Being a tourist in Puerto Varas

The vast majority of people in Santiago (especially women) wear jeans, at least at this time of year. They’re sold everywhere, and they’re dirt cheap. Further south, I noticed that there seems to be a bit more variety. This might be because it’s a bit colder, perhaps people aren’t quite so fashion conscious and interested in copying each other, and in general it’s a bit more touristy. While every third shop in Santiago sells ice-cream, and every third shop in Curico is a video game parlour, it appeared as if every third shop in Puerto Varas sold some kind of hiking gear, or general outdoor clothing that was mostly imported.

The day after the bus trap of death, we headed to Puerto Varas, which is a small-ish town that’s very touristy. An hour or so down the road from the more industrial town of Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas sits on the edge of the largest lake in Chile, or possibly the second largest depending on which tourist guide you listen to. In New Zealand terms, it feels a bit like Taupo. We thought our bus ride was only supposed to be about three or so hours, but it ended up feeling much longer than that. (It takes an hour by itself just to drive from Castro to the edge of the island of Chiloe, and then it’s a 30 minute ride on the ferry.)

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Within the actual town of Puerto Varas, the most interesting highlight was probably the local museum, of which we only noticed and knocked on the door having seen it from the bus. It’s looked after and maintained entirely by a local artist, Pablo Fierro, who has spent much of his life painting the houses of the area, and preserving elements of local history. The longer we spent walking through the displays in his museum, the more amazing it all seemed given the amount of detail he puts into his paintings and the 18 years that he’s so far spent working on them. He was continuing to work on yet another portrait when we arrived, and was very happy to chat with Stacey about everything that he did, the local region, and so on. We got a couple of photos of his museum with him working in the window as a memory.

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We reached Puerto Varas late in the afternoon. There’s a different bus terminal for each company, and none are in the middle of town. By the time we had found the backpackers’ we were staying at, and sorted things out, it was starting to get dark. Coincidently though, this had meant that our walk into the town centre co-incided with quite a nice clear sunset, with a view of one of the three nearby volcanoes over the lake. This was a nice prequel to a very average dinner that we had at the local cartoon dinosaur restaurant called Dino’s. (Just because it looks cheap and nasty doesn’t mean it’s cheap.)

Our main other reason for going into town was to figure out how we’d spend the next two days that we had in the town. The people in the local information office were very keen to help us select an expensive boat ride over the lake (about NZ$60 each), towards the border with Argentina. Having been informed that there were lots of places to walk on the other side of the lake, we signed up that evening for the next morning’s trip.

The weather next morning began in a dreary way, and the couple from Brazil, whom we met also waiting at the tour’s pick-up point outside the local casino, were a little concerned that we wouldn’t see much. It didn’t last, though, and as the bus finally pulled up 30 minutes late, the rain was easing and the clouds began to clear.

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The bus first took us around the edge of the lake, and after 45 minutes we arrived at an entrance to the local national park, which had some touristey 10 minute loop walks towards some rapids and waterfalls. We had 30 minutes before the bus left, and after walking down this twice, Stacey and I followed another track along the river. We didn’t get very far before deciding we had to turn around to catch the bus, but later that evening (during the stop on the way back), we went that way immediately and found that it led to yet more rapids.

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The boat on which we traveled was a catamaran, similar to the sort that zooms around Lake Taupo and Auckland Harbour with lots of people, often tourists. This was very similar. There are a few ways to get through the Andes from Chile, and all the affordable ways are by road. The very expensive way is to catch catamarans through lakes in Chile and Argentina, jumping on connecting buses between them and staying at least one night in an expensive hotel along the way. Although we were staying in Chile for our day-trip, the boat we were on was one of the connecting services for this itinerary. We shared the ride with a group of older people in a tour group from the USA, who were keen to walk around waving video cameras and patriotically wearing badges to indicate which state they were from. They were doing the complete trip to Argentina, and scheduled to stay at the expensive hotel on the other side of the lake.

The catamaran docked at the small town of Peulla, which is part of Chile, but whose only connecting road goes through Argentina. Unfortunately on arriving we found that there wasn’t actually a lot of hiking as we’d been informed by the tourism office, and if we wanted to kill the three or four hours before the boat left again, we’d need to sign up to an “excursion”, which was one of the activities available at Peulla. There were quite a few on the list, but the only two activities for which we’d have time would be either a 4WD trip, or “Canopy”, which is basically eight Flying Fox rides in a row between platforms high up in the trees. The most annoying thing about this was that they were all very expensive, and signing up for any activity would pretty much double what we had already paid just to get here. In the end, we decided that we probably wouldn’t bother to do this type of thing in New Zealand though, so we chipped away at our bank accounts a bit more.

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The couple from Brazil chose to sign up for the 4WD trip because they wanted to see a llama, but Stacey and I decided to try the flying fox thing. Apart from the price, this turned out to be a lot of fun. The two guys running it were very professional, and they carried my camera around to make sure we had lots of photos of us flying through the trees like monkeys (in Stacey’s words). As we were the only two people who had signed up for this activity, it flew by very quickly, and we still had to kill another couple of hours by sitting down and eating chocolate.

The boat ride back was a bit quieter, although we were still now sharing it with a different group of people who had arrived from Argentina, on their way through the Andes to Chile. The cloud had completely lifted by now, making all three volcanoes that surrounded the lake very visible.

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Very scenic.
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