Under a Volcano’s Watchful Eye
December 30, 2013 | By Mitch & Jewels |
With nearly a week to get from Chile’s urban areas to Patagonia, we decided to choose one region to explore from Chile’s many temptations. We decided on the area around Lake Llanquihue, with gorgeous forests, daunting mountains (dominated by the Osorno Volcano), and adorable towns. Puerto Varas captures most of the tourism, but after our experiences in Atacama, we decided to rent a car – we figured an extra $250 (for 5 days) was worthwhile to explore the area. With the car, we were able to see a ton of incredible natural places, minus the tourist swarms.
After reaching Puerto Montt (via 15 hour bus ride from Valparaiso), we took a bus right from the terminal to the airport to get our rental car, then drove to Puerto Varas for a lovely lunch overlooking the lake and volcano before heading off to the B&B we had booked the day before.
Bed & Breakfast: Casa Ko
Casa Ko is an adorable B&B run by a French couple off the road from Puerto Varas to Ensenada (closer to Ensenada), and was a good home base during our time here. Since the hostel is hard to reach without a car (3km up a dirt road from the paved road, and then a few km to Ensenada) and slightly pricey, it caters to less of a backpacker crew, but the people were fantastic and we enjoyed our time. The house is great – we enjoyed our “Stars Room,” with a small window and a fun paint job and a more economical price ($50 USD per night for the room plus breakfast), and loved sitting on the patio or in the garden where two very friendly kittens enjoyed snuggling in our laps and the chickens would occasionally walk by. The breakfasts were fabulous, the family was lovely, and the guests were great for chatting and mealtime conversation.
They cook dinners that you can join for $20 USD/person, which is a bit pricey but delicious, made from local ingredients (often from their own garden), and worth the expense – we were glad to spend Christmas Eve at their table. Except… one night they said they weren’t making a full dinner but would offer a plate of pasta for half the price. As it turns out, for a small bowl of pasta (no refills) with a decent (mine is better) pesto, plus a small bowl of berries with some cream that was leftover from the previous night, they charged $15 USD/person. Also to note, their wine and beer options (you can buy for additional charge) are expensive, but it was no problem to bring your own wine.
Activities and Explorations
The Secret Beach and Private Roads
With the rental car, we were able to cover a lot of ground in our explorations. Our first afternoon, we checked out a “local secret beach” that the owners of Casa Ko had mentioned. Unfortunately, while the beach is “public,” the roads next to it are not. Most of the time (apparently) the gate to the area is locked so people park their cars and walk into the beach. However, the gate was open when we arrived and there was no sign that said “private,” so we drove in and sat to enjoy the views for about 15 minutes. Since it was Christmas week, a lot of Chileans were visiting relatives in the area and the beach was pretty crowded, but it was still a beautiful place to spend a few minutes. When we went to leave, we discovered that the gate had been closed and locked and we had no way of leaving. For a stressful little while, Mitch sat in the car (at the gate) while I talked with a bunch of friendly and helpful Chileans to try to figure out who had access to a key to the gate. In the meanwhile, a truck with a key passed by and we were able to get the car out. Always good to add adventure?
We went out for dinner at one of the only places in Ensenada that seemed open on a Sunday night, where for $16 USD we each had a massive amount of fish (3 types), seafood sauce, veggies of various types in a giant mountain on our plates. The options in town seem to be dominated by buffet restaurants (or, the Spanish translation of “tenedor libre:” “free fork”). Then, between the exhaustion of the night bus and the food coma onset, we both passed out.
The next morning, we drove the hour and a half to Cochamo, which was a gorgeous drive over some very bumpy gravel roads, stopping along the way in the town of Cochamo to buy empanadas from a friendly Chilean man. (What Chile lacks in economical prices and clear Spanish accents, it makes up for in friendliness!)
Then we headed to the trailhead, literally the end of the road, and started the hike into the Cochamo Valley to La Junta, where we had made a reservation for the night at the Refugio Cochamo, a 4 ½ hour hike in (and 4 hours out) from the trailhead.
The Refugio is really fabulous and we loved our experience there. Since you can rent a bed and sleeping bags, you just need to bring clothing and a toothbrush! It’s definitely worth booking in advance since there is limited space, and also worth carrying in a good amount of snacks (and maybe a box of wine). It was opened about 10 years ago by an American from Reno named Daniel and his wife; their philosophy is to create a comfortable place for people to hang out with a lot of options as well as a good place for camping, but give everyone the space to do what they want and explore however they want to explore, sans tours or guides.
The hike in to the Refugio is super pretty and quite easy, especially if (like us) you just bring daypacks. You go through various sections of beautiful forests, pampas (grasslands), horse trails, and cross little streams and bogs and wooden logs and bridges. At certain places, you can see or even climb down to the crystalline water of the Cochamo River, or see the giant rock domes that look out over the area, impressively overseeing the landscape.
Apparently this area is being touted as “South America’s undiscovered Yosemite” and “the next Torres del Paine” (to note, I think you can hike through to Argentina here now if you bring camping gear). I don’t know how it compares, but it is epically beautiful and in a largely untrodden area. On the hike in, we saw maybe 6 people hiking out, plus 2 locals with some bulls, horses, and sheep. Other than that, it was just us and the flies.
Through this whole area, there is a 3-week season of what they call tabanos (literally the word for horseflies, although these little buggers are something different), and we arrived on about day 3. They are these huge flies with furry orange tushis that swarm around you and your head with a really loud buzzing noise. While they are really irritating, thankfully they don’t bite much (and when they do, it’s a minor prick that doesn’t last). They are also super stupid and slow, so it’s easy to catch them, at which point they buzz so much they vibrate your hands. To note, they are worse in sunny areas and if you are wearing dark clothing. We were told that there is a honey-like sweetness in their abdomens, but we couldn’t figure out how to get at it.
The area is getting known for climbing – I doubt this would be a good place to learn, but I kind of wish I had the skills to experience those giant domes intimately! Since we only spent one night there, we didn’t explore much, but loved the view from the Refugio decks of the mountains and domes, and took an hour detour in the morning to check out a beautiful waterfall (extra epic with the domes in the background) and a fancy toboggan-style cascade that can be used as a waterslide (untested by us personally).
After we got back to the car, we gave a ride to a guy who had been camping at La Junta. His parents live in Ensenada and have bees, so he gifted us a giant container of fresh amazing raw honey as a thank you for the lift. Best. Gift. Ever.
On the way back to Casa Ko, we stopped to buy wine (in Valparaiso, a double-bottle of eminently drinkable wine cost $4 USD at the supermarket; in Ensenada it was $7 but still much better than the prices at the B&B, and made us happy campers). Then we spent the afternoon chilling out before Christmas dinner with our hosts and other guests.
The next day was full of local area exploration. We started with the Petrohue Waterfalls, which are really pretty – most notably for the black igneous lava rock and turquoise crystalline water. In addition to the main path by the waterfall, the other trails in the same park went in other directions and were exquisite. It was much less buggy (damned tabanos) and there were gorgeous babbling brooks.
Todos los Santos Lake
From there, we went to Todos los Santos Lake in the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, which was a beautiful sight with black sand beaches. They can take you around in boat rides, but it didn’t seem like you’d see much more than wandering around. There are also 3 and 6 hour hikes you can do on your own, but we weren’t in the mood to hike on the sand plus were getting hungry, so we decided to focus on food. Right there, the only real option was paying a boat to cross the water or paying $25 USD per person at a local hotel, so we went back to Ensenada for sandwiches.
After lunch, we went up to Volcan Osorno, the gorgeous volcano that overlooks this lake and whole area. The volcano has a super quintessential point at the top and a beautiful year-round glacial snow-cap, and it’s used for skiing in the winter. You can drive pretty high up by car, after which you can either walk or take the ski lift. The views from the miradors (viewpoints) along the drive up were spectacular, as were the purple and red flowers, and just observing the change in ecosystem composition from forest to paramo and ultimately lava rock as you get higher.
Miraculously (or not), after 52 days of drought here (it typically rains every other or every third day), it started to rain as we started walking up the volcano. Despite the fierce wind and rain, it was a beautiful view. As the rain and wind got stronger, sadly, we decided to turn around and never made it to the crater (partway up) or the snow line.
As luck would have it, when we tried to turn on the rental car’s windshield wiper, we discovered that it was largely dysfunctional (read: one of the two wipers was not attached), so Mitch tinkered around to get the driver’s side one working and we stuck the other wiper pole up in the air like a flagpole on the way back. The airport car rental folks (thanks Alamo!) were quite helpful and understanding, and assured us it they understood it was not our fault and that they would pay us back if we wanted to get the new piece for it ourselves (which we didn’t, but it was nice to hear some understanding).
Our last stop on the one-day-whirlwind-tour of the area was this little Green Lagoon, which was very pretty but otherwise not super noteworthy… aside from the fact that a fox hangs out in the picnic/café area begging for food. A fox! The lakes were quite pretty – greens and blues, and the clouds over it all were beautiful!
The next morning, we packed our bags and left Casa Ko after breakfast. We decided to drive up the eastern coast of the lake, so we first stopped at Las Cascadas, a random little town where, 15 minutes out of town on a dirt road, you get to a really sweet hiking path (1/2 hour each way) to reach this spectacular waterfall and pass by some other lovely spots. The waterfall was pretty amazing – the rock walls all around created an amphitheater of sorts, so the sound resonated in a fabulously powerful way.
The Germanic Influences around Lago Llanquihue
Continuing north then west around the lake, we passed a lot of agricultural land – with shrink-wrapped hay bales, cows, tractors, as well as fish farms and hatcheries, Christmas trees, and eucalyptus stands (which I hate as a non-native species, but they just smell so good!). The clouds were beautiful and gave the whole area a storybook pastoral feel (until you looked out the window and saw a giant volcano).
We had lunch in Puerto Octay, a random old German town and one of the first places settled in this area. The area is very German-oriented (it’s influenced local menus by adding decent beer, sausages, and kuchen, and many of the last names are super-Germanic), and a lot of the buildings in Puerto Octay are marked with the year in which they were built – mostly late 1800s through early 1900s.
Continuing on, we went to Frutillar, another random German town. Most of the local population is up away from the lake, but it seems like a popular vacation spot for Chilean families and older foreigners so the block or two along the lake has a lot of cabins, hotels, and restaurants. There is also a big theater building (the Teatro del Lago), which is a fun, modern building, as well as a public pier, and the requisite Volcan Osorno views. Ironically, the only place where the view sucks is this random little structure labeled as the viewpoint (Mirador).
We decided to overnight in Frutillar and stayed at Hospedaje von Bischoffhausen (you can’t make up the Germanness of the names) – right on the water, near the theater, with a phenomenal volcano view from the room, and $56 USD for both of us (with breakfast and wifi), which seemed to be reasonable for this area with that view. Elsewhere in Frutillar, we could go a few blocks back from the water and pay that price, but on the water with a view was twice that. Sadly, the only problem was one we discovered in the morning – not only was the water not hot, but it was decidedly frigid.
We wandered around, enjoyed the views from the brisk black sand beach, had dinner and a reasonably legit tap beer in a place that smelled greasy and was not over-the-top expensive. Apparently our time in Chile can be defined by giant piles of seafood, and Frutillar was no exception. For $17 USD, we shared a tabla, which effectively seems like a mezze plate (in NYC lingo) with a bunch of piles of different types of seafood – scallops (fantastic, with these weird orange bits and using the same word that I had learned for oysters), shrimp, crab salad, salmon, and ceviche. Amazingly, you can’t get much German food anywhere, but pizza, sandwiches, seafood, and big combo platter things of French fries, fried meat, and fried eggs (the name changes by locality) abound. Then we stopped off so I could get a portion of kuchen, one of the only German things here, although we are a bit confused by pronunciation. It’s a cake with some berries and either a gelatinous cream or crumb topping, and quite tasty.
Our last morning, we woke up early to watch a not-super-spectacular sunrise over the lake and volcano (from our room!), had breakfast, and headed to the Puerto Montt airport (less than an hour’s drive from Frutillar), where we are flying to Punta Arenas to continue our journey down into Patagonia. Before leaving, we realized that we would have almost two months without cooking for ourselves, so we decided to ditch the last remnants of the traveling pantry.
Here are all our photos if you’d like to click through a slideshow: