South America 2011-2012: Puerto Varas, Chile

Puerto Varas is the second of two Chilean legs I kind of know all along will happen - if only because they lie at the start of the trip. Nevertheless, I almost don't make it there. It turns out that my birthday present to myself is to get on the wrong bus out of Valdivia. It's the lone representative of Cruz Del Sur that arrives at the right time, and the driver nods his head when I give him my bag and questioningly utter "Puerto Varas?" I hop on and off we go.

For about twenty minutes, anyway. That's about when the purser looks at me, then my ticket, then at me again. "Sabes que vamos a Temuco?" he asks. Really? I HAD been wondering why the sun's been on the wrong side of the bus. Yep, I'm heading north when I should be progressing in a - shall we say - more southerly direction. And, although this would make more sense in a travelogue called "up the Andes", it's not to Temuco that I want to go. Neither do I wanna pause in Santo Domingo, San Jose, or whatever it is in an hour-and-a-half that he gives me as a crossroads option to turn around. Crap!

So I ask to just get let off on the side of the road, nearest the first bus stop of any sort if he pleasae. This happens in about a minute, the bus roaring off in a small dusting. I immediately cross the road to the humble bus stop before me, attended to by its bewildered looking occupants. A family of the village before me, I quickly gather that they see the odd gringo, like, never.

Still, they handily inform that a bus WILL come along every half hour or so and take me back to Valdivia. A few more surprised locals wander up to the stop and the bus does duly arrive. Yay! Now for the ensuing half hour I merely need stand in the aisle behind the gear-shifter, surrounded by my belongings. This gives one and all a chance to get a good appraisal of me as there is nothing else to do. We meanwhile barrel into town, let a few folks off along the way, and I'm deposited at the bus station again. 58 minutes have elapsed since I began this ill-fated journey.

A quick jog to the ticket window and a little explaining has me on another bus within two minutes. And that's the end of the matter - not so bad t'at all. Off we go, then, for an hour or so to Osorno. There I change buses and continue on to Puerto Varas.

Onboard I notice a decent-sized collection of gringos suddenly and, about an hour-and-a-half later, it's this contingent that almost completely comprises who gets off at Puerto Varas. The rest continue on to Puerto Montt just a little further on, probably to queue up for the next Navimag boat down to Patagonia as I did years before. I grab my bags and walk the inconvenient last 15 minutes down to the lake. That's where I'll find my lodgings, at a French hostel I've heard about, Margouya.

My stay in Puerto Varas, which comes next, makes for an interesting if lonely one. It hasn't started with exactly the birthday cheer I had in mind, but so it goes. The time had come to move on from Valdivia and I have done so. But, like Valdivia, Puerto Varas a given - it's the only other Chilean place sitting atop my list of missed locales. This one, however, comes on account of its amazing backdrop of a volcano. Indeed, there it sits right across the lake - still. Imagine that. The rest will just have to happen. Supposedly this is the gateway town to Chile's south - which I thought Puerto Montt is, but one look at that and I can understand why Chile's offices of tourism prefer to point to Puerto Varas instead.

This it does whether it's to be great or not: I settle into my hostel with hopes of being somehow grabbed by the place. I actually DO shortly bump into a few folks about town that I had met in Valdivia, but after passing some time with them in a restaurant we don't reconnect later. This is mostly due to the most poorly laid of plans. Oops: A lot of bars apparently have a Kunstmann sign, one looking just as likely as the other. Thus a final "Happy Birthday" to me comes as I wander about town a bit and call it a night.

It's in this same vein that I find myself putzing about the area for several days. I don't really know anyone, nor do I find myself in many conversations outside of the random one in the hostel. I find a nice spot to play the horn, at least, one with an overlook of the lake and the volcanoes that are generally refusing to appear on account of ill-placed clouds that like to nestle above them. Sigh.

Mt. Osorno is nevertheless the most amazingly conical such beast imaginable. This is true even if I'm not to be immediately blessed with its full glory yet - as I was on the bus to Puerto Montt some eleven years before. That's what had piqued my interest, that stunning view in the midst of such another oddly German town.

In the interim I'm assured that hiking about the volcano and visiting some waterfalls won't require either sun or a clearing of the volcano's summit. Off I go, then, to Petrohué by microbus. An hour-and-a-half of rounding the massive lake Llanquihue finally puts me at the bottom of the volcano's massive skirt, at the lake Todos Los Santos. And THAT's a glorious place to be, even if practically not another soul is around to share it with. That can be good or bad, depending on my mood. I'm indifferent, I suppose.

The other couple people on the bus to go the entire way, meanwhile, walk over to the waiting boat. That'll give them a tour of the lake as I walk off to hopefully find a trail. (It's also where the phenomenally expensive trip to Bariloche for $230 or $270 plus hotel begins, one involving four lakes and five buses through spectacular scenery like what lies before me.)

The girl at the ranger's office takes turns between being helpful and discouraging a la vez. She's not sure why the hell I want to walk up a volcano whose trails have been covered by another's (Volcán Puyehue) copious dumpings of ash. She nevertheless gives me a map and generally indicates where I might go as she insists that Petrohué's waterfall area - 6 km back down the road of ash of I've just come in on - is way better.

Turns out she's right, but that takes some time to ascertain. I dutifully look for the trail to be found amidst all the heapings of ash evidently left by dumptruck and snowplow. It's an awfully good coincidence that Puyehue's ash is falling on an area where ski resorts and snow aren't far away, I think.

Eventually I find where the one remaining trail takes off from the campground and I follow it for a ways towarrd the volcano... and then abruptly stop. The direct sun and lack of tree cover has already got me hot and bothered. And it doesn't look like the view's gonna change much for many hours of hiking, either.

I thus head back to the beautiful, deep blue lake. I reflect some more on that 4 boats - 5 buses trip, should I decide to take it. Nah. But what an amazing way to cross an international border! I instead trail along the lake and snap a view shots while eating some fruit. Then I make my way back to the end of the road to retake it and gain the falls. A few kilometers of treading ash leads to the infrequent bus coming by which I flag down. I'm soon dumped off at the falls a speedy number of minutes later, right about where the ash road becomes PAVED ash-cleared road again.

The falls need no explanation when pictures do the job ably. Indeed, what can be said about how the lake's contents spill through here with a few volcanoes as abackdrop. Wow! Legs still wanting stretching, I hike all of the several small trails... in between finding shady spots to sit and read, plus eat my picnic lunch. Too bad the coffee at the cafe was so horrible, though - that surely would've completed it the spot ably.

Again at the road I continue my walk backward toward Puerto Varas. Again I flag down a bus before long, this time getting left at a restaurant of the driver's suggestion in Ensenada, also on the Lake Llanquihue. A very basic plate lunch of pork chops, potatoes, salad, flan, juice, coffee follows; I'm only joined by a rotating cotiderie of road workers that I've passed now twice on the road nearby. I'm nevertheless gratified to see what the locals consider a typical lunch. No fancy German cakes here like in Puerto Varas, just hearty German-inspired traditional fare. I'm satisfied.

From there I walk over to some small hikes half an hour away. Neither turns out to be anything special. Laguna Verde is indeed a green lagoon; Los Peyillos is a modest walk on the moon nearby with its volcanic deposits of lavarock. At least a couple tame foxes inhabit the area for some reason, along with various birds that include a woodpecker that leisurely rests for my inspection. I bump into the lake and its views numerous times, saying hi to a handful of Chileans a couple of times coming and going, but that's about it.

Back at the road I hail one of these couples down with my thumb; they take me as far as twenty minutes back toward Puerto Varas. Repeatedly I'm asked why the hell I've bothered to come to Chile, followed by the usual latin inquisition as to my family status. A middle-aged man who's never married, I wonder if they have the same typically American impression that I must be weirdly eccentric or gay (the former applies, for what it's worth). More likely they see me as pathetically without a family under my roof by now. In any event I'm left off in the middle of nowhere as agreed, right across from their hoped-for teahouse, waiting for yet another microbus. Not too much later one rumbles by and I'm soon back in Puerto Varas.

I only make one other excursion from Puerto Varas, outside of trolling about town in its various directions. To Frutillar I go, a cute town about a half hour up the lake that competes with Puerto Varas. It's far less a town than a gathering of restaurants along the lake in a briefly congested spot, but Frutillar is nevertheless appealing.

Yep, it has the same volcano collection staring at it as Puerto Varas, but here the entire town shares about the same view. Moreover, it's apparently THE place to get a kuchen, a word I doubt the average Chilean knows just means "cake" in German. To prepare for the inevitable, I suppose, I walk the entire coastline before stopping in yet another place advertised with gnomes for a massive piece of berried cheesecake. Well, that's good, I think, as I waddle off to find a bus to take me back to Puerto Varas. I meanwhile note the advertisements for theater and music festivals that all should come soon - yet long after I'm gone.

In Puerto Varas I continue my sampling of cafes, even finding some good ones along with empanadas - so notably huge in Chile. Those come between the odd stop at the local brewpub with Kunstmann. I also return to my "trumpet park" with a view to play, then sample the only sushi place in town - if only for the surprise and potential variety (it's only fair).

Frankly, I just can't seem to find my groove in Puerto Varas. Some of the folks at the hostel are friendly, even allowing for an opportunity to exercise my French, but... oh well. In the end, the highlight will be one afternoon where I play some muted tunes in the hostel for a pair of Chileans working on their laptops. They're creating a service that should hopefully do away with paper fliers in using the internet instead. One is a sometime pianist who shows me how he uses his iPhone as a touchscreen drum and flute (by blowing on the microphone). Well, THAT's something, I admit. This impromptu concert, meanwhile, finally wins over the one employee, a seasonally-employed Frenchwoman, when I play Black Orpheus. My explaining to the Chileans that it was a Brazilian-FRENCH production may well have helped. Gallic pride is never to be underestimated.

Were there moments like those - but there's not. I can't put my finger on it, especially in such beautiful environs and with everyone so nice, but Puerto Varas just isn't working. So I take advantage of a good internet connection to call some family members, already decided to leave after several days.

Of course this fails as well - the bus is full when I arrive with hopes to go, showing up with foolish thoughts that I needn't pre-purchase a ticket on the front side of high season (probably because it's a Monday and folks want to return to Bariloche after a shopping/whatever weekend). I thus find myself heading instead into Puerto Montt twenty minutes away. Are there are more options there?

Nope, but that's because the two offices that compete with Cruz Del Sur don't have anyone attending them. So I resign myself to buying a ticket for the morn, quickly returning to the same microbus I had just left. We return to town and I do yet another walkabout, this time adding the local hill Phillipi for a view of town and a return along the lake.

The more important thing - the good news - is that for only a second day is the Vulcán Osorno out in full glorious view. THAT's something. And my right elbow has been upgraded from really crappy to only pretty crappy. That's progress, right? But... well... that's Puerto Varas, I guess.

More from Petrohué...

More from Frutillar...

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