Puerto Varas: The Jewel of Chile’s Lake District

Have you ever arrived at a restaurant at 7:00 p.m. and wondered why it was empty? Walked along a deserted beach, flanked with shuttered food trucks and imagined what it might have been like two months earlier? You’re not exactly alone, there are people about, but they’re stacking chairs and sweeping the floor. The party’s over.

That is what it has been like for us in Puerto Varas. It’s fall, the days are cool and rainy and the last of the Patagonia backpackers are making their way north. The ideal time to visit this part of Chile is between December and February.

We saw a group of trekkers in one of the waterfront parks; their backpacks and bedrolls piled up in a heap. This young man, obviously relieved to have put down his 35 lbs. of gear, was entertaining the crowd with headstands. The trip is over – now’s the time to swap stories of treks to the Perito Moreno Glacier, and compare sunset photos over the Torres del Paine.

Also known as “The City of Roses“, Puerto Varas is the largest and most picturesque of the communities that dot Lake Llanquihue. Founded by German settlers in 1854, it has grown to a beautiful, walkable small city of 40,000, with many original wooden homes, small parks and hilly streets that curve down to the waterfront.

You can walk along the waterfront for many kilometres, much of it lined with restaurants and shops and good views of the boats bobbing in the water.

Although the weather has not been ideal, we throughly enjoyed our week in this area. Puerto Varas has a number of grand homes that are still in very good condition. Most of them are no longer private homes – they’re now used as schools, offices, administrative buildings.

This building houses one of our favourite restaurants. Fresh mussels and fish, artisan beer, stylish interior and a view of the waterfront.

The Casa Kuschel dates back to 1915 and represents a relevant example of the Llanquihue Lake Chalet style of home – it is now listed as an Historical Monument.

For every beautifully restored home like that one, there are many more that are poorly maintained, or even look uninhabited. We wonder why – the oldest homes are only 150 years old and the weather is temperate. Obviously a big pile like the one below needs ongoing $$ and elbow grease, but there must be more to it than that.

Even the Cathedral of Puerto Varas; that iconic three-steepled red and white church that dominates city photos needs a power-wash.

Although it was off-season, there was a lot to do in Puerto Varas. A walk along the waterfront offers endless entertainment.

This scene could be anywhere in the world. Much like chasing pigeons in the park, kids are naturally drawn to feeding the ducks.

We discovered a couple of striking sculptures. This is the Princess Licaruyen sculpture by Karol Kozlowski.

The Legend of Princess Licaruyen is that of a mythical young woman whose purity and beauty was sacrificed to save the town from the wrath of the volcanoes.

Then we found this one and as maternal and odd and Easter-focused as it it, I could not find any information about it. The artist has an interesting Instagram page, which gives good insight into the construction of large-scale pieces, but nothing about this one in particular.

And then there is the Museo de Pablo Fierro. This eye-catching construction began as a machine shop that was gifted to the artist Pablo Fierro. Over the years, he has added on to the structure, embellished the exterior with such fanciful items as a cuckoo clock and the prow of a ship and filled the interior with memorabilia. There is a lot to take in, not the least of it being to marvel at what the mind of an eccentric can produce.

There is a small park just up from the waterfront called Parque Phillipi. It has walking paths and mountain-biking trails, but one of its notable features is the fact that many of the trees are just 40-50 years old. A major reforestation project was undertaken back in the 80s and the result is a thick forest that offers residents a quick jump into wilderness.

The old proverb on this stand of trees reads,”He who plants trees knowing he will never sit in their shade has begun to understand the meaning of life.”

The Lake District is all about the forests. Because the climate is temperate, there are plenty of palm trees, monkey puzzle trees and large succulents. But there are also many deciduous and coniferous trees that are reminiscent of our Pacific Northwest.

We had this delicious road almost to ourselves as we drove the 185-km. circuit road around Lake Llanquihue. This is the second-largest lake in Chile, ringed by small towns, dairy farms and active volcanoes.

For much of the way, the highway has an excellent well-marked bike lane – so civilized and such a pleasure for cyclists to navigate endless blind curves without a worry.

One of the major features of this area are the volcanoes. On a clear day, Volcano Osorno dominates the waterfront view; for much of our time in Puerto Varas, we would never have known there was such a thing hiding under the clouds on the horizon.

But the day of our excursion, the clouds had lifted enough to see her perfect cone and last-year’s snow cap.

The volcanoes in the area are active – Osorno, Calbuco, Puntiagudo, Puyehue and Mount Tronador.

I’m not sure which volcanoes we were looking at as we drove around, but these were some of our views:

Back in the 70s, friends of ours spent two years with the Peace Corps, working with the National Park system out of the little crossroads of Ensenada. The roads were gravel, there was no electricity and Jeanne learned to cook and bake bread on a wood stove.

We sent them photos of Ensenada (still just a crossroads), but fifty years later with a paved road, a few houses, a couple of tiny stores, a couple of restaurants and a church. They did not recognize a thing!

These towns were all settled by the Germans back in the mid-1900s and every place we visited around the lake looked untouched by time.

We drove through Puerto Octay, which had a lovely hilly setting. We parked and walked about for a bit, and noticed yet another grand wooden building that is slightly rundown – now serving as a pharmacy.

We stopped for lunch at Frutillar, which is a scenic spot with a stellar waterfront, lined with restaurants, cute little houses and this pretty wharf.

We noticed treble clefs everywhere – on park benches, as door knockers – and discovered that Frutillar hosts a big classical music event every summer.

While our tour around the lake gave us a good overview of the area, we set out the next day to cover some of the same ground more thoroughly and explore Vicente Perez Rosales National Park. This park encompasses 253,780 hectares and includes Osorno Volcano, Tronador, Petrohué Falls and Todos los Santos Lake.

We drove straight out to the little town of Petrohué, which overlooks Todos los Santos Lake. There is boat service that links from Petrohué to Puella and onto the Argentinian port of Bariloche. There are also little boats that tour around Todos los Santos, for a better view of the volcanoes in the area.

I had read (Google translated) that the little boats were closed for the season, so when we arrived later in the afternoon (too late for a boat tour), we were a bit disappointed to see this:

We missed the chance for boat cruise, but Todos los Santos Lake was beautiful from shore as well.

Our next stop was Petrohué Falls. Enroute to the falls, we stopped by the side of the road to enjoy this view.

The rapids leading up to the falls.

Petrohué Falls. The falls aren’t high, but they are incredibly dramatic. Water spills between volcanic rock, creating calm pools and ferocious action. A bridge take you close to the falls to view from all angles.

Another viewpoint.

Osorno Volcano as a backdrop.

After such a spectacular display, we moved onto a number of sedate park hikes. Vicente Perez Rosales National Park has something for everyone.

Hikes are described as being “recreational” – between 20-50 minutes in duration, with a moderate grade – or “trekking” – multi-hour hikes requiring more skill, stamina, possibly equipment and a guide and definitely more sustenance than a granola bar.

Since you already know we chose the recreational hikes, I will give you the highlights.

Forest bathing.” Since we were there on a Saturday, we had plenty of company. At times we were close on the heels of the group in front of us and at other times, we were all alone. Either way, the forest walks were peaceful and quiet.

After all the whitewater drama, we came upon this peaceful little river. If it had been warmer, we would have been tempted to wade in.

On the bank of the river, there were a number of trees with their tangled roots showing. This is the arrayan or myrtle tree – native to Chile and Argentina – prized for their hardwood.

When we were paying our entrance fee at the park, we noticed a little fox trot across the road and disappear into the bushes. I was really hoping we might have the good luck to see another one and sure enough, when we stopped for a coffee, we saw this little guy, sound sleep, just a few feet from the deck.

People were creeping up with their cameras amid whispers of “zorro! zorro!” Isn’t that a great name for such an intrepid little animal?

And finally, since this area is so heavily influenced by all things German, I would be remiss to not talk about the sweets. Sugar (or “azucar“) is not a dirty word here. There is even a local custom that intrigues me – the “once” – ohn-say – meaning “eleven“, but also meaning a snack.

Depending upon what you read – it is either consumed at eleven o’clock, or there are a potential of eleven items (kind of a high tea), or it is a choice of tea, coffee and sweets – cakes, pies. It is meant to tide you over between meals and/or keep your blood sugar from plummeting.

Chileans eat later – lunch can be at 2:00, dinner at 8:00 or 9:00, so the stretch between meals is a long one. With a mindset of sugar as an occasional treat and our tummies habituated to years of meals at 7:00 am, 12:30 pm and 7:00 pm, we’re not quite on for a big hunk of kuchen at 11:00 in the morning.

But, having a look at this dessert table could change my mind. We may have to sit down one day before we leave Chile and wash down an eighth of a chocolate cake with a cup of tea.

Tomorrow we are on our final leg of our Lake District tour – five nights in Villarica. Then, we fly to Santiago for 10 nights, and that’s it – home in two weeks!

12 thoughts on “Puerto Varas: The Jewel of Chile’s Lake District

  1. Beautiful pictures!!!! And that dessert table the icing on the cake as it were. Happy to hear you will be home in 2 weeks. Pen us in to your calendar, we are on Gabriola then. Can’t wait to see you.


  2. Truly enjoyed your stories about the Lake District!
    Bri ngs back a lot of memories for us!
    We plan to visit again next summer and practice our Spanish !
    You missed Torres del Paine!
    Will be for another time.
    So long


    1. Danielle – we will have to get together – I want to hear about when and where you were here. If you mean next summer – do you mean Chile’s summer or Canada’s summer?

      I know we missed Torres del Paine, and a lot of other places, but we figured we would be rushing through everything. Our plan for another trip would be all of Argentina, then a swing over into Chile’s part of Patagonia.


  3. Puerto Varas was the Jewel of the Lakes District when we lived there as well. The growth of the area makes much unrecognizable to us after so many years but nature photos bring back wonderful memories..Volcan Osorno, Lagos Lanquihue and Todos Los Santos, and Petrohue Falls. I do believe we have very similar photos of the Falls!-Jeanne
    I will 0nly add this: Traveling with you and on your diverse journeys is always rewarding and fun. This segment in the Lakes District is truly memorable and very enviable. – Bob


  4. Puerto Varas looks like a beautiful place to relax and explore. Quite a contrast to the desert environment you just visited awhile ago! One more to put in your memory book! By the way, those desserts you showed us sure look tempting!


    1. Puerto Varas was beautiful, but having such rainy weather was just a matter of bad timing. We left in sunny skies today and the forecast is sun there for the rest of the week!
      I will always remember bumping into a German couple one year in the Rockies. They had rented an RV in Calgary and then had nothing bur rain for several days. We were all at a rest stop and started talking – she was so despondent about this dream trip that had not worked out at all.
      And yes, everywhere we go, we see shops selling mountains of homemade ice cream and row upon row of cakes and tortes.


  5. Hi intrepid travellers! It’s about time I left a message to express our appreciation for sharing your travels with your
    great commentaries and photos. The Lake District of Chile inspires memories of our stay in Bariloche and travels further south in Argentinian Patagonia in 2017. We didn’t make it to Torres del Paine either, still hoping to go one day, as well as to Isla Chiloe. So much to see! Happy trails on the rest of this trip!


    1. Shelley! Lovely to hear from you – I’ve been wondering how your and Tom’s trip back to Switzerland was, and most importantly of course – the chance to meet your second grandchild! We look forward to seeing you at some point once we’re back and swapping grandkid stories and photos.

      Being so close and yet so far from Patagonia was tantalizing. We made it as far as Puerto Montt, which was a decidedly underwhelming experience, but Isla Chiloe was just beyond. I think that might be in the works for our next trip.
      All the best to you and Tom and hopefully we’ll see you before to long.


  6. Oh my 👀
    That is my sort of environment. What a beautiful place! Water, hills (not soooo sure of those stunning volcanoes lol), architecture, trees! Fabulous memories you have made. Thank you so much for sharing 🌷🌷🌷


    1. Robin – this is my kind of environment as well – parts of it are so much like Canada, and the climate is familiar – rain! It is gorgeous, and according to many, we haven’t seen the best part (Patagonia). Very diverse country – a little bit of everything.


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