“Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats and fasten your seat belts. In five minutes we will be crossing the Andes”. I can’t really explain why this announcement from the LAN Chile Flight Attendant on my recent flight from Buenos Aires to Puerto Montt resonated with me so much, but it certainly got me excited about the final portion of my South American sojourn.
Australia is a vast and beautiful country and we have so much to offer, but we don’t have mountains, not like the magnificent Andes. This rugged chain of peaks, volcanoes, high altitude deserts, lakes and grass lands did not disappoint and the view from the aircraft is something I will always remember. They were so close I felt I could almost reach out and touch some of the higher peaks.
The last days of my holiday were spent in the northern Patagonian town of Puerto Varas in what is called the Chilean Lakes District. This pretty town is located only 20 minutes from the Puerto Montt, on the shores of the sizeable Lake Llanquihue, but it seems to be worlds away, such is the striking difference in character and charm. Both towns owe their modern origins to the German colonisation of Chile in the 1850’s.
Contrasting conspicuously with the Spanish architecture in other areas of South America, the houses here look more like Alpine chalets than Mediterranean villas. There are pointed gothic frames, attic windows, expansive sloping tiled rooves and neat picket fences. The older buildings are made of wood and painted in bright colours.
The skyline of Puerto Varas is dominated by the bright red spires and white towers of the Catholic Church. This was consciously built in the style of German churches in the Black Forest; and together with the chalet rooves and abundant trees on the side of the lake it is a striking recreation of a secluded Bavarian village. In a nod to history, many shops and restaurants still offer “kuchen” and not “torta”( big creamy cakes).
Directly across from the crystal clear waters of Lake Llanquihue, standing sentinel, are the Volcanoes Osorno and Calbuco. Think Fuji in Japan, Osorno is a real picture-book triangular volcano with a 2600m high snow-capped peak. To the west is Volcan Calbuco, all jagged after its 1893 eruption. Peeking out in the distance also is the rim of Volcan Puntiagudo.
With a population of some 18,000 people, Puerto Varas is a holiday town that offers travellers not just unrivalled scenic beauty but a great base to enjoy the array of outdoor activities on offer in the area, including trekking, fishing, horseback riding, kayaking, canyoning, climbing and even skiing. It gets packed in the summer and actually receives more travellers than it’s popular rival to the north, Pucon. It basically shuts down in the winter though, except for a few hearty skiers and mountaineers.
The nearby Vicente Perez Rosales National Park is a treasure, small, yet beautiful, it offers excellent vistas of the Osorno Volcano, raging rapids and serene lakes. If the weather is nice you can easily spend a day here, taking in the views and relaxing between the waterfalls and mountains.
Just inside the park you will find the impressive Petrohue waterfall, which is more a series of large rapids, created in 1850 when lava from Osorno diverted the river. Further into the park is the lovely, emerald green, Lago de Todos Santos, which the intrepid can cross by regular ferry, jump on a bus, and after a relatively short trip over a pass in the Andes, find themselves in the popular Argentine town of San Carlos de Bariloche, another great centre for outdoor fun.
With all of the conveniences of Puerto Montt just a short trip away, Puerto Varas is a top choice for an extended stay and also makes a good base for exploring the region. Some may find it too touristy, but its juxtaposition of German heritage and contemporary Chilean adrenaline is both beautiful and addictive. If you have the chance to enjoy this town’s unique energy and gorgeous location, do it.
If you'd like to hear more of my South American tips, phone Paul on 1800 889 875.