Puerto Varas & Volcan de Osorno
Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
23Trip End May 24, 2010
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The drive towards the Chilean border is a pretty one. On our way to the border, we drove partly on a famous stretch known as the "Route of seven lakes" because…wait for it…it passes by seven lakes. The scenery was pleasant, if not stunning at times – lush, temperate forests and deep blue lakes around each bend.
Puerto Varas is a small city of about 40,000 located on the banks of the Llanquihue lake (pronounced “Yan-kee-way), which is one of the larger lakes in the Lake District. The city is most famous for its German influence. Apparently, in the 19th century, the Chilean government actively encouraged homesteading by Europeans, and as result, there are a number of towns in the Lake District (including Bariloche in Argentina) with notable Germanic architecture, cuisine, and culture
In addition to its German heritage, Puerto Varas is known for the multiple volcanoes in close proximity. The most iconic, Volcan de Osorno, towers over the lake on a clear day. We didn't have clear weather so we could only see the base of the Volcano from town. I was worried that we might get “El Chaltened” – spend multiple days in a town, unable to see the main natural attractions because of weather.
To add insult to injury, Monique and I dawdled away our first afternoon in town, so we missed the opportunity to sign up with any organized tours to hike around the base of the mountain. Things were not looking promising.
Fortunately, the folks at our hostel were incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. Apparently, we didn’t need an organized tour at all. We simply needed to hop on a “collectivo” (an 18-person passenger van used as a public bus), take it to the end of the line, and we would arrive near the trailhead at the base of the volcano. So we went into town to store up on munitions – a couple of over-sized empanadas filled with a delicious beef stew – grabbed some dinner that included an incredible German chocolate cream cake, and went to sleep anxious to get a close-up view of the volcano
Our ride to the volcano was pretty easy. We found our collectivo without any trouble, and rode an hour and fifteen minutes to Petrohue on Todos Los Santos Lake. From Petrohue, we could see the peak of Volcan Osorno poking through the clouds. The first photograph in this post presents what we saw; you may have to look closely to see the top of the volcano because the clouds and snow on the volcano peak are the same color.
After our photo shoot of the volcano, we hit the trail. After roughly 30 minutes of flat hiking – flanked by the volcano on one side and Lake Todos Los Santos on the other, we arrived at a large dry riverbed offering views of the volcano unobstructed by trees. Clouds seemed to be swirling around the top of the volcano, so we waited a few minutes to see if we could catch a glimpse of the peak.
After about 10 minutes, the clouds cleared briefly, and there she was in all her magnificence. Both Monique and I were mesmerized by the view – a beautiful snow-capped volcano, nearly perfectly conical in shape, against a clear-blue sky (see the third photo in the post).
I was simply giddy. If the volcano was shrouded in clouds the rest of the day, I would be happy with this moment as my only view. But things would get better.
After an additional 30 minutes or so (about an hour into our hike), the trail steepened dramatically. It was tough on the knees and quads, but we started to ascend rapidly alongside the volcano. As we progressed, we saw some impressive views of Lake Todos Los Santos, and the Argentine Andes on the opposite bank.
We also approached the tree-line on the mountain and after about 2 hours into the hike, found ourselves above the clouds – literally. It was a weird sensation. I looked south, and could see dense grey clouds parallel, then below me. By this point, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky ahead of us, offering us completely unobstructed views of the volcano.
We continued a little beyond the tree-line, until we reached a plateau that offered some magnificent views of the lake and the volcano (see the fourth photo in the post). We had hiked about 2.5 hours, seen more than we expected, and decided to turn back to avoid the prospect of being stranded in Petrohue
We arrived back at our hostel an hour after sunset, tired, sore, and grateful for a special day.
There are many organized tours that go to volcano, but most will stop at the point where the trail steepens (about 1 hour). Getting the volcano is very simple. Ask your hostel or hotel where to take the collectivo to Petrohue and take it to the end of the line. Bring a good book too, at least in the off season you may wait an hour or more for a return trip.
If you are looking for a good meal to take with you, try the empanadas at Dane’s Café. They’re enormous (a meal in themselves), tasty, portable, and cheap (only $3 U.S.).
If you happen to arrive on a Sunday, like we did, be prepared for the fact that most of the tour offices are not open. One place that will be open is Compass del Sur, and you’ll need to book before 5:00 I think. Compass del Sur was also our hostel, and we highly recommend it. You’ll find better values and cleaner bathrooms other places, but you’ll be hard pressed to find such knowledgeable and friendly staff anywhere else. The doubles are spacious, common areas quite nice, and you have the option to pay a little more for goodies at breakfast such as porridge and eggs.