Chile pushes the limits of geographic and ecologic diversity. Puerto Varas and Chiloé Island, for example, though only a few hours apart, pack more intensity into a small region than most entire countries possess within their borders. Volcanoes, lakes, Pacific coastline and dense island forests set the stage for mountain biking, kayaking and hiking—and that's just for starters. Easy LAN air access to Puerto Montt knocks down the barriers to landing here, a center of acclaimed multisport adventure.
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This coastal city is not only the LAN gateway to the region, there's also a vibrant seafaring culture that comes alive at the daily market. Bursting with nearly fluorescent orange crabs, gnarly barnacles and rows of hanging fish, the visitor doesn’t need to cook to enjoy. A commercial and transportation hub, buses whisk visitors around the region from the whirlwind of a waterfront terminal. Tour companies turn sojourns to Puerto Varas, Chiloé Island and other destinations into affordable, relaxing experiences all year long. Traffic is intense, the weather is wet and prices are reasonable.
El Tepual International Airport turns a regional hub into easy access to adventure and cultural destinations. Anchored by LAN, the 2010 expansion resulted in five jet ways, quality snack bar choices and nearly a dozen on-site rental car operations.
Angelmo Market reels in an astounding variety of freshly harvested seafood and fish. At under $2.00, the incomparable ceviche packs a boatload of flavor into a to-go cup for a chewy, zesty meal. Top it off with chocolates from the artisanal market next door. Parking is plentiful, cheap and within earshot of the guttural sea lions along the shoreline.
The influence of German culture in Puerto Varas is evident in the Black Forest-inspired church above the city. The center of adventure tourism, Puerto Varas’ downtown is thick with tourism operators and outfitters including La Comarca. Lending a hand – along with bikes and a seasoned local guide – Active Junky warmed up in dense, twisty forest on a nearby 3-mile trail before pushing off for the Osomo volcano. The previous three days focused on big water kayaking across the 1,000ft deep Lago Llanquihue, the second largest lake in Chile. Locally brewed beer from Chester Brewing and four-cheese artisan pizza from La Fabricca fueled the team’s efforts as the luxurious Hotel Patagonia served up the consummate basecamp experience.
La Comarca Puelo Adventure launches the mountain bike rider into popular and nearly-hidden destinations. Active Junky’s team road the challenging volcanic sand trails of Osorno volcano on perfectly-maintained bikes; Ismael guided with an insider’s confidence during sketchy weather that gave way to enthralling vistas on the Desolation Trail. At minimum, get beta on trails and conditions from the dedicated staff.
Hotel Patagonico is an alternative to hostel life with rooms designed for full-on relaxation and post-adventure recovery. Only a few blocks from the Lago, the buffet breakfast earned a stratospheric rating for quality, quantity and variety. Stoke up, chill out and make the roaring lounge fireplace your final destination every night. Full bar and restaurant service, plenty of gear storage and covered underground parking round out amenities – along with an on-site spa.
Chile' second-largest lake grabs tones and textures from the sky, the surrounding volcanoes and the city of Puerto Varas on its western shore. Well suited both for day paddles and extended touring, the moody lake ranges from mirror-like stillness to wind-powered whitecaps. Active Junky cinematographer Ben Weiland donned a wetsuit to capture athlete Lydia Turner’s inflatable Advanced Elements kayak from below; the water clarity amazed and delighted this cold-water surfing adventurer. A score of small towns ring the glacier-fed expanse to put microbreweries, double-stacked cheeseburgers and food carts within reach to stoke the inner furnace.
La Fabbrica Pizza is part of the region's Da Alessandro Italian cooking dynasty. This take-out location (if the single table is occupied) is set back from the Lago but dominates the pizza scene. A four-cheese option brings a bounty of dairy goodness and saltiness to a thin, hand-shaped pie that’s ready in only about 15 minutes. Take veggie or meat versions to hotel or beach – if you can wait long enough to dive in.
Shoper raises a glass to local brewers (on draft) and over 100 others (in bottles). Smooth sailing Colonos lager holds its own against Chester Beer’s Rustic IPA; both find a place while digging deep into the Doble Shoper. This burger goes big with beef and chorizo, double cheese (local cheddar) and more. Fries top off a sleep-inducing celebration of big flavor and even bigger quantities. Note: Nearby Chester Brewing is expanding and opening up for tours, tastings along with more Bike and Brew exploits around the Lago.
The well-named Desolation Trail (inside the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park ) challenged riders laboring upward with thick sand and fractured pumice before giving way to stunning views back to Lago Llanquihue. The former site of a remote ski area wiped out in a landslide some 40 years ago, the ever-changing sky brought sun, sleet, winter and warmth within minutes of each other. More adept riders took sharper lines down the volcano's shoulder as the rest of the crew surfed the main trail in four inches of pristine pumice powder. Even the access road hinted of adventure with road cut waterfalls and ferns as big as our bikes.
Saltos de Petrohue harnesses the power of the Petrohue River by forcing the flow over and between balsaltic lava born in the Osorno Volcano. Unless the volcano is active, the water is tinged slightly green as it pulses through at 270 cubic meters per second. A chute-type waterfall, Saltos is a worthwhile leg-stretching stop on the way to and from mountain biking, hiking or paddling. Road access is good while numerous tour operators depart regularly from Puerto Varas.
Osorno Volcano is center stage for backcountry exploits in the region. Churning up a narrow road speckled with dairy farms, the access gets sketchier as fine volcanic soil puts shuttle vehicles to the test. Two trails command respect with brutal uphills and smile-inducing, surf-like descents. Above is the 8,701ft summit, often compared to Japan’s Mount Fuji. Charles Darwin watched it erupt in the early 19th century; a mudslide in the 70s took out the humble ski area on its slopes. Worth the nearly two-hour drive from Puerto Varas, bring plenty of free memory card space.
Famed for its cathedral and the buildings on stilts that sit precariously on the water’s edge (AKA “palafitos”), the reasons to visit Chiloé are numerous. With a vibrant fishing and sailing culture expressed in every bay snaking away from the town proper, Castro is the launching point for adventures on land and water. Founded in 1567, the urban area is home to nearly 30,000 residents as verdant grazing and cropland ring the coastline. The traditional pit-cooked meal of meats, vegetables and seafood is part of a diverse culinary heritage largely centered on fish and shellfish. Modern art coexists with hand-hewn boats, textiles and pottery in a swirling mix of color, texture and natural materials.
Hotel Parque Quilquico is the place to bunk, enveloped by local construction materials, artistic touches and unfettered hospitality—all under grass-roofed eves. The half-board program puts the chef’s deft handling of local ingredients (mussels, anyone?) on the table at either lunch or dinner. Below the stilted buildings are pristine hiking trails through dense forest, some leading to the rocky shoreline. Ask about adding a three-hour boat tour to connect to the sea during your stay.
Café del Puente, floating above the water in a wood-shingled palafito, is Active Junky’s top choice for meals, snacks and take-out treats. This Slow Food establishment earned our “Best Vegetarian Lasagna Ever” rating. Afternoon tea is a chance to sample baked temptations and struggle to pick a favorite infusion from an exhaustive selection. Prices are solid, WiFi is good and parking nearby is a high probability at off-hours.
Pura Isla, four doors down from Café del Puente, merits a visit. Expect to drop $20-$100 on legitimate, handmade goods. Woolens and woods nest side-by-side in a palafito with a restaurant sequestered behind rear doors. Catch an artisan at the loom but don’t walk away from the blankets and rugs coaxed from premium fibers. Active Junky fought our way out the front door – but not until leaving behind our money. Gladly.
Tocoihue Waterfall, forty-five gravel-strewn minutes from the Hotel Parque Quilquico, is the best $1.50 you’ll ever spend. More Jurassic World than over-rated nature scene, the nearly 170ft-tall falls explodes in an icy pool below. Scamper carefully on the mossy rocks to feel the power, refresh in the spray and forget your problems. Parking is plentiful and plunging wooden steps are the only challenge between you and communing with primal forces in this remote setting.
The town of Cucao, located on Chiloé’s western shore, is the gateway to immense acreage both in the Parc Nacionale as well as the privately held Tepuhueico Park. Roaring surf, endless beaches and whirling gulls give way to knife-edge ridges and plummeting sea cliffs. Visitors powered by sturdy rental pick-up trucks or ably-driven tour vans can swerve, climb and skid their way into postcard worthy nooks that top the charts for serious photos. As with much of Chiloé, filling up the gas tank and packing plenty of water and snacks is beneficial as services are erratic, particularly in the off-season.
Chonchi denotes both a commune (region) as well as the crossroads town where the western coastal road intersects. The bright blue, weathered Iglesia San Carlos rims a square crammed with artisan shops focused on woolen goods and the local victuals. The Licor de Oro (gold liquor) turns fading daylight into liquid stained glass, the penetrating flavor of saffron and lemon peel balanced by sticky sweetness. Residents are anxious to share their history – and homemade products – over a toast to your good health.
Puente de las Almas (Bridge of Souls) requires a forty-minute walk across rocky ridges and green, well-grazed expanses to confront the Pacific Ocean full-on. The wooden sculpture, designed to levitate the guest to the horizon, is what brings visitors this far; raw coastal expanses and off-shore islets own the day. The drive in and out can be daunting but rewards travelers with hiking options north and south of Cucao. Be prepared for the wind and venture into the surf cautiously if you can’t resist the call.
Whether at the beginning of a visit to the island or a way to punctuate a trip before returning by 25-minute ferry to the mainland, the Punihuil Islands compel guests to stay another half to full day. During spring and summer months starting in September, two varieties of penguins return to nest on islands immediately off the coast. Technically designated as islets, the habitats of Humbolt and Magellanic penguins overlap to the delight of boat-touring visitors. Sea lions get in the act, as do dozens of species of birds. As with all sea or fjord outings, warm clothing is mandatory knowing the Pacific Ocean is unrelenting except on the hottest of days.
Punta Corona Lighthouse, erected in 1859, flashes every 10 seconds from 30ft above the ground. The oldest active lighthouse in Chile, this white- and red-banded tower is part of protecting the country’s over 2,500 miles of coastline. Road-accessible, the site is open and staffed; fortunate visitors may even get a quick tour. No matter what, the clockwise drive from Ancud is further evidence of the Island’s dependence on active, maritime pursuits.
Ancud itself is crammed with history as a pivotal location in international politics between the region and Spain 250 years ago. Bring your camera and be ready to do post-trip research after strolling Fort San Antonio’s walls (complete with cannons), the Cathedral and the powder cache. Empanadas are the go-to food option featuring all manner of fillings; the bus terminal is likewise stuffed with options. Darwin made it here on his second voyage, but was on his own for satisfying food.