After leaving the amazing lakes and landscapes of Pucón and the Araucania region, I headed south to Puerto Varas. Where nearby Puerto Montt is the official gateway to Patagonia and commercial capital of Los Lagos (the Lakes Region), Puerto Varas is the center of all tourist and cultural activity. It draws you in with its ideal location on the shores of Lago Llanquihue, with impressive views of Volcán Osorno and Volcán Calbuco, and then keeps you there with its strong ties to German architecture, food, and culture imported by immigrants a century ago. Not only that, Puerto Varas offers easy access to adventure activities all around the region, including trekking, biking, and my new favorite, kayaking. There’s also an emphasis on natural products and sustainable lifestyle.
As you can probably tell, Puerto Varas is my favorite city in Southern Chile. As my former manager (also a Chile-phile) said when I told her it was my next destination, “I love Puerto Varas. I never feel like I have enough time there!” There’s so much to do and see and experience. It’s a perfectly situated tourist destination where you can easily spend a week or two, and yet somehow manages to avoid feeling over-sold like nearby Pucón.
In this post, I describe Puerto Varas proper, and in future posts, I’ll get into details about the surrounding area.
Appreciating Picturesque Puerto Varas
Basically the first thing anyone wants to do upon arrival to Puerto Varas is head down the hill to Lago Llanquihue to take in the views of the crystal blue lake with views of not one, but two, snow-capped volcanos. Puerto Varas has a long, walkable costanera along Avenida V. Perez Rosales, with several lookout points and beaches. (In fact, while I was there, just in time for New Year’s Eve, construction finished up on a new lookout point, as you seen in the edge of this picture.)
Because the buildings that line the coastline are constructed in the traditional German-inspired style, the entire skyline looks serene and picturesque, spreading across the green hills and city streets.
But really, what you’re there to see are the volcanos! I was fascinated by the jagged peak of Volcán Calbuco, and took so many pictures of it that it was hard to narrow down to this one.
And then you turn just a little bit to the left and see both volcanos right in front of you, sitting majestically over the sparkling aquamarine lake.
There’s a cute little park on a peninsula jutting out into the lake, as you see in the photo above. It’s a perfect place to sit and relax for a little while. (Also an ideal place for taking selfies! 😛 )
Of course, Volcán Osorno is yet another perfect looking peak – Chile’s blessed with so many pretty volcanoes. Well, I guess you could say that the country is actually cursed with them considering there’s an eruption every few decades. But they sure are beautiful to admire from a distance!
Boating and Relaxing on the Beach
After sufficiently admiring the views of volcanoes from the coastline of Puerto Varas, you can appreciate Lago Llanquihue by getting in the water. There are a few stands renting canoes and there are also travel agencies that can take you out kayaking in the bay. Or you can just go swimming!
As I visited during the holidays, right between Christmas and New Year’s, there were lots of families lounging on the beach located near downtown Puerto Varas. In Puerto Varas, there is another beach further down the costanera heading towards towards Ensenada; each town that surrounds the lake has a least one lakefront beach!
Heading towards the railroad tracks and Parque Phillippi, there is another peninsula with a rocky beach and this interesting metal sculpture, which appears to be a woman majestically looking out over the water.
It’s worth walking down this far because you get a great view of the skyline of Puerto Varas, with its distinctive architecture. Definitely a far cry from the adobe of northern Chile (where I lived for a year)!
Blue Sunset over Lago Llanquihue
As I visited Puerto Varas just as the seasons changed from spring into summer, the weather was changeable, bringing clouds that came and went over the course of the days. Though the skies were mostly clear when I arrived, the clouds rolled in as the afternoon went on, leading to what I’m calling a “blue sunset.” I’ve mentioned before that I’m obsessed with clouds, so I headed to the waterfront to capture their magic. The patches of sun through the clouds led to teal blue reflections on the water.
The colorful clouds also completely obscured the volcanoes, providing an entirely new perspective on the lake.
The clouds above were in beautiful formations, glowing with the last rays of the setting sun.
Just earlier that afternoon, I had stared at Volcán Calbuco, now completely hidden behind a thick cloud cover.
Looking back towards Puerto Varas, the clouds made the skyline look more even more intriguing.
I loved the haunting quality of the blue sunset, with the lonely fishing boats floating out in the water.
Historical German-Style Architecture in Puerto Varas
Beyond the blue sunsets, lake views, and volcanoes, many people travel to Puerto Varas to appreciate its German heritage. In 1852-3, German immigrants were encouraged to settle southern Chile by the Chilean government, and they brought with them their traditional architecture, as well as their food and beer.
The classic landmark is the Iglesia Sagrado Corazón, which you see in the two photos above. This red and white building is emblematic of Puerto Varas and easy to spot from any viewpoint as it is located up a steep hill.
Besides the church, there are at least 18 well-preserved and clearly marked houses constructed in the German style. Some of them currently function as tourist lodging, while others are private homes.
Casona Alemana, Puerto Varas, Chile
The municipality has set up an easy-to-follow self-guided tour of the historical houses, clearly marked with their name and a brief description of their history and which family constructed them. (It was very cloudy on my visit, which made for a more pleasant walking tour, but I do wish I had better photos!)
Casa Jupner, Puerto Varas, Chile
It’s surprisingly difficult to find much information on the historical houses, besides this Wikipedia entry (in Spanish). Many of its reference sites have disappeared from the internet.
Casa Hitschfeld, Puerto Varas, Chile
Interestingly, I learned from my research that only a few houses are protected as part of the local and national heritage, so only those in the “typical zone” are protected from demolition.
Casa Brintup, Puerto Varas, Chile
Sadly, this is a common tale in Chile; as I learned from my tour guide on the Isluga tour in northern Chile, the government just does not invest money and resources in protecting its history. Santiago favors modern buildings, and the suburbs of the capital are filled with streets of identical-looking houses.
Centro Cultural Estación, Puerto Varas, Chile
Sadly, this means that a lot of these buildings are starting to look abandoned (or actually are abandoned), even the cultural center located in the old train station. Kind of sad, but in the end, maintaining old wooden buildings requires investment of time and money, and every town has limited resources.
Casa Rehbein, Puerto Varas, Chile
For this reason, it’s better that these historical houses stay in use as attractive sites for businesses. This one currently houses an orthodontist!
Casa Muñoz, Puerto Varas, Chile
Someone I met in Puerto Varas told me that the people who constructed these houses were not expert carpenters, so the structure inside the buildings is pretty random – they made it work, somehow, but it’s not all precise cuts and perfectly fitted connections.
Casa Horn, currently Hostel Margouya Patagonia, Puerto Varas, Chile
Of course, the best use of these historical buildings would have to be Hostel Margouya Patagonia, located inside Casa Horn. I stayed at this hostel, but in their sister building around the corner, also a historical monument. Sometimes it’s just better to keep using the buildings to make sure they are well looked after.
Eating and Drinking Well in Puerto Varas
Food Trucks in Puerto Varas, Chile
Of course, another reasons that you travel to Puerto Varas is to eat well. While the city does not court luxury travelers quite as much as Pucón, it still tends to be a little more upscale than your average Chilean town. This includes gourmet food options served out of modern food trucks. Was I in southern Chile or a major capital city?
Falafel from Costumbrista Food Truck, Puerto Varas, Chile
After limited options in the year I lived in the Valle de Elqui, I was excited to see falafel on the menu of the Costumbrista food truck. Costumbrista has a small restaurant located on Del Salvador, one of the main streets in Puerto Varas, but they offer slightly more accessible prices as their food truck. Delicious.
Empanadas Puerto Varas
Okay, so I didn’t actually eat there (because I was still full from the falafel!), but this empanada shop is so cute from the outside. What a perfect advertisement for their business!
To be perfectly honest, I actually ended up cooking most of my meals or eating while out traveling around the area. Instead, I chose to buy lots of fresh fruit from the vendors on the street. It was berry and stone fruit season in the south, meaning that the vendors had cups full of raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and apricots. So delicious – and so fresh!
On New Year’s Eve, I headed into town to spend a few hours doing my annual writing exercise, and decided to go to El Barista Caffe, one of the top restaurants and bars in the area. I was not disappointed. It was the first time they offered me options for pisco sour: dry, classic, or sweet.
With ample outdoor seating, it was the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon in Puerto Varas. They are also super traveler friendly; lots of solo travelers stopped by while I sat there.
Ensalada El Barista, El Barista Caffe, Puerto Varas
For lunch, I opted for one of the most flavorful salads I’ve had – with fried goat cheese, roasted mushrooms, sun-roasted tomatoes, and an amazing honey dijon sauce. Definitely enjoyed the gourmet flavors – it had been a while.
I finished up my outdoor writing session with a glass of red wine before heading back to the hostel for the big New Year’s Eve party. It was a good way to finish out the year – honoring myself and processing all the changes I went through in 2015, especially towards the end of the year.
My only regret is that I didn’t try this restaurant earlier in my trip – worth revisiting a few times!
Sustainable Living in Puerto Varas
Bike Parking Sign in Puerto Varas
The other thing I really liked about Puerto Varas was its emphasis on sustainable living and natural products. As a biker, I appreciated this cute bike parking sign in the downtown shopping district. There are several stores offering natural products, including Huerto di Fiore, where I bought some natural shampoo made right there in Puerto Varas. (They also offer teas from the Republic of Tea, imported from the US!)
New Year’s Eve
Panorama of the Hostel Barbecue (click to see it more clearly)
One of the reasons that I headed to Puerto Varas was that I needed somewhere awesome to spend New Year’s Eve. After a successful solo Christmas in Pucón, I knew that Puerto Varas had just the right social atmosphere for my first solo New Year’s Eve.
As mentioned above, I stayed at Hostel Margouya Patagonia, which had so many guests in high season that they opened a sister site in their usual English school location. The best part of their location? The giant backyard, perfect for a barbecue attended by 30+ people. And the crowds kept rolling in as night fell.
New Year’s Eve Fireworks in Puerto Varas
Right before midnight, the city of Puerto Varas puts on a simple, but lovely, fireworks display over Lago Llanquihue, captured in my blurry photo, above. The entire hostel headed down to the waterfront before then going out dancing to ring in the new year. Even though I’d booked an early bus to Chiloé on January 1, I appreciated the good vibes of my fellow hostel guests and felt it was the perfect way to end my stay in Puerto Varas.
Recommendations for Puerto Varas, Chile:
- Puerto Varas is an excellent place for a longer stay, especially if you need a place to rest for a few days on an extended backpacking journey. There are enough interesting restaurants and unique shops around Puerto Varas to make wandering around quite fun, and there are plenty of cultural and adventure activities around the area.
- Make sure to go on the walking tour of the historical homes of Puerto Varas. Your hostel should be able to provide you with a map, or ask at the tourist information center downtown.
- There are two scenic viewpoints above Puerto Varas, one a 30 minute trek up the hill in Parque Phillippi, and the other up Monte Calvario.
- I stayed at Hostel Margouya Patagonia, a highly recommended hostel run by Pierre, a Frenchman fluent in Spanish and English who takes his business very seriously. The hostel has a complete kitchen and they offer lots of tours around the surrounding area, especially in high season. They also rent bikes for the ride to Frutillar, saving you time and money.
- I highly suggest having a meal, coffee, or drink at El Barista Caffe! There are many, many cafes in Puerto Varas which serve the region’s famous kuchen, or German-style cakes topped with regional fruits. Cafe Danés also came highly recommended and always seemed really busy. Based on my experience at their food truck, I would also recommend Costumbrista. There are lots of good eating options – look around!
- Besides checking out the beaches and going on the walking tour, you should try to get out and about in the Lakes Region. There are a LOT of options. You can take a local bus to Frutillar, a cute town on the shores of Lago Llanquihue, known for having a lot of kuchen and musical performances (post forthcoming!). The more ambitious can do the 30km bike ride to Frutillar… and then head back. I opted to bike only to Llanquihue and Totoral, about 17km, avoiding the super steep hills and making my ride back much shorter! (More details in my future post.) Besides Llanquihue, you can head in the opposite direction towards Ensenada. Puerto Octay is another town beyond Frutillar which is more authentically German than touristy Frutillar.
- For water sports, you can rent canoes or going kayaking in the bay. My hostel offered a sunset kayaking option, taking us to a nearby lagoon and ending with us kayaking in Lago Llanquihue as the sun set behind us. This was an an amazing experience that I’ll document in a future post.
- Puerto Montt, the capital of the Los Lagos region, is only 30 minutes away by bus, and is an important commerical center with an interesting market. (See my future post.)
- If you’re interested in trekking, there are several routes located around Volcán Osorno that are easily accessible by public transportation. The most common route is on the Sendero Desolación and the extension, the Sendero Los Alerces (information here, in Spanish). For the really ambitious, there is another extension to the Rincón del Osorno trail, which leads back to Petrohué. I opted not to do this hike because there are giant flying insects that come out in late December in January which make the hike just about swatting insects. (I ran into these insects in the Valdivia area a week later!) The other trail is the Sendero Solitario, which you can read about here (in Spanish). After trekking, most people stop by the Saltos del Petrohué, pretty waterfalls located in the Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. Tour agencies also offer trekking up Volcán Osorno followed by mountain biking down. There is no entry fee at the national park, and the bus from Puerto Varas to Petrohué costs $2500 CLP each way. Entry to the Saltos de Petrohué costs $1500 CLP.
- For fans of water sports, there is also the possibility of going rafting in the Río Petrohué, though the owner of the hostel where I stayed told me that it wasn’t really worth the cost (especially since the river is rather far away from Puerto Varas).
- If you’re lucky, you can find a tour to Lago Todos Los Santos, a less-visited but beautiful lake located on the other side of Volcán Osorno. This description in the New York Times is magical.
- The one thing I really wish I had done was spend some time in the Valle Cochamó, a beautiful valley located near Puerto Varas. There are multiple day horseback riding trips that I definitely want to do on a future visit. Unforutately, I was short on time and really wanted to visit Chiloé. When I head back to Chile to visit Patagonia and hopefully the Carretera Austral, I will definitely spend some time in Cochamó!
[Puerto Varas, Los Lagos, Chile: December 27, 2015-January 1, 2016]