With Bariloche now behind us, it was time to farewell Argentina, re-enter Chile and continue our journey northwards into the beautiful Lake District, or Los Lagos.
The small city of Puerto Varas sits on the shore of Lake Llanquihue, a spectacular body of water that, on a clear day, provides views to the snowcapped, and still active, Osorno volcano. Unfortunately for us, most of our time in Puerto Varas was spent beneath an umbrella; except for a few hours on our final afternoon.
Thanks to being settled by German immigrants in the 1850’s, Puerto Varas retains the distinct culture and traditions that were brought from Europe. The unique architecture makes many of the city’s buildings stand out, namely the gorgeous wooden shingles, which are still used in a lot of the modern constructions.
The downtown precinct is small enough to explore within an hour, much of it saturated with adventure/outdoor stores and tour operators. I guess the town is used by many as a base for the national parks and waterways that are literally a stones throw away.
As for the waterfront, some of it has been landscaped for all to enjoy. There’s even a city beach where, on a sunny day, locals and visitors sprawl in the grey volcanic sand and gravel and splash in the water. There is one downside, though, as you quickly discover it’s carelessly used as an ashtray for thousands of butts.
Food trucks in Puerto Varas.
Aside from seeing a couple in Montevideo, Uruguay, this was the first time we encountered food trucks in abundance anywhere in our South American travels. Here on the shore of Lake Llanquihue you can find twelve vans and trailers clustered beneath an awning, with a central area with limited seating.
The choices are fairly diverse, with offerings like sushi and tempura, ceviche, shawarma, vegetarian and vegan food, fresh juices and Italian – just to name a few.
Cafe Apié coffee cart is there to keep some of us caffeinated with their excellent espresso – they do tea and hot chocolate, as well – and you can grab a giant wedge of cake or empanada from Magnolia next door.
Thanks to being budget friendly, we came here twice for dinner. A burger and Spanish tortilla from Reid Wurst on the first round, then another delicious burger and handmade chips from Selk’nam Gourmet, the second.
All that’s missing is someone selling booze.
Food Trucks, Avenida Walker Martínez 301-101
Street food isn’t really a thing in this part of Chile, but there’s still a little to see, and buy, from the occasional person. Packets of chips and nuts are very much the norm from street vendors, and if you’re lucky, one of them will sell cheese they make themselves.
Something you see a lot of from Ushuaia in Argentina’s south, through Patagonia and into central Chile and the Lake District, is strings of smoked mussels and clams and cochayuyo – coils and bundles of dried bull kelp. Cochayuyo is mainly used in traditional cooking, where it’s soaked overnight and then cooked with potatoes, onions, beans and other ingredients.
There’s also luche, a sea lettuce that’s picked, dried and pressed into thick, plate-sized discs. It smells like it has just come out of a smoker, so the flavour would be just as nice, I’m sure.
There are plenty of eateries in the downtown precinct that teem with tourists which are happy to chow on pizza, pasta and parrilla. That’s all well and good, but when you’re in the mood for eating somewhere where the locals hang out, you need to search that little bit harder.
You can get your fill at Chamaca or follow Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps to the very quirky Donde El Gordito, but sadly the pricing wasn’t really on our side.
We decided to squeeze in with the locals at this small diner-style eatery that specialises in traditional fare. Wood-panelled walls, plywood booths, pitchers of chopp and warm service. From the outside it doesn’t even look like a restaurant; more of a wooden shed, really. Quite funny that the locals, especially the old guys at the bar, were surprised to see foreigners in there.
The food is hearty, no-fuss, generous and very well priced. What did we eat on our two visits? Chuleta de cerdo (4000) – grilled pork with fried egg, fries & salad; Merluza frita (5000); Pollo asado (4000) – grilled chicken.
The absolute star had to be the Porotos con longaniza (3500) – beans with sausage. It may not look like much, but this dish blew me away. It tasted identical to my mother’s grah, a Croatian dish that’s made in a very similar way.
El Mesón de Nueva Braunau, Avenida Gramado 520
The cafe scene in Puerto Varas may not be pumping, but it is sufficient, thanks to a handful of places you can settle into, enjoy some free wifi and, of course, a hot drink.
Overlooking Plaza de Armas is The Office, a multi-room space that feels like it used to house offices of some sort. Soup and sandwiches are clearly the go-to’s, but to momentarily escape the rain, we were happy to just do coffee.
The Office, San Juan 425
For the best coffee in Puerto Varas, we returned more than once to this tiny little joint on San Pedro. Get there early in the morning and you can drool over the excellent pastry scrolls or medialunas, or tuck into a slice of pizza, cake or homemade vegetable tart.
Lo Spuntino Caffé, San Pedro 201
Not too far from Lo Spuntino is El Barista, a popular cafe that does a decent breakfast, and is vegetarian and vegan-friendly and even has freshly squeezed orange juice.
When the weather’s cool, El Barista is the perfect place to settle in with a coffee, tea or hot chocolate. They even do submarino, that ubiquitous South American drink that involves dropping several squares of chocolate into a glass of hot milk.
Back to the breakfast, most of the hot varieties are cooked and served in an iron skillet, and a variety of toasted breads is given. Nice touch.
El Barista, Walker Martínez 211A
How we got to Puerto Varas from Bariloche.
We got the Pullman bus from Bariloche to Puerto Varas, cost 18,000 pesos per person. Journey time is about 7 hours.
It does involve crossing the border between Argentina and Chile, which is a very straightforward procedure. One stop at Argentina customs, then another on the Chile side.
Be sure to dispose of all fresh fruit.
On the Chile side of the border, all bags are to be taken off the bus and lined up onto a platform. Sniffer dogs are patrolled over the bags, you sign a form and then bags get packed back onto the bus.