Southern Lakes Crossing – Chile
Which is the Most Beautiful Lake in Chile?
Of the dozen or so major lakes in Chile’s Southern Lakes Region travellers invariably score Lago Todos Los Santos as tops.
It differs from the others by being preserved deep within the mountains and is surrounded by much virgin forest in contrast to being in the foothills with farming and resort towns around the shore. It forms part of the Vicente Perez Rozales National Park which includes the imposing Vulcán Osorno at Petrohué, the eroded volcanic cone of Puntiagudo and extends to the Andean frontier culminating in icy Cerro Tronador 3460m.
The lake was discovered and named by Jesuit missionaries in 1670 when seeking a route across the Andes to establish a mission in Patagonia. The lake and pass remained forgotten for 180 years. In the late 1800’s it became an important commercial link and migration route for German settlers from Chile’s Llanquihue region who developed haciendas around Lago Nahuel Huapi and founded the town of San Carlos de Bariloche. When the railway from the Atlantic coast reached Bariloche in 1934 the commercial boat traffic declined and tourism began to develop.
The tour buses from Puerto Montt pick up passengers at Puerto Varas and skirt around the southern shore of Lago Llanquihue towards the symmetrical snowy cone of Vulcán Osorno and the Petrohué Valley. Not so long ago the Petrohué River flowed into the lake. A volcanic eruption sent lava flows across the valley thus diverting the river into the Reloncavi Estuary.
These lava flows have caused the river to create a magnificent foaming cascade called the Saltos del Petrohué which is an interesting half hour stop for tourists.
The road ends at Petrohué on the lake shore where there is a boat jetty and Information Center for the National Park. Nestling amidst the trees is Hotel Petrohué in truly a wonderful spot. Trout fishing is good in the lake and the first few kilometers down river but after that it is more the domain of white-water rafters.
The catamaran cruise across the lake to Peulla and the unique journey beyond to Argentina is ably described by the operators Cruce de Lagos and their website provides a map, details of the scenery, sailing schedule and route timetable. What more could you want except a fine day!
Other Useful Crossing Points
The traveller to the southern cone of South America may find it necessary to cross the Andes and frontier several times between Chile and Argentina. Where and which way really depends on how you enter the region and subsequent travel plans.
Santiago to Mendoza
The main road link between the two countries, a sealed road crossing the Andes just 20kms south of its highest point, Aconcagua 6960m. Bus between Buenos Aires and Santiago takes 24 hours, cost US$70 min.
Lake District Crossings
This is the quickest land route used by international buses. It is a sealed road that goes via Entrelagos over Paso Puyehue to Angostura, Correntoso and Bariloche.
Panguipulli to San Martin de los Andes
Bus leaves Panguipulli at 4am to Puerto Fuy where it is transferred to a
boat for a 3 hour trip on Lago Pirehueico that winds into the mountains. Bus continues to frontier post at Paso Huahum. Another bus takes you to San Martin. Very scenic route.
Chaitén to Esquel
There are two easy road routes via either Futaleufú or Palena, both Chilean villages near the border. No regular bus crossing. At best, minibus or taxi to border post. You may have to hitchhike.
Coyhaique to Comodoro Rivadavia
Several buses each week go on a rough road via Rio Mayo to the east coast of Argentina. A useful route for tourists to take after seeing the San Rafael Glacier. Catch bus south to Rio Gallegos and Punta Arenas.
Coyhaique to Caleta Olivia
This is a scenic route to Argentina. Minibus heads south to Puerto Ibañez on the north shore of huge Lago General Carrera (or Lago Buenos Aires in Argentina). Take ferry across lake to Chile Chico, then bus through to Caleta Olivia.
P.S. Sometimes the ferry is out of action. If so, then you have to go by minibus around the bottom end of the lake, perhaps stay o’nite at hospedaje in Pto Guadal and bus to Chile Chico next day. Quite an adventure.
Punta Arenas to Rio Gallegos
The main bus route along the coastal plain on north shore of the Strait of Magellan. Frequent daily buses. Note: The bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt (Chilean bus north, 2 days) goes through Argentina, via Rio Gallegos, Comodoro Rivadavia, Bariloche, Puyehue Pass to Osorno and Puerto Montt.
A dirt road across the pampa from Cerro Castillo is used by tour
vehicles to visit the Moreno glacier. Many tour customers choose not to return to Puerto Natales. Not a regular bus route.
Tierra del Fuego
An isolated frontier crossing in the pampa where Tierra del Fuego is divided in half between Chile and Argentina. To visit Tierra del Fuego from Punta Arenas take ferry to Porvenir and bus through Rio Grande to Ushuaia. Quickest return bus from Ushuaia goes through San Sebastion and Cerro Sombrero crossing the narrowest part of the Strait of Magellan to Punta Delgada by car-ferry and so to Punta Arenas (leave 4am to arrive 5pm).
The Beagle Channel separates the two countries. Distance is only 50kms. At best there are irregular trips made by small boats in the summer.
Where to Start?
Fly or bus to Puerto Montt, the main seaport for the Chilean Lake District and capital of the 10th Region. Overnight bus, Santiago to Puerto Montt (950kms, 16 hours, cost US$18). See Chip Travel.
Puerto Montt, (population 130,000) port-of-call for cruise ships, Navimag ferry terminal and exporter of wood chips. Alternatively, stay inland at Puerto Varas (population 30,000) a tourist center 20kms distant on the shore of Lago Llanquihue.
From Buenos Aires go by plane, train or bus to San Carlos de Bariloche, the main tourist center of the Argentine Lake District. Overnight bus takes 22 hours, cost US$75 to $90. All the latest info on Bariloche (attractions, tours, accommodation, prices) can be found from the Patagonia and Mercotour tourist websites.
Buy tickets at local Travel Agent e.g., Andina del Sud has offices in Puerto Montt (Varas 437), Puerto Varas (Del Salvador 72) and Bariloche. US$110 for full trip of 12 hours, but it can be done in stages if desired, with stopovers at Petrohué and Peulla located at each end of Lago Todos Los Santos.
Tourist accommodation is top-notch. Hotel Peulla US$90/125 single/double, Hotel Petrohué US$55/90 single/double, both with breakfast. Some inexpensive hospedaje accommodation and camping available. See Lonely Planet.
In wintertime because of snow and short daylight hours the trip takes two days. Some organized tours include this crossing in their route eg:
In the summer peak period (Dec – Jan) the catamaran is crowded. The catamaran can take 340 passengers and runs every day except Sunday. There are usually spare seats any day except maybe holiday periods. In January the tábano, or horse fly, is particularly bothersome.
Best to wait for a fine day if possible. A rainy day is no good to see the mountains. Check the weather forecast – this may be available at the booking office.
Lago Todos Los Santos Day Trip
A popular alternative to crossing into Argentina is to take the catamaran across Chile’s most beautiful lake to Peulla and have lunch there (2 hour stop) and return in the afternoon. You can start at Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas. Cost US$36. Lunch is extra, or bring your own picnic lunch.
Lago Nahuel Huapi Day Trip
Similarly, from Bariloche you can do a trip by catamaran from Puerto San Carlos to Puerto Blest and back and so see the magnificent mountain/lake scenery on the Argentine side of the Andes, cost US$30.
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.