Waking up in Puerto Varas

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Winter mornings in Puerto Varas, Chile, start slow.  As I stumbled out of my overnight bus ride from the capital Santiago at 9:25 a.m., I was welcomed by silent and empty streets.  Even the stray dogs, numerous in Chile, do not feel it necessary to start their daily prowl for food until 10.

I found my way to my hostel, Casa Azul, and rang the bell, but no one responded.  Luckily, an enthusiastic taxi was lingering close by and offered a tour of the town, explaining there might not be anyone at the hostel. The driver told me: “it’s winter season, everyone’s still asleep.” 

Soon after, I was at Philippi Park, the highest point in Puerto Varas.  Here, I was presented with a panoramic vista of the 19th century town and its two guardians: the Osorno volcano to the north and its neighbor the Calbuco volcano to the east, sites only witnessed before through Google Images.  I couldn’t help but take a picture exactly the same as those I had found on the Internet. 

Later, after settling in at my hostel, I decided to head to the town square. Under a big white tent there, locals were gathered at a Winter Fair to sell local handicrafts, clothing, and pastries.  But after a quick look around, the lakefront beckoned me, and I went as far as the town’s natural rock pier would allow to gaze across Lake Llanquihue at the Osorno volcano. 

As it was the beginning of July,  the winter season in the southern hemisphere, I was alone on Puerto Varas’ boardwalk beaches.  I could hardly imagine the hustle and bustle of beach crowds that must accompany the summer months, as Chileans and foreigners alike flock into Puerto Varas to take advantage of the sights the town offers. 

I decided to take a different route home in order to see the Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Roman Catholic Church, constructed in 1915.  Built in a neo-Romanesque monumental baroque style, its red rounded spires crown the German heritage present in the town’s architecture and gastronomy. 

Safely in bed a couple hours later, I closed my eyes, with images of the Osorno volcano’s snowy peak tantalizing me in my dreams.  The next morning, my snowboard and I had two options to get to the volcano: bus to Ensenada and then hitchhike, or rent a car.  Not willing to spend the day with my thumb in the air, 20,0000 pesos (about $US 40) later I was on the road, armed with the words of my salesman: “You will find the highway to Osorno, don’t worry“ and “if cops stop you, speak English and you will be fine.”

He was right on both accounts.  I found the highway, and turns out Chilean police also use speed traps, but luckily they only keep the Chileans and throw back the Americans.

After reaching the base of the Osorno volcano summit, I jumped out of the car, pulled my co-pilot out of its travel bag, and bought a lift ticket. On the 20-minute chairlift to the peak I stared in awe at the scenes around me.  I later learned from Victor Wellmann, president of the tourism association in Puerto Varas and general manager of Cabaño del Lago Hotel, constructed by his father in 1980, that the ski lift was only built in 2000, and “primarily for summer activities,” the skiing was just a byproduct. 

After a conservative run down the groomed trails I took a fellow boarder’s advice and did some hiking to find fresh powder.  I found what I was looking for, but the end of the run landed me in the backyard of someone’s chalet instead of the ski lift area.  There are not a lot of off-piste options on the volcano, but what it lacks in trails it greatly makes up for in views.

When the lift operator told me “esto es el último amigo,” I couldn’t believe how the hours had flown by, but the tremendous setting sun was testament to the end of the day.

Later that week I scheduled an interview with Folke Bergström, manager of the Lakes region for Andina del Sud (a tourist company).  From him I learned the origins of “Cruce Andino,” which brings passengers by boat from Puerto Varas through Andean lakes and mountains into Argentine Patagonia and Bariloche.  This traverse was first commercialized as a tourist venture by Chilean businessman Ricardo Roth, after he took notice of the route used for international exports pre-WWI. 

A week later, I was once again tiptoeing among sleeping dogs on a frigid morning, this time hurrying to present my ticket at the Cruce Andino office. 

Our first stop was Petrohue Falls at Vicente Rosales National Park, an hour outside of Puerto Varas.  As everyone piled out of the bus, excited by the sounds of rushing water, I strode across the wooden bridge leading into the park, embracing the moment.  A few days ago on a hike at the park with some friends we had opted out of a visit to the falls upon the recommendation of our bus driver; he thought we would be bored.  As my eyes fell on the white foam pouring over the blackened rock to create massive chutes and falls, I was reminded of the Chileans’ casual nature toward their awesome surroundings. 

After the tour guides finally convinced everyone to get back on the bus, we drove another 40 minutes to our first lake crossing.  We boarded a catamaran to cross Todos los Santos Lake, eventually making our way to Bariloche. When I returned from my Andean expedition that week, I welcomed the lazy winter morning fog in Puerto Varas.  On the walk back to my hostel I stopped at my favorite butcher shop to pick up some fresh eggs and practice some new additions to my Spanish vocabulary with the workers, who always had wide grins for the one American who chose to endure the Puerto Varas winter.  They were right; I enjoyed the hostel as my own house for the larger part of my time there, welcoming the rare traveler who stopped in for a night or two.  

On my last evening , I was engrossed in cooking a final dinner at my hostel and failed to notice a clear-eyed blonde haired girl pass through the kitchen.  It was only when I carried to the table my meal that I realized I was not alone.  Speaking in my broken Spanish, I learned she had come here to escape the city and experience Chile’s nature up close. Before her arrival, I had been reluctant to admit that I was soon headed in the other direction and back to city life.  Yet, my opposition to departure was now quieted.  It was her turn to pierce the beauty hidden in the Puerto Varas winter mists.