We took a 2 week road-trip from Chile's capital Santiago to Puerto Montt 1,000kms to the south. We travelled by bus, and found the Chilean bus services to be comfortable, efficient and cheap.
First stop was Talca, 3hrs south of Santiago. Talca is in the Maule Valley, a major wine growing region. So if you like a glass vino this is a good place to visit. While sampling the local wines was part of the plan we primarily wanted to go to the nearby Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay for some walking.
We'd tried unsuccessfully to arrange to go to the park with a recommended local tour company. They were booked out with other trips and we struggled to find an alternative, so we decided to hire a car and take our first drive in Chile.
Every country has it's fair share of impatient, maniacal drivers, and like Australia, Chile is no exception, with tailgating and dangerous overtaking occurring, but we found most drivers to be courteous and following the speed limits. So, the car hire option turned out to be a good one and enabled us to get to the park with no dramas.
With the car hire formalities taking up the first part of the day we only had around 4 hours at the park before we needed to head back to Talca.
This was still enough to get a feel for the park by doing the first part of the Sendero Enladrillado (7 – 8 hour walk). If we had our time again we would stay overnight at the town near the park, Vilches, and start early to do the full walk. We saw lots of signs offering cabins (cabanas) and camping sites.
There wasn't a lot to see in Talca the town. In fact it was hit badly by an earthquake in 2010 and evidence of the quake can still be seen in some parts of the city centre.
Pucon, around 7-8 hours south from Talca sits in a dramatic landscape with the 2847m volcano, Volcan Villarrica looming over the town. Pucon is popular with adrenalin junkies and there are lots of tour companies offering all manner of active pursuits - rafting, mountain biking, horse riding, climbing, kayaking etc.
It was peak summer holiday season when we were there and the town was very busy. The vast bulk of visitors seemed to be local Chileans, along with a fair smattering of Argentinians and a sprinkling of non-South Americans. We wanted to visit a couple of the nearby national parks so decided to get some advice from the local Tourist Information office as to how best to approach this. We met a very helpful chap with excellent English who advised us that by far the best approach was to hire a car. Car hire is not expensive, certainly not in comparison to the prices of the organised tours and you can go at your own pace. Encouraged by our driving success in Talca we decided to give it a go and hired a car for 2 days from a company recommended by the tourist office. A small 4 cylinder vehicle cost us around $45 per day ($US30) plus petrol ($20 was plenty for the 2 days).
We headed out to Parque Nacional Villarrica to get a closer look at the volcano. The last 8kms of the road was rough so we took it slowly. The top of volcano was obscured by cloud when we arrived but the lower reaches were clear. Knowing that we would be doing a 6 day walk in southern Patagonia in a couple of weeks time, we figured we needed all the exercise we could to get in some sort of shape so we headed up the lower slopes of the volcano from the car park.
A few hardy Chilean families had the same idea and they had the added bonus of dragging small children with them up the slope, who were remarkably uncomplaining.
Eventually our efforts were rewarded with the clouds lifting for a brief but spectacular period enabling us to take more pictures of the top of a snow covered volcano than can be justified (relax, we've only put one here).
With a sense of ''mission accomplished'' we headed down the mountain and off to the afternoon’s activity – a visit to one of the regions many termos (thermal springs).
Based on the sage advice of the tourist office we went to Termas Quimey-Co, 45 minutes drive from Pucon. It's fair to say that it wasn't cheap, around $28 ($US19) entry each, but we had the impression that the Chilean families that were in abundance were there for the whole day to get their monies worth.
The termo was positioned on the bend of a river and had a number of pools of different temperatures, as well as lounge chairs, picnic areas and a range of other facilities.
There were no other 'obvious' foreign tourists there for the two hours or so of our visit and it felt very much like an activity engaged in by local Chilean families on holidays.
Next day we took our hire car out to Parque Nacional Huerquehue. I can't really explain how to pronounce this as I never mastered it. My only tips are that the letter 'h' is silent and the emphasis goes on the 'que' syllable. The park's Los Lagos Walk was our aim. The track runs initially along pretty Lago Tinquilco before starting a relentless ascent to the level of the three lakes – Verde, Chico and Toro.
The full walk takes 7 hours and we only had around 4 before we needed to get our rental car back so again we had to cut it short. We decided to walk to the two miradors in order to get the best views.
There are also two impressive waterfalls en route.
The walk was a steady climb up and I kept saying to myself, this will be good preparation for our 6 day walk in Patagonia (ie the famous 'W' Walk of Torres del Paine). As I wheezed my way ever upwards the voice of my old Narrabeen Boys High phys ed teacher, from 40 years ago, Fred Yakich, came back to me: Fred was oft heard to say, usually several times a day to whomever caught his eye , “hey, that boy there, you're unfit!” I could hear Fred telling me this now, as if I needed reminding. To ensure that I was getting the message he'd occasionally say it in Spanish - “Oye, ese chico aca, estas no en forma!” Yes Fed, I know but I'm working on it.
The views were spectacular and I felt a little fitter for the outing.
From Pucon we were able to get a direct bus to Puerto Varas taking around 5 hours. Again the bus left on time and delivered us efficiently and safely to our destination. All the Chilean long distance buses we've taken issue luggage tickets which adds a note of confidence that you'll see your bags again at the other end.
We thought the location of Pucon was pretty spectacular but we reckon that Puerto Varas trumps it. PV sits on Lake Llanquihue. From the town's waterfront, on a clear day, you get a fantastic view across the lake of snow capped Volcan Osorno. A second volcano, Volcan Calbuco is nearer to the town and ''went off” last April. Apparently the wind was blowing away from the town so it was unaffected.
Unfortunately we only planned 2 nights in PV which really only amounted to one full day. On advice from our guesthouse host, Alex, of Casa Fischer (an excellent guest house by the way) we caught a local bus one hour to Petrohue. Petrohue sits on a different lake, Lago Todos Los Santos, and is the gateway to Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales. Here we did a 4 hour circuit walk, the first part being along a track called the Paso Desolacion (Path of Desolation). It runs along the foot of Volcan Osorno with constant up close and personal views of the volcano.
The return leg was along the lake where we took the opportunity to escape the sparrow-sized horse flies with a dip in the lake.
The ride back to town on the local bus completed a great day out.
We had little knowledge of the island of Chiloe, just south of Puerto Montt, before planning this trip. Chiloe 180 km long and 50 wide, is famous for the strong independent spirit of it's seafaring population, it's wild seascapes, it's palafitos (stilt houses) and it's wooden churches, 14 of which are UNESCO World Heritage listed.
Castro, the capital, in the centre of the island, was to be our base for three nights. After finding our palafito guest house we undertook an exploration of the town with a highlight being the World Heritage Iglesia San Francisco de Castro (church).
Next day we decided to visit a couple more of the famous churches. The oldest, Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto was built around 1740 and was constructed using wooden pegs instead of nails. It is at Achao, an hours bus ride (and with a short ferry trip thrown in as it's on a smaller island). Dolphins were in evidence for the ferry ride, whereas seals were plentiful on the ferry from mainland Chile to Chiloe the previous day. Achao is a pleasant seaside town with a promenade on the waterfront.
From Achao we back tracked to Dalcahue and the church, Nuestra Senora de Los Dolores. The vaulted wooden ceilings of these churches are a wonder to behold. Then back to Castro.
The road-trip finished in Puerto Montt, a transport and shipping hub.
We spent a pleasant afternoon at a very nice seafood restaurant (Pa' Mar Adentro) and in wandering the markets along the river.
Next stop – Patagonia. But that’s another story.