees. Our ears popped from the gain in elevation. We exited the Argentina border on one side of the mountains and entered the Chilean border on the other. The no-man’s land of white crested mountains and snow dusted trees in between impressed us at every turn. We lurched up mountainsides and curved around cliffs until we reemerged in Chile’s lake region.
Our first stop was Puerto Varas, a six hour drive from Bariloche. All buses heading that way stop in Osorno, an ugly commercial town not worth visiting. Puerto Varas on the other hand is a small quaint town seated on the banks of the expansive Lake Llanquihue. Across the lake on a clear day, you can see the snowy topped Volcano Osorno and Volcano Calbuco that are both still active. Volcano Calbuco blew its top in April 2015 sending ash over the nearby region. In 1893-94 it’s eruption was one of the largest ever to take place in Southern Chile. Volcano Osorno on the other hand has never erupted in recorded history and serves as the primary ski and snowboard resort from June to mid October.
Puerto Varas is not overly touristy and only has three hostels. We stayed at the Margouya Patagonia hostel owned by a French man, Pierre. The old Victorian house felt more like home than a hostel. Pierre runs tours with his company Mapatagonia. He immediately convinced us to go on his Volcano trek the following day.
The town of German architecture and lively fisherman boasts some of the best seafood in Chile. We ate a hearty late lunch at the hidden Donde es Gordito, a favorite of traveling Chef, Anthony Bourdain. The narrow, seven table restaurant, decorated in coins glued to the exposed beams, strings of napkins with hand written reviews, and grandmas kitschy nicknacks, felt cozy. They served strong Pisco Sours and delicious seafood. We ate crab chowder, which was more of a creamy dip than a soup. Then I warmed myself with mixed seafood soup and Ethan packed on steak loin with boiled potatoes. The two ladies running the place kept one eye on us and their other on the telenovela on tv. We ate well – very well. Needless to say we didn’t need dinner that night.
The following day at 10:30 am, we practiced riding bikes for our volcano tour that included riding a bike after the trekking portion back down to the bottom. Enrique, our young lively guide, drove seven of us up to the Volcano. He pointed landmarks out along the way. A colorful set of buildings to our right was the German College. The beaches to our left served kayakers a resting spot on their journey across the enormous lake. We stopped for empanadas and pastries near the base of the bright white Volcano Osorno.
The road to the top climbed vertically and cut sharp corners as we lurched towards the ski lodge. While watching the steep road, I feared for what it would feel like going down on my bike later. Luckily there was time before the descent. At the parking lot of the lodge, we disembarked and gathered on a snowy patch to begin.
We skirted the side of the snowy volcano for the first hour. We could see the blue lake and the belly of Volcano Calbuco as it cowered behind a heavy white cloud all day. The other mountain ranges, sprinkled with snow, stood clear of the clouds. The terrain was slick and even the lava rock beneath the snow provided a soft crumbling base to walk on. We teetered in a single file line across the snow, stopping every 15 minutes or so to catch the view. We also caught a cleverly camouflaged lizard hiding in the black lava rock.
Skiers and snowboarders weaved around us as the carved lines in the slopes. Eventually we began to climb directly up the ski slope. The soft snow and lava rock made it difficult to gain a solid base for stepping up the Volcano. We all slowly reached the top, out of breath and sweating but shivering at the same time. We munched on snacks at the top of the ski lift and sipped hot coffee that Enrique carried in a thermos in his pack.
Then came the steep descent. Instead of walking down though, we followed Enrique, who sled down on a shovel. We used only our bottoms to careen down the hill. The snow stung my bottom and filled my jacket with cold ice. Eventually, we all successfully and haphazardly slid down three hills back to the lodge. My whole backside was wet and numb, but I found the adventure thrilling. Next came the hard part: biking down to the bottom.
I shakily took to my bike and gripped both breaks for dear life. It took about two hours for me to painfully brake my way all the way down the steep winding volcano. My hands cramped and screamed in frozen pain as I held on for dear life. I moved at a snails pace never once releasing the brakes. I could tell you how beautiful the view was, but I barely lifted my eyes from the road to take it all in. At each checkin point, Enrique tried to urge me to give up and ride down in the van, but I was determined to make it even if it took me forever to reach the bottom. Luckily, I survived and at the bottom could celebrate by stretching my rigamortis fingers and sipping tea with an Oreo. I’ll never do that ever again.
We warmed up by the fireplace at the hostel that night.
From Puerto Varas, a lot of people continue down to Isla de Chiloe, a large island only 2 hours away. It has a unique culture created in opposition to the big city of Santiago. The residence believe in their own mystical religion of ghosts, monsters, and witches. In the town of Anchud, on the northern coast, you can visit an islet of penguins that gather from late October to February.
In the capital of Castro, along the mid-east coast, people live in colorful houses on stilts and their colonial church is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. At the center of the island is a large protected national park. We were informed by those who visited for only two to three days to the major towns and park that it wasn’t that interesting. Others who took more time to explore the underbelly of the island and drive around to all the beaches and visit the other mini islands surrounding it, had nothing but rave reviews of the experience. Since we only had two days to visit, we decided to save it for another time so we could truly embrace all that the island has to offer.
We caught a two hour bus to our next town, Valdivia, to visit some old Ecuadorian friends of mine that moved there. This small city normally doesn’t fall on the tourist trail, but is definitely worth a peek.
There is only one hostel in town, Airesbuenos Permacultura Hostel. It is owned by a Californian woman in her 60s. She’s friendly and proud of her eco-friendly hostel with a garden, solar heated water, and perfect location right downtown. The town of Valdivia is full of young college students attending the Austral University of Chile. It is a research college on Isla Teja, an island floating atop Rio Calle Calle next to Valdivia.
Valdivia is lively with events throughout the year and we happened to arrive during the FicValdivia Film Festival and a Fringe Fest Concert. The newly warm weather after months of rain, brought everyone outdoors into the parks and caused long lines at all the ice cream shops. We visited with my friends Luis and Mayra and their two children, whom I met during my research in Ecuador six years prior.
They showed us around town each day. We visited the smelly, but lively spectacle of the riverfront Fish market. Here cormorants, pelicans, and sea lions mingled along the waters edge and inside the gates to get their daily dose of free fish. The lazy sea lions lay along the cement weighing up to 800 lbs. and barely lifting their heads to eat. Some waddled slowly along the edge arguing with the dogs. We had never seen an animal so obese. Inside the market, the stinky fish displays on one side offered an ocean feast and fresh colorful vegetables and fruit on the other side helped complete the palate of local fare.
We walked across the bridge to the Isla Teja and visited Luis’ University building, where he studies Ecology. He gave us a tour of the Botanical gardens that are part of the University’s campus. Students lounged in the grass resting or studying in the bright sunlight or played games of dodgeball in groups. The gardens featured trees from all over the world.
Around the campus there were many restaurants and pubs for the students and residents on the island. We grabbed beers at El Growler, owned by a southern Oregonian guy named Joel, who wanted to fill the gap in artisanal beers in Chile by providing more IPAs. His bar was hopping on a Friday night and hard to get a table. He served communal appetizers in metal buckets for tables to share fries and other meats or fish.
Valdivia is actually Chile’s capital of artisanal beer. We visited several pubs with their own brewed beers. The biggest brewery in town is the Kunstman Brewery, started by a German-Chilean family in the 90s. This enormous establishment on the other landmass connected to Valdivia, but separated from the city by Isla Teja, is accessible by the micro bus 20 or driving over two bridges. They have 12 unique beers brewed on-site, and we tried them all in a tasting tray of plastic shot glasses. They have a great variety of hoppy and malty beers. There’s something for everyone and tasty food that is a mix of German and Chilean cuisine. You can go on brewery tours as well. They also host a Bierfest like Germany’s Oktoberfest with German music and dance along with flowing mugs of beer.
If you continue along the same route of bus 20, you can reach the ferry to Corral and the fortress of Niebla. We missed the ferry to the island of Corral that also has a fortress from Spanish conquest era, but were able to visit the crumbling fortress of Niebla. It sits along the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean. The stone walls of this old castle were used by the Spaniards to protect their conquest of Valdivia from other countries like Holland, France, and England. Now only ruins remain and a free tour along a metal bridge pathway that follows the edge of the cliff and provides historical info. The cannons still remain in tact facing the ocean, where enemy ships would try to encroach on the land. There’s also a very informative museum. We enjoyed the warm weather and views of the harsh coastline along the blue Pacific. There were several beaches below, dotted by people enjoying the surprisingly warm spring day.
At night we attended the Fringe Fest at La Rata Envenena, an old indoor skate park converted to a concert venue on the north side of town. The club was dark and pulsing with loud reverberations of electric guitar. Strobe lights illuminated the young Chilean faces of the long haired bands. College kids filled the crowd wearing all black and a cloud of cigarette smoke. I stood out in my bright teal blue vest and plaid teal shirt. I definitely didn’t fit into this alternative crowd of heavy metal and punk fans. I entertained myself with people watching and occasional cringing over the abusively loud music. This was not my scene, but a great snapshot into young alternative Chilean culture.
More my speed was the free live concerts on the riverfront that were happening in conjunction with the film festival. One band that closed out the entire festival Saturday night, really struck a strong chord with us. Their name was Juanito Ayala and the namesake for the band spoke of politics and creating community. He reminded me of Ben Harper mixed with Bob Marley. The large seven piece band played a mixture of reggae, ska, salsa, timba, and latin beats. We joined the young crowd in waving our arms and singing along in Spanish.
For our last day, we relaxed and said final goodbyes to my friends who were lovely hosts. We also celebrated our two year anniversary atop the 12th floor of the Hotel Dreams’ Sky Bar. The view of the river and islands couldn’t be beat. Even the toilets looked out on floor to ceiling views of the city. We enjoyed drinks and a spectacular sunset over the river that grew from a bright gold sun to a purple and maroon painted sky of fluffy clouds. We also splurged on an expensive meal in the restaurant to celebrate.
Our last stop in Chile’s lake region was Pucon, a small expensive adventure-tourism town on Villarrica Lake. We stayed at the best hostel in town- Chili Kiwi on the lake. It’s very social and has treehouses and hobbit holes for private rooms. They also book all tours for you, so you don’t have to navigate the expensive Main Street O’Higgins for deals.
Pucon is known for its volcano tours up to the smoky crater of the erupted Villarrica Volcano. For an expensive $121 (75,000 pesos) you can climb up the snowy volcano with provided wet gear, crampons, and ice pick and stare into the dark gurgling abyss of the crater created by the eruption that occurred on March 3, 2015 at 3am and woke everyone with a loud explosion and led to the evacuation of 3,385 people from Pucon. Then you slide back down on toboggans. Due to the high cost and the fact that we climbed a volcano in Puerto Varas, we skipped this adventure. You can also go canyoning, horseback riding, boogey boarding down rapids called hydro, kayaking, and visit many geothermal hotsprings in the Villarrica National Park.
Instead, we visited the Termas Geométricas, a hotspring designed by German architects in the Villarrica National Park. The impeccable design of red wooden pathways that snake through the river gorge between moss and fern covered ridges, feels Japanese with its modest red and black changing huts and bathrooms. It brings to mind the Shinto religion.
The whole place feels like a spiritual oasis where the cold glacial streams meet the steamy geothermal waters. Natural hot steam heats the pathways as you walk over the babbling river. You can change in one of the 20 or so huts that also have lockers for storing your stuff. There’s a large fresh glacial waterfall at the end of the path that feeds the river with freezing cold waters used to regulate the temperatures of the geothermal pools.
Each pool, built of sleek stone and naturally overflowing into the river below, vary in temperature from 37 degrees Celsius to 45 degrees Celsius. That is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 113 degrees F. There was even another waterfall for dunking and resetting your body temp that was 6 degrees C or 43 degrees F. Each pool also has stone ledges to rest on within the pools and they border the natural mossy ridges.
We had three hours for our tour that cost 32,000 pesos or $50 and spent it jumping from one pool to the next from the waterfall down to the entrance. At the end you can change and sit by the wood fire in the cafeteria and enjoy a bowl of carrot or pumpkin soup.
On our second day in Pucon, we decided to create our own adventure by hopping a local bus to Playa Negra. This is at the final stop on the Caburgua bus for only 800 pesos each. As soon as we arrived at the black sand beach on the Carburgua Lake, the skies opened up and started dumping on us.
After 20 minutes of cowering under an awning, we saw a blue sky appear and the wispy white clouds begin to lift over the mountains. The beach was deserted. Skeletons of food stands bordered the sand and colorful paddle boats bobbed on the banks of the lake. We explored this lava rock beach in awe as the rain evaporated from the sand in waves of steam that passed over the landscape like a scene out of Creatures from the Black Lagoon.
If you walk along Playa Negra to the left you will reach the white sand beaches of Playa Blanca. We meandered down the beach crunching over the wet lava rock sand towards Playa Blanca with its white sand and black boulders of lava rock. Scorched black tree trunks gnarled by the river and winds also lay on the white sand. Along the side of the green mountains there were rock carvings of dragons, birds, and faces created by some passing artist.
We hopped on rocks for better views of the green mountains wrapping around the clear blue lake. Pools of water collected on the sand creating sharp reflections of the blue skies, fluffy clouds, and rolling mountains. It was a photographers paradise. We positioned ourselves on tree trunks and next to bright green and red shrubs to snap pictures.
We noticed a man screaming at his car in Spanish and realized his tire was spinning, but wouldn’t move out of the wet quicksand. So we offered our help. I steered the car and gave it gas, while Ethan and the man pushed it forward. Thankfully, we rescued his vehicle from the beach. His name was Pedro and he offered us a ride to our next destination.
He drove us just in time as the rain started up again. We reached Ojos de Caburgua and thanked our new friend. This private park housed a glistening blue waterhole fed by four furious waterfalls along a rushing river. The 1,000 peso fee was worth it to see the white cascades gush into the teal blue waters below. Wooden platforms and bridges provided lookout points and pathways over the river for viewing the natural wonders. In summer, you can take a refreshing dip in the waters.
We hitched a ride on the back of a pickup truck to the main road and caught the bus back to Pucon. You can take a tour to these places, but we enjoyed the adventure of getting there on our own. Although we were unable to partake in all the expensive adventure tours on offer, we still loved our visit to Pucon. There’s plenty you can do for close to free in this area. Maybe we will return one day to climb the volcano.
There are several smaller lesser-known towns in this lake region, but we hit the main highlights. Now onward and upwards to Santiago, a 10 hour overnight bus ride north.