On a sunny day the Chilean Lake District is absolutely stunning. You drive around massive blue lakes reflecting quintessential conical snow-capped volcanoes along roads ringed with wood shingled and tin roof German farmhouses, popping into cafes serving slabs of “kuchen” or cake. On a typical day in September, though, you have to be prepared for rain and grey skies and the knowledge that somewhere beneath the gloom there is, indeed, a volcano! I promise!
We headed out the week before the September Fiestas Patrias week (which is the week of the 18th). We went the week before as our children were off, my mum was visiting and my husband had to work the national holidays. It was a great week to go as we were some of the only people on the roads and in the cafes.
I had been wanting to go to the famous Termas Geometricas which most people access from Pucon. But they are an hour and a half drive one way from Pucon and we just coundn’t face more time in the car with the kids the last time we were in Pucon. So I got out the map and followed highway 5 and realized there were some towns along the road that meant just a half hour drive. I booked an Airbnb in Coñaripe so we could go the Termas. We left Santiago at 6 a.m. and were in Villarica by 1 p.m. We had eaten a picnic lunch in the car, so we got out and stretched our legs and checked out the Fritz Market (artesenia) and the other market stalls down by the tourist office (bathrooms at that market for $300 pesos).
We were in Coñaripe by 3:30 p.m. The Airbnb was basic and fine. It was on the lake and if the sun had been shining it would have been a great spot, but we had drizzle the whole time and we were pretty cold in the house, so we got the fireplace and wood stove stoked up.
The next day we were at the Termas Geometricas by 11 a.m. There are three massive parking lots, but when we went there were only about 15 cars so we really felt we had the place to ourselves. We pre-paid our tickets online. They supply a lock for lockers and all the towels so you don’t need to bother bringing them. We had flip flops, but the walkways were so clean flip flops wouldn’t be a necessity. There is a small cafe on site with basic pizza and coffee fare. They have jugs of water and cups that you can help yourself for free. It is not a cheap activity — for our day of the week we paid $23,000 per adult and $16,000 per child. But it was gorgeous and worth it. About 15 different pools carved into natural rock, with temperatures from 35C to 42C. It was amazing and we would have stayed longer except our daughter started to feel unwell. We weren’t sure if it was the hot springs, dehydration, a virus or her shunt. It was a rather stressful evening as we monitored her and searched for neuro surgeons at the closest biggest hospital — which was still a 3.5 hour drive away! In the end she was fine the next morning but we still weren’t sure exactly what hit her.
The next morning we drove to Puerto Varas via Lican Rey and Los Lagos and then to Puerto Octay. We were staying in an old German style farmhouse in Puerto Octay on Airbnb. The kitchen was an old farmhouse kitchen and it was a quirky house, but it was very cold and having water issues so we only stayed two nights instead of the whole week. I liked Puerto Octay, but I do think for getting to the things around the lake it would be better to stay either in Puerto Varas or between Puerto Varas and Ensenada.
That day we had early supper at Cafe Casa Rosalba. I had a burger and it was fine but had a lot of avocado and mayonnaise. Everyone thought their meals were good and if the weather had been cooperating the views over the roofs to the lake and volcano beyond would be incredible.
Day 2: We had two days of sun forecast for Puerto Varas so we wanted to make the most of it. We drove from Puerto Octay to Cascadas via the Playa Maiten road which gave us stunning views of lake, Osorno volcano and cows grazing in the field.
In Cascadas we turned off towards the cascadas (waterfalls) to do the hike. Follow the road and the signs and down the dirt road and you will come to a small hut and parking lot. The man said to pay him what we felt like when we got back. I estimate it’s about 1 kilometre to the waterfalls and he said 20 minutes each way. With the kids it took about one and a half hours return. They did the best hike ever over mud, roots and puddles and rickety bridges. The waterfalls are open 9 to 18:30.
We left the cascadas after a walk and picnic lunch before 2 p.m. and we continued south along the lake to Volcan Osorno and drove up to the ski lodge to play on the snow.
After a snowball fight we drove to Petrohue but not to the falls as two locals had said if you had seen the Cascadas you don’t need to see the Petrohue falls and that it was also $6,000 per person and paid parking. We drove to the end of the road by the lodge and had a look around and then to Puerto Varas for supper.
Before we left I had mentioned to our son’s Spanish speech therapist where we were going and she has family in the area and she gave me her list of favourite places to eat! (complete list is at the bottom). So we went to her favourite, Mesa Tropera on the waterfront. Gorgeous view of sunset over the lake and two volcanoes. Get there right when they open as we were second in line and the place was immediately full. She said it is always full. It opened at 6 p.m. and we were there at 6 and then they said, ah make that 6:20 p.m. We had pizzas and risotto and it was all excellent. But the most delicious was the dessert La Catedral which was a chocolate brownie with peanut butter, vanilla ice cream in a dark chocolate cone. And then you pour warm caramel over the chocolate cone to melt it. Amazing. You could split one as it was very rich. Or order one to split, and then another one to split!
Day 3 we left Puerto Octay at 11 a.m. (having quickly packed up and left our Airbnb and booked new cottages in Puerto Varas en route) and we again drove around the north side of the lake, through picturesque Puerto Octay and around Playa Maiten and over back to the road to Petrohue to Vicente Perez Rosales National Park, the oldest one in Chile founded August 17 1926. There are many little hikes and long ones so we thought we could find one to do with Grandma and the children. We stopped the the little ranger’s hut en route and he was very helpful and gave me a map and suggested (as it was so sunny and clear) that we start on the Paso Desolacion. If you walk to where the paths intersect it is 4 km one way, but halfway to that point there are great views and so we decided to do that. Drive to the end of the road, past the lodge and keep going around the museum and there are massive parking lots along the lake. We were one of about 10 cars but a local lady said in January and February they are all full. There was no park ranger in that office by the parking lot. Bathrooms down by the jetty (where you can do a boat tour of the lake).
We went up the sandy path which has a very soft incline. It was super easy to do and we only saw about five people. We had marvelous views.
At the end of the hike, all the school children were flying their flags for Fiestas Patrias down by the beach. There was camping along the lake, but CONAF has closed it. You can do private/particular camping on the other side by where the boats are.
We drove an hour to Puerto Varas and had supper at Bravo Cabrera. Honestly we probably would have driven right by this place, but in the end it was all our favourite! I had one of the best burgers I have ever had, my husband had the perfectly cooked ganso (beef) and crispy potato wedges with chimichurri sauce. The kids’ pizzas were perfect (not too cheesy and great dough) and my mum had a wonderful spinach salad.
For the next three nights were were at Campo Kutral cabins which sleep from two to eight people. We were in the cabin for eight and had plenty of room and two bathrooms. Nice view across the lake to the volcanoes. They have their own road so it’s only six minutes to Puerto Varas. They have a soccer field, playground, private beach, private large wooden hot tub (the smaller cabins have private wooden hot tubs) and cute cabins. Immaculately clean. I highly recommend.
Day 4 was rainy so we spent it wandering around Puerto Varas and getting the boys haircuts, buying pottery and having lunch at Cafe Mawen (good) and supper at Quintal which would have wonderful views. It had an old pot belly stove so we were warm and cozy and we all enjoyed our pizzas and shared plates.
Day 5 we had car alignment issues so my husband tried to figure that out and we just played on the beach and then went to Frutillar for the day and dashed around in the drizzle with supper at Tropera 121 which was also very good.
Chester Beer is a local brew and we both enjoyed his IPA. He is conveniently located next to the Campo Kustral cabins.
We drove back on the Saturday, 1,016 km in one day. There was a lot of traffic coming down highway five to the south but sailed home. We left at 6 a.m. and had light car issues in Temuco for two hours and were home by 7 p.m.
What to pack
The weather in the south not in January/February is a bit like Nova Scotia “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” We brought long underwear, jeans, long sleeves, wool sweaters, puffy coats, rain coats, swim suits. We wore all of it. I did optimistically pack shorts for the kids but we didn’t wear them.
Coni’s Culinary Favourites of the area. Those with a * are the ones she says are her favourites.
Restaurants in Puerto Varas
- Mesa Tropera the best are the tártaros , ceviche, pizzas and artisanal beer, the pisco sour is great. Try la catedral dessert. *
- La Marca ( meats) *
- Azurro (pastas) *
- Casa Valdes (seafood)
- Humedal (fusion)
- La olla (seafood)
- Santo fuego (meats)
- Pan de la Pao (pastas)
- Quintal (bar restaurant, shared tablas)
- Bravo cabrera (bar and restaurant for meat and pizzas)
Cafés in Puerto Varas
- El Barista (bar and café)
- Daruma (best teas and poached eggs) *
- Café Mawen (sandwiches and salads)
- Casis ( delicious but slow service)
Restaurants in Frutillar:
- Tropera 121 ( hamburgers, artisan beer) *
- Hotel boutique Frau Holle (meat)
- Se Cocina
- Café Casa Rosalba
If we had had sun and more time we would have
- walked up Cerro Philippi
- Monte Calvario (this is where I think you can take the photo of Puerto Varas with the church and volcano in the background. We didn’t have time so we drove up Calle Linda Vieja by Calle Ralun and we had a good view)
- Fundo playa venado (dairy farm great for kids and you can buy their artisan manjar)
Things to consider
You need about $15,000 cash for the tolls one way from Santiago to Puerto Varas and the same for the return.
We had five days in Puerto Varas but I think four full days would be sufficient.
- Termas Geometricas and Puerto Varas
- Puerto Varas and Valdivia
- Pucon and Puerto Varas
- Puerto Varas and Cochamo
- Puerto Varas as a 3-day rest stop before doing Parque Pumalin as you are within striking distance of the Hornopiren ferry.
- Puerto Varas plus Parque Conguillo either on the way to or from Santiago.