By Matt McMillan
A question we’re constantly asked by clients is whether to visit the Argentine or Chilean side of the lakes district. After spending 7 days in this region the answer is without doubt that you must visit both. The Argentine side is drier and more mountainous and also tends to have better weather than the Chilean side which is in the rain shadow of the Andes Mountains. The Chilean side is much greener, a bit like the Welsh countryside but with lush farmland, towering snow-capped volcanoes and crystal clear alpine lakes and rivers.
The most popular places to visit are Puerto Varas in Chile and Bariloche in Argentina however there is much more to see than these places alone. Whether just sightseeing or after adventure activities like fishing, trekking, horse riding or kayaking the Lakes District has something for everyone.
On a previous trip I did the classic lakes crossing trip known as the ‘cruce de lagos’ which combines these 2 destinations. It’s a combination of boats and buses and a purely touristic operation. You can stop in Peulla for a night and do it as a 2 day trip but most people do the long 1 day trip which can take around 12 hours, sometimes more depending on how quick the immigration proceedings are. It’s expensive at approximately USD$250 per person and you are sharing the trip with around 250 tourists. This might turn some people off the classic trip but given some good weather you are certain to have an incredible day.
On my trip this time around we did an alternative lakes crossing starting in Bariloche then taking the ‘Ruta de los siete lagos’ (7 lakes route) to San Martin de Los Andes which is a full day trip stopping at the small town of Villa La Angostura and passing through forested valleys and offering spectacular views of the mountains and of course the 7 lakes which are passed along the way, lagos Nahuel Huapi, Espejo, Correntoso, Escondido, Villarino, Falkner and Machónico.
From the small town of San Martin de los Andes we were transferred on gravel roads approximately 2 hours into Puerto Pirihueico in Chile. We completed immigration in both countries and then boarded the car ferry bound for Puerto Fuy. This is a route usually only used by locals and we were the only tourists on board. There are only a few seats indoors but the sun was shining and we were all happy to stand outdoors and soak in the impressive scenery which culminated with impressive views of the Mocho and Choshuenco volcanoes. From the port we transferred to Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve which is only 5 minute away. Located amidst the Patagonian Rainforest, Huilo Huilo covers more than 100,000 hectares of Temperate Rainforest, with incredible biological diversity and spectacular scenery. With hotels like the Nothofagus (shaped like a baobab tree), Reino Funghi (shaped like a mushroom) and Montana Magica (shaped like a mountain with a waterfall cascading over it), Huilo Huilo is like something out of Narnia. We spent the night here but I’d definitely recommend at least 2 nights as there is do much to do including nature walks to spectacular rivers and waterfalls, climbing the volcano, zip lining, spa treatments etc.
Our next stop was Pucon which is located under the perfectly conical Villarica volcano which recently erupted in March 2015. Volcanic activity is a way of life in Chile with more than 130 active volcanoes, many of them in the Lakes District. Don’t let this scare you off though as Pucon has long been the local and backpacker destination of choice in Chile with a wealth of activities options available, particularly if you like a bit of adventure. On this trip I was lucky enough to stay at a new luxury property located just outside of town called Hacienda Vira Vira which is one of the nicest properties I’ve seen and sets a new standard for hotels in this region. Vira Vira’s all-inclusive packages include your transfers from nearby areas and also include all meals with most of the ingredients being sourced from the property. They even have a cheese making factory on site! Drinks are also included as are all activities with a huge array of options available. Trekking, snow shoeing, trout fishing, rafting, kayaking, horse riding, cheese making, hot springs and even a guided shopping excursion can be arranged. If you want to experience the Pucon area at its best then I’d highly recommend a stay here. It’s worth paying extra for!
The lakes region can be offered in so many ways that is worth discussing your preferences with us so we can design the perfect option for you. I’d urge you to consider at least a week and perhaps a few more so you can combine both of the lakes crossings. You won’t regret spending more time in this incredible region.
Weather – the most reliable and popular time to visit either side is in summer between December and March. From mid-April to June are often wet and July through to mid-September are going to be very cold. Bariloche is South America’s largest ski resort and unless visiting for this purpose should be avoided over these months. September to November generally offers less rain on the Argentine side than the Chilean.
Getting there – there are so many options but my main recommendations would be as follows;
Bariloche – Direct flight from either El Calafate in Patagonia or Buenos Aires.
Pucon – can be reached by an overnight bus from Santiago (with lie flat seats) or the closest airport to Pucon is Temuco which is reached by direct flight from Santiago.
Puerto Varas – Puerto Montt airport is around 30 minutes’ drive away and has direct flights from Santiago or Punta Arenas which is the jumping off point for visiting Patagonia (approximately 4 hours’ drive to Torres del Paine National Park) or a cruise through the Chilean fjords to Ushuaia.
Money – each country have their own Peso so it’s best to use these although USD is a handy back up. You won’t be able to use USD all the time as some shops will not accept them. The current situation in Argentina means if you bring USD into the country and exchange on the black market then you get a much better exchange than if you were to withdraw from an ATM.
If you want to find out more about the destinations in this article, or have any questions in general please contact us.