The same glaciers that carved out Lago Llanquihue also gave us Todos Los Santos. Lying up against the border with Argentina, its name comes from the Catholic feast day of All Saints celebrated on November 1st, the day of its discovery by Jesuits who were searching for a pass through the Andes. They probably got wind of its existence from the locals, los Huilliches, who had used it as a commercial route across the cordillera for hundreds of years before any European ever set foot here.
On the day of our trip the clouds depart early leaving us with brilliant sun. As we leave Puerto Varas, following Route 225, the scene opens up to wild flowers and blackberries against a backdrop of green pastures, farm houses and vacation homes, stands of evergreens, and the deep blue of Llanquihue. There is always a volcano, either Osorno or Calbuco, in sight and sometimes both are visually present depending on which way the road bends.
Following the eastern shore of the lake, we arrive to the village of Ensenada where we turn away from Llanquihue towards the cordillera where the landscape changes to yellow-green forests and black volcanic rock.
The heavy rain of winter peeling off Volcán Osorno brings with it rivers of loose black soil that during the winter flow across the only road up to Todos Los Santos and down to the Petrohue River on the other side. In these places the road is not asphalt but is concrete to better withstand the raging water and black volcanic soil.
The excellent condition of the debris-free road lets us make good time. To our right, the Petrohue River rushes down in the opposite direction, not to the Llanquihue, but to the Estuário de Reloncaví that cuts deep into the continent to the east of Puerto Montt.
A sign announces we are entering Vincente Perez Rosales National Park and like everyone else on the road, we stop at Los Saltos de Petrohue, that although are waterfalls appear more like really fast and treacherous rapids that zig zag their way through sharp outcroppings of volcanic rock. The water from Lago Todos Los Santos gives the river its emerald green hues while the eruptions of Volcán Osorno provide the rocky obstacle course. It feels good to stretch our legs if only for the duration of the short walk from the parking lot to the saltos.
The crystalline, rushing water is stunning but my attention keeps shifting to the volcano in the distance. It’s always there. You might think I would grow tired of it but I don’t. It’s perfect beauty is matched only by its power.
After hovering over the railing to snap photographs or paying for a ride on the river to a point just below the falls, most people turn back here. This is the end of the paved road, but we continue on the dirt road for six kilometers to Petrohue, at the western edge of Todos Los Santos.
We have the idea that we can take a catamaran down the long finger-shaped lake to Peulla on the eastern shore and then across the Argentinean border and on to San Carlos de Bariloche on Lago Nahuel Huapi. We discover that while true there is only one crossing leaving in the morning and we’ve missed it. Alas, if you’re up for the adventure check out Cruce Andino, the company that runs the crossing every day of the year.
Our only option to satisfy our desire to be out on the water is to take a short ride-for-hire on the lake. We find the boatman down on the beach; he points out his boat, a wide-bottomed, canopied-top boat with a small motor. We’re in, that is except for Luci who gets motion sickness. She takes a look at the boat and says, “No way.” We coax her. She teeters between yes-and-no. She even boards the boat but its swaying to-and-fro makes her think better of her decision and she disembarks with instructions to make a reservation at the hotel for us to have lunch.
A few off-the-grid cottages and boathouses dot the shore of the lake. Built by the colonos as the Germans who settled in this area in the mid-1800s are known, most are today in the hands of wealthy families who have the wherewithal for their upkeep which can be a challenge given that there are no roads in and out. Boats are the only means of transportation. Pointing ahead, our boatman shows us the only island on the lake. Like the cottages, it is privately owned although the rest of the surrounding land belongs to the national park.
To our right is what looks like a floating boathouse. “This,” our boatman tells us, “is a miniature house with all the amenities including a chemical toilet.” The owners move the floating house around the lake as their desire dictates. Somehow it doesn’t look that enticing to me. I’d rather stay on land and boat around the lake.
Our boatman is eager to please supplying us with more facts and figures. We learn that emerald green color of the lake comes from its high levels of copper sulfate and sulphur and that the lake at is deepest is 337 meters (1105.6 feet). The lake is home to trout and salmon for those inclined to dangle a line. In the distance, we see what we think is smoke; we ask about it and he tells us that this is steam coming off the hot springs. “Hot springs? Can we go?” we ask. “Yes,” he tells us. “But, it is too late.” We would have had to start early in the morning as they are a five hour trek from the other end of the lake and that’s a two-to-three hour boatride depending on the vessel.
The stunning Volcán Osorno is always with us but now our attention shifts to the rugged spiked-peak Volcán Puntiagudo that only five intrepid climbers have climbed, we are told. As we zoom in with our camera we can understand why. Further in the distance the glaciar-covered Tronador looms.
This is a place for seeking no-nonsense adventure or doing nothing. You can swing through the rain forest or kayak down rugged rivers, or you can sit on the black sand beach and read a book or take a walk along the shore of the lake, that is, if the Tabanos let you. These flying black insects populate the humid forest regions especially during January when they take over the airspace flying at up to thirty kilometers an hour and attacking people as well as horses and other large animals. Even out in the middle of the lake they are plentiful, although our boatman assures us that in a week or two they will become even more numerous and aggressive. The bite of a Tabano can leave some damage: Pain, inflammation, and even infection that must be treated with antibiotics. Lucky for us, although a nuisance, we are spared their bite.
After the boat ride, we notice our empty stomachs and walk towards the Petrohue Hotel . Luci is nowhere to be seen until we reach inside. There she is sitting in a comfy chair nursing a big glass of orange juice.
The hotel is the only place to have lunch here. Of course, if we had been lucky to get to the other end of the lake, we could have lunched at Hotel Natura Patagonia in Puella, but we didn’t.
We are happy where we are and because we’re the only diners for lunch at this later hour, the wait staff and manager are all ours. Some opt for sandwiches like the famous Chilean Barros Luco, a concoction of thin slices of steak with melted cheese or the ave palta, slices of white chicken with mashed avocado, while others go for the steamed salmon with papas asadas. While we’re finishing lunch with a cafecito, another couple stops by for an afternoon beer and as we leave a mini-van carrying a dozen tourists arrives. The lucky ones, they will spend the night here. I imagine them watching the stars in the quiet darkness before going off to bed.
Once back in Puerto Varas we take a walk in town to admire the catedral up on the hill, a quaint little red house, a lovely early 20th century house, la casa Puma Verde, restored by Thompkins of Parque Pumalin fame, and the big half-moon high up in the blue sky before walking over to our favorite cafe, Café El Barista for onces.
All original content copyright 2011 Mary E. Slocum