When our time in Bariloche was up, we headed back east again through the ashen wasteland and over the Andes back into Chile. For those of you keeping score at home this would account for our third and final entry into that country. We were bound for Puerto Varas this time, a nice little town at the southern edge of the lake district nestled against the shore of Llanquihue Lake and within view of the towering and beautiful Osorno Volcano. Originally we had planned to explore this area from the nearby city of Puerto Montt, but one of our guidebooks mentioned how this lesser-known town was a better choice, and having little important to lose we went there instead. After seeing both towns we couldn’t have agreed more, as the friendly confines of PV were much more to our liking than the gritty, rundown port town of PM.
While searching for a place to stay I came across some reviews for a fine little B&B in town, and quite randomly one of them just so happened to mention that the owner was from Indiana. The deal was sealed. If anything, I thought, it would probably provide a few laughs, and after a few months on the road I could definitely use some of that famous Hoosier Hospitality. Our host, John Joy, picked us up in the town square where our bus had dropped us off. A couple of days before he had asked us if we had any distinguishing characteristics so he would know us when he saw us. I told him to look for “tall, dark, and handsome…well, two out of three ain’t bad.” It worked, though possibly because I also told him to look for my companion, “a petite woman, and the only blonde in Chile”, and soon he delivered us to Tradicion Austral, the charming home he shared with his wife Teresa and their three children.
This cozy house would serve as our base for the next week or so. We spent a couple of days exploring both Puerto Varas and another little town on the other side of the lake called Frutillar. Both retained their strong German historical influence which leads not only to some interesting architecture, but also to some delicious German Kuchen and beers. If that weren’t enough, the proximity to the ocean gave us the opportunity take in some excellent seafood. We gorged ourselves on huge plates of conger eel smothered in shrimp sauce, crab casserole, and squid in garlic and chili at a tiny local dive called Dónde Gordito whose claim to fame was being one of the places Anthony Bourdain visited while filming his episode in Chile. When we weren’t practicing the fine art of glutony we were exploring the beautiful natural surroundings. On one particularly glorious, sunny afternoon we climbed aboard a local bus that took us to the area behind the volcano. There we took in the spectacular Petrohué Waterfalls (pictured above) and their stunningly clear, blue-green waters. We also hiked for an hour or two on a trail that provided some great panoramic views of the volcano while traversing a fascinating area of former lahars.
By far the best part of our visit to Puerto Varas though was the excursion we took with John. Aside from being an excellent and affable host at his B&B, he also operates a world-class fly fishing and adventure outfit guiding folks from all over the globe through the innumerable rivers, streams, and lakes all up and down the heart of Patagonia trout country. One fine morning we packed up and headed out for a float trip on the Petrohué River. With spinner rigs in our hands and oars in John’s, we spent the day plying the clear and swift waters in search of rainbows, browns, and the occasional salmon. John’s expert advice and innate knowledge of the river meant it wasn’t long before we were reeling them in. The action was non-stop, and by the end of the day the fish were practically begging for mercy. We literally lost count of how many we had hooked after just the first couple of hours. I’m pretty sure I caught the greatest number of fish that day, but the prize for the biggest individual fish went to Kelly when she landed a gorgeous rainbow that would make any angler back home in Colorado green with envy. I mean, just look at that beauty. It’s almost half as big as the smile on her face!
During our stay in the Puerto Varas area we also took a side trip down to Chiloé Island for a few days. A couple of bus rides and one quick ferry trip later we found ourselves on a misty, emerald island that looked quite different from the Chile we had seen thus far. And for good reason, too. Though it’s only separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water, the island has its own unique culture and heritage based on a distinctive mythology of witchcraft, ghost ships, and even forest gnomes. It also looked as though a big swath of Ireland had been uprooted and plunked down in the middle of South America as the harsh and rainy weather had forged a landscape of green rolling hills covered in a patchwork of farm patterns and thick forests. We set up shop in the northern city of Ancud at a nice little place situated right on the water and set about trying to take in a much of the place as our brief stay would allow. Mostly we wandering the hilly streets checking out the really old wooden houses and a few the churches the island is famous for and again sampling more than our fair share of the local seafood. One night we returned to our hotel and were relaxing with a bottle of wine on the enclosed patio overlooking the bay when all of a sudden Kelly leapt from her chair. “Dolphins! I see dolphins!” she exclaimed. I thought she was going to have a heart attack. Sure enough, just off-shore you could see two dorsal fins rhythmically breaking the water and then disappearing again. We sat for a few minutes and watched them enter the bay and then slowly exit on the other side. I’m not even sure if Kelly slept that night. Our interest in the local wildlife piqued, the next day we set out with a guide who took us on a tour of the island in his 4×4. He drove us through some beautiful scenery along the way until we eventually reached a sweeping bay where we boarded a small boat and took to the rough surf. Not far from the beach we encountered a series of small islands that were home to several colonies of Magellenic penguins. These little guys are the largest of the warm-weather penguins, and they were just beginning to make their annual return to their breeding grounds. We saw probably a few dozen but were told that in another few weeks there would be hundreds. On the trip back to shore we also passed another fan of the local seafood, a sea otter who was floating on his back in the water while cracking open mussels to find the sweet meat inside.
We wished that we had made for time to see the rest of Chiloé, but eventually we had to leave to get back to the mainland to catch a flight. That’s just how a trip like ours goes sometimes. One day you’re asking yourselves “why the hell did I ever plan this many days in this place?”, and the next day you’re wondering “why the hell did I only plan this many days in this place?” Our next destination however would leave no doubts in our minds about the value of time spent there. Be sure to join us again for the next chapter, when we enter the unimaginable landscape of Patagonia.