November 9-13, 2015
We met our Airbnb host, Cesar, upon our arrival at his quaint little house in Puerto Varas, Chile. We were a few hours early for check in and Cesar, incredibly kind and helpful, insisted that he clean the house for us. The house looked great to us--one bedroom, a small yard, and our own kitchen and bathroom! He asked us if we were hungry--after the 12-hour overnight bus ride from Santiago, I was starving. He drove us to a cute little coffee shop on the lake and accompanied us for breakfast. While we ate we discussed Chile’s economy, tourism, and his experience with Airbnb.
After breakfast, Cesar dropped us off at a local bus stop so we could take a minibus to Frutillar--a small lake front town about 30 minutes north. Cesar’s friend, who helps him with the Airbnb, had emailed us a list of things to do around Puerto Varas--Frutillar being one of his suggestions. Frutillar was a cute, sleepy town on the lake. There wasn't much going on but the houses were very cute and the architecture was reminiscent of a New England town. We spent a couple hours walking along the narrow rocky beach admiring the scenic views and collecting sea glass.
After a crammed minibus ride back to Puerto Varas we found a grocery store to stock up on food for our stay. We fully intended to take advantage of having a kitchen! Dismayed by the prices, we bought just what we needed for the week--some meat, fruit, veggies, and bread. Scott cooked some delicious meals for us by gerry-rigging our broken oven to roast some healthy meat and veggie dinners.
We spent the following day getting acquainted with the small town of Puerto Varas. We walked from our rented house, about a kilometer out of the center of town, down to the lake. From the small beach on the lake, we soaked in incredible views of the nearby snow capped volcanoes, Calbuco and Osorno. We strolled around the entire town and began to realize that as adorable as it was, it was heavily intended for tourists--many hotels, over-priced boutiques, trendy yes expensive cafes restaurants, outdoor clothing stores, and a casino requiring an entrance fee.
We stopped by some tour companies to inquire about kayaking, biking and canyoning. Unfortunately, the only bike rental shop was out of road bikes as they were all being used for a 2 week biking tour. Biking was out of the question for us, bummer. We had wanted to bike to a beautiful German influenced town about 45 kilometers away--a difficult task on a mountain bike, the only bikes the shop had available.
We went to another tour company to ask about canyoning, an awesome excursion where you navigate through small river channels, jump off cliffs and work your way down through awesome water covered terrain, fjords, and lakes. As it turns out, the company no longer offers the tours after a volcanic eruption earlier this year. What a bummer! We were having some bad luck. To cheer up, we enjoyed a frittata and some beer (good craft beer, yay!) at cafe in town and Scott purchased a cigar to enjoy later in our backyard with some of the wine we bought in Mendoza.
Day Trip to Chiloe
We had an early morning the following day. We had booked a 7:30am bus to the island of Chiloé, Chile's largest island to see the Magellan and Humboldt penguins. We hustled to the bus station, hoping it was the right one, and managed to catch our bus right on time, despite our confusion. The ride took about 2.5-hours and involved crossing a narrow channel of thePacific Ocean to get to the island of Chiloé. Our bus drove aboard a massive ferry to complete the 30-minute crossing.
Once on the island, we drove for about an hour through beautiful rolling countryside to the town of Ancud- Chiloé's former capital. We arrived at the Ancud bus station and blindly set out to catch another for another bus to Piñhuil, the beach where the penguin tours depart. We wondered the small town of Ancud, enjoyed a baked apple empanada (they bake empanadas in Chile and Argentina instead of fry them), explored the water front and found a tour agency to inquire about penguin tour costs.
The tour agency quoted us 20,000 pesos ($29 USD) for each of us for the penguin tour including transportation to Piñhuil and scenic stops along the way. This price further validated that we should definitely catch the bus to Piñhuil ourselves and book the tour for much cheaper on the beach there (we had done research and other travelers said that's the way to do it). The tour agency let us know where we could catch the local bus and we set out to find it. Hidden away behind a super market we found the small local bus terminal and the minibus to Piñhuil, which only left two times a day. We killed two hours in the town waiting for the bus departure and by the time we arrived at the bus station again the bus was packed-standing room only. We stood for the 45-minute bus ride to the beach, bouncing around and bumping into the people around us.
The last stop was the beach of Piñhuil and once here, all the tourists aboard spilled out. Before having the chance to inventory the tour companies on the beach, a man from a tour company stopped everyone from the bus, gave a brief introduction in Spanish and persuaded all of us to take the tour with him. The tour was priced reasonably at $5000 pesos, and we decided to go with the easiest option and book with him (all the tour companies essentially offer the same 30-minute boat ride to the penguin colonies) We suited up in life jackets and climbed onto a rolling cart which was then pulled to the boat so we wouldn't have to get wet in the freezing water. We exited the cart, got onto the boat with our Spanish speaking guide and headed a couple hundred feet away to several small rock islands, home to the penguin colonies. The Penguins occupy these islands for several months a year, November to March. The Penguins nest this time of year, so we were able to see a few penguins but not the hundreds you can see later in the season. There are slight marking differences on the feathers of the Magellan and Humboldt penguins that help tell them apart. In addition to the adorable penguins waddling on the rocks, we observed a curious otter swimming near our boat. The tour was very brief and we were unable to understand anything the guide said.
With not much else to see back on the beach we were ready to head back to Ancud and get a bus back to Puerto Varas. The problem however, was that the minibus did not return to pick up from Piñhuil until 5:30, and it was only 2. We decided our best bet was to hitch hike. We left the beach and walked for about a mile until reaching the road that lead back to Ancud. This road wasn't very heavily trafficked, but we got lucky and were picked up by an older American couple! They were from California and were visiting South America for 3 weeks. They rented a car and were driving to all of their destinations. They were incredibly sweet and asked us about our travels and we asked about theirs. They are pretty well traveled and used Airbnb in Puerto Varas as well. It was great to see an older couple traveling in such a down to earth style without the frivolous luxuries that take away from really immersing oneself in the culture and country. They dropped us off in Anclud and we hustled back to the bus station- the next bus back to Puerto Montt left in 20 minutes. We made it with 5 minutes to spare, paid for our tickets and hopped on the bus to Puerto Montt. From Puerto Montt we took a minibus back to Puerto Varas, a 20 minute ride. After getting off the bus we booked our bus tickets for Bariloche. Never ending bus rides!
Our last day in Puerto Varas was a quiet and relaxing one, we watched movies and enjoyed having our own TV and couch- it's been awhile!