We spent a few days in the Lakes Region (Los Lagos) of southern Chile - a wonderful destination with something for everyone, except maybe those seeking big city thrills (head to Santiago for that). We didn’t want to spend our five day visit in a car, so we focussed on Lake Llanquihue (“yankee way”) just north of Puerto Montt. However, you can easily modify this itinerary to include other points of interest in this spectacular region.
The logical hub for this getaway is Puerto Montt, a 1.5 hour flight from Santiago, and the connection point for ferries and cruises headed further south into Patagonia (Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas). You can also arrive in the region by car or bus from points north (10 hours by bus from Santiago).
Puerto Montt’s El Tepual (PMC) airport is small and easy to navigate. Desks for car rental and numerous tour companies are located in the main hall. You can pick up your bags and a vehicle within 20 minutes. Depending on your destination, you are likely to head east out of the airport toward Puerto Montt. After about 10kms you’ll take the toll road (Ruta 5) north toward Osorno (have some Chilean pesos on hand for the $1US tolls). Within 35 minutes of leaving the airport, you’ll arrive at the town of Puerto Varas on the southwest shore of Lake Llanquihue. It’s a nice little town with a touristy center and plenty of hotels, many of which are family oriented. We didn’t stay there, but Hotel Cumbres offers impressive views from a bluff above town.
We had booked a two night stay at the AWA Hotel, about 20 minutes east of Puerto Varas in the Rio Pescado area. This architecturally impressive hotel is one of the more expensive lodging options on a lake otherwise dominated by smaller private properties with cabins (cabanas) or rooms for rent. We enjoyed our stay at the AWA, which organizes custom excursions and offers kayaks, paddle boards, jet skis, and bicycles for complimentary use by guests – but I’m fairly confident that there are other lodging options with the same amazing view of the Osorno volcano. Just two examples are Cabañas Pio Pescado and Puerto Pilar hotel. You’ll have to choose which level of luxury suites you best.
Ensenada is a collection of cabañas, camping sites and adventure outfitters consistent with its function as a gateway to Vicente Peres Rosales National Park, the oldest in Chile. You can book activities in Ensenada or continue toward Petrohué, on the banks of lago Todos los Santos. We arrived at Petrohué without specific plans and ended up on a reasonably-priced 30 minute boat excursion on the lake, offering fantastic views and an opportunity to learn a bit more about the history and geography of the area. There are lodging options here, including Petrohué Lodge. We didn’t stay there but stopped for coffee. It’s remote and I can imagine that it’s very quiet once the day trippers have departed.
Speaking of active travel, Lake Llanquihue has a well-maintained 170km bike trail around the lake. We enjoyed riding on a portion of it near the AWA Hotel and you can explore a range of tour options with a search on “Llanquihue lake bike circuit.” Many bicyclists also make it out to Petrohué, although the last few kilometers of the road are packed gravel.
We drove along the very scenic eastern shore of the lake north to Puerto Octay, a small town somewhat off the beaten path. You can also continue north to the town of Osorno and beyond to other lakes, but we continued around Lake Llanquihue toward the towns of Frutillar and Llanquihue. Frutillar Bajo (lower) is a lovely lakeside holiday village, a bit lost in time but recently back in the spotlight with the fabulous Teatro del Lago, an architecturally stunning music and cultural center literally built over the lake. The views across the lake to Volcano Osorno are amazing and the pebble beach is clean and very suitable for swimming. There are plenty of lodging options in an around town. This is where the legacy of german-speaking immigrants in the region is most obvious – from the architecture to the food. It can seem a bit kitschy, but it’s part of the experience.
A short drive south of Frutillar is Llanquihue, much more of a working class town than a resort, but with wonderful views of the lake. One of the main attractions here is bird watching. We stayed at Casa Werner, a lovely boutique hotel situated on a small lake home to numerous bird species. I can highly recommend a stay of one or two nights and/or dinner at Casa Werner – you’ll feel at home and be warmly welcomed by the staff. We also ate at a gastropub in Llanquihue – La Negra.
We spent one night in Puerto Montt. The setting reminded me of Seattle, but I can’t recommend spending any more time there than you have to. There are a few good hotels and no more than an hour or two is sufficient to take in the limited number of sites.
Rainbow rating: Despite Chile’s conservative politics and culture, LGBT travellers are welcomed and are very unlikely to experience difficulties. 4 out of 5 rainbows. 🌈🌈🌈🌈
Itinerary for a 3-5 day visit:
Arrive Puerto Montt and transfer to lodging at Lake Llanquihue (Puerto Varas, Rio Pescado, or Petrohué) - 1 or two nights
Continue around the lake, stopping in Ensenada, Petrohué, Puerto Octay. Lodging in Frutillar or Llanquihue 1 or two nights. Lodging recommendation: Casa Werner
Depending on your flight or ferry schedule you may elect to spend a night in Puerto Montt, but if it’s not necessary you won’t be missing much.
Options for an extended stay include the towns of Osorno or Valvidia, or visits to Lake Puyehue and other lakes north to Lake Villarrica and the town of Pucón. There are also numerous thermal baths and resorts in this region.
Tip: while the road infrastructure in this part of Chile is quite good, the roads are not always clearly marked. I suggest using a GPS or offline map app such as Maps.me. There are also a few stretches of gravel roads, such as the last 15 kms to Petrohué.