This article has been updated on January 8, 2021
In the following piece, we’re going to talk about the popular cities of Puerto Varas (Chile) and San Carlos de Bariloche (Argentina), both located in Northern Patagonia, only separated by a relatively short journey of 300km/5hrs over the Andes mountains. Although each city is rather unique in its own way, both are located on the shores of glacier lakes and both feel rather touristy and resorty. Furthermore, both cities also bear signs of Swiss/German Alpine architecture due to their respective German founders.
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations, in case you've fancied to start creating your own itinerary. Just sign in into your Google account and if any listed place sounds like your cup of tea, just click "want to go". Personally for me, seeing the "Want to go" places helped me to determine my journey, when I was planning my trip across Latin Americas.
Puerto Varas is a quite pretty small provincial city located on the shore of Lago Llanquihue in the northern part of Chilean Patagonia. It is also nicknamed the “City of Roses” and I can confirm that this nickname is well justified. Except for the rich floral colours and smells and the above mentioned Alpine architecture, the city also comes with a resort-like slow-paced atmosphere and a rather higher average age of visitors as well as a strong café/restaurant scene. Puerto Varas‘ main attraction however is its close proximity to the picturesque volcanoes Osorno and Calbuco.
Things to do in and around Puerto Varas
Hikes around the lake
Except for exploring the town’s architecture and restaurants, the obvious, as well as the cheapest activity, is hiking around the lake. Another favourite and very easy-to-achieve activity is checking out a little viewpoint in the town Cerro Philippi, which offers alternative views over Lago Llanquihue. You can also go a bit crazy and swim in the lake like me. There’s a little beach right in town and when I saw someone swimming, I decided to go for it. FYI, the water was freezing and I’ve lasted about 8 minutes only 😀
Another place to consider checking out in the city is Museo Pablo Fierro. It’s located right on the promenade, only a short stroll from Plaza de Armas. You can’t miss that, for some a little bizarre, for others “a fairytale-like” building that greets the passers-by with a sign: “El Arte de Soñar,” which translates as “the art of dreaming”. Besides some art exhibits, its gallery/museum content will tell you something about the human history in the region.
I’m afraid that most of the remaining possible activities in and around this posh Patagonian town require spending considerable amounts of money. For instance, numerous agencies offer various tempting boat trips on the lake or around the volcanoes and if you feel more adventurous, you can also raft on the river Petrohué. Except for the numerous water-based activities, most of the other options are mostly about nearby volcanoes.
Volcanoes Osorno and Calbuco
Apart from the fact that Volcán Osorno looks like a child’s drawing of the volcano (a perfect triangle with a white hat), it is a great option for a day trip and hiking. From what I’ve gathered, the 60-90min trips trip to the volcano were starting at about $21USD, otherwise, it is accessible by car via Route 225, where you can take up some light hiking trails by yourself.
Similar offers, although with lesser intensity appears to be the case for day trips to Volcán Calbuco. Upon your visit, you’ll be bombed with options for such trips. In case you wanted to get a picture ahead of your visit, here‘s what Viator has to say but if I were you, I’d however wait and evaluate your options in town, where the competition is high.
I should also mention that if you were into winter sports, Vulcan Osorno turns into a ski resort in the winter. For the non-skiers and non-trekkers, there’s also the cable car option available to get some panoramic views of the lake. To be honest, all of these tours, boat trips, cable cars and other activities in the area were tempting but also a bit out of the league of my long term travelling budget. For your sake, I hope that you won’t have the same dilemma 😉
Other possible activities in the area
One thing that isn’t so pricey around here is visiting Chile’s oldest National Park: Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales and checking out its Petrohué Waterfalls which you can also reach by a pleasant walk. You can get there by taking a bus from the terminal on Del Salvador Street. Tell the driver that you’re going to Petrohué and after about half an hour plus, you’ll get dropped off by the entrance to the park. The journey will cost you 2000,-CLP (€2,33), plus the park of 6000,-CLP (€7). There are a few hour’s worths of nice trails in the park, which you could also explore before going back.
San Carlos de Bariloche serves as one of the travel hubs for northern Argentinian Patagonia. This charming city with the Alpine-architecture-influenced centre is located on the shore of Nahuel Huapi lake and it’s well known for several reasons, among which, one would name mainly the beautiful scenery; numerous activities such as trekking, skiing, rafting at Rio Manso or doing anything in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi and the chocolate they make here.
Although in its current form it is a relatively young settlement from the early 19th century (that’s if we don’t count on the findings from the Neolithic indigenous settlements), Bariloche boasts of a rather vibrant history of immigration because the city has welcomed several generations of German migrants. But there are Germans and then there are the other, infamous Germans. I mean that you can imagine that those Germans that were forced to escape their homeland in the 1930s weren’t exactly keen on their compatriots who arrived soon after 1945. But we all know that few of those have managed to sneak into the Americas…
Nazi hideout scandal
The city even made the international headlines in 1995, when the team from ABC news uncovered two former SS officers living free in this picturesque Patagonian surroundings. One of them, SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke was even a director of the German School of Bariloche (:0 This scandal was then followed by various conspiracy theories claiming that Hitler lived here happily with Eva Braun and so on.
FYI, I’ve decided to write a separate piece on this subject because I was only getting deeper and deeper into the subject of the escaped Nazis and the related conspiracy theories as well as the broad context of the whole phenomenon. In this article, I’d like to stick to the subject of providing the basic travelling information about Puerto Varas and Bariloche. In case you were interested, you can read some more about the escaped Nazis here.
Things to do in and around Bariloche
Tourism here is well developed and equally well organised. You’ll be therefore able to find out about the best hikes or hikes that suit you the best once you arrive in the city. I’m only going to briefly describe few highlights to give you an idea of what’s there on “offer”. Generally, I recommend being open-minded and flexible about your plans, because in my own experience, the local information is always better and what’s more important updated than on the majority of travel blogs.
One of the most popular mid-difficulty hikes in the area is Refugio Frey. It takes about 6 hours, starting at the parking lot of Cerro Catedral. I was told that the best hike is to go all the way to Cerro Catedral. It’s apparently doable in one day but many people break the trip and spend a night at Refugio Frey, which doesn’t sound like an attractive prospect. Another popular trek is the easy 2-3 hour trek Cerro Llao Llao.
Cerros Otto, Campanario and Catedral
Because I’ve had a little trouble with my knee, I was forced to look for some other non-hiking options in the area. I’ve started with taking a cable car up to Cerro Otto. The views were worth the 550,-Argentinian Pesos (€12,90) and, while sipping cappuccino in a rather spectacular Bauhaus-y spinning restaurant on the top, I didn’t find it very difficult to forgive myself that I’ve opted for such a lazy means of transportation.
The cable car station (Teleférico) is about 6km from the historical centre. About 15km further, you can do the same with Cerro Campanario, the only difference is that the chairlift is free 🙂 Then there’s also the impressive Cerro Catedral, which is only about 19km from the town and as Latin American biggest ski resorts, it also has a cable car 😉 Needless to say, you can obviously hike either of the hills without using the teleféricos 😉
Another option for me was picking some of the tours the local tourism industry offers. Circuito Chico belongs among the more popular ones. It’s a 1/2 day tour that would get you to see three local attractions in one go. You’ll see one of the most famous (and photographed) hotels in Argentina, Hotel Llao Llao and the nearby gothic-like church Capilla de San Eduardo, both designed by the Argentinian painter and architect Alejandro Bustillo. The tour would also take you up to Cerro Campanario that’s mentioned above.
You could also opt for checking out Isla Victoria on the lake. You can get there by taking a short boat journey. The easy trails on the island are also on boardwalks so it is not too difficult and therefore suitable for families, older people or people with minor knee injuries 😉
Volcán Lanín and Cerro Tronador
For the more advanced trekkers, there’s Volcán Lanín in the bordering Parque Nacional Lanín (site). It is apparently possible to climb this 3,776 m high volcano for experienced trekkers with an official guided tour group. Cerro Tronador is another option for well-experienced mountaineers. This extinct stratovolcano has three peaks, in two countries.
If you’re not up for this apparently difficult guided hike that cuts through a glacier, you could opt for a less technically advanced/difficult day trip tour from Bariloche that explores just the area at the foot of the mountain, which is btw a home to no less than eight glaciers 😉
Centro Cívico and Museo de la Patagonia
And finally, there’s also the pretty wood/stone Alpine architecture city centre. Enjoy the Swiss like atmosphere, plenty of cafés, pubs with artisanal beers, chocolate shops or grab some tasty dinner in one of the well-reputed local restaurants. There’s a lot on offer for anyone in Bariloche, regardless of your age, taste or cultural preferences, there is 😉 It’s a proper, well-prepared tourist town…
And if you like to be informed locally, I’d recommend checking out the Patagonian Museum. Through the local archaeological findings that include various indigenous artefacts, you’ll learn about the history as well as fauna and flora in the area. From my own experience, it then feels different to explore the area with some basic but solid knowledge 😉
Social life and safety in Puerto Varas and Bariloche
Being rather posh, as I’ve mentioned above, Puerto Varas felt 100% safe. Most of the social life appeared to be concentrated around the restaurants in the centre or on the promenade of the lake’s shore, while the local Casino also looked busy from the outside. Considering the white tablecloth luxurious designs and the consequent prices, in combination with the average age of visitors I’ve seen inside, it wasn’t exactly a place for me to socialize.
There were some less formal Irish Pubs and nice cafés on the main square I’ve briefly checked out and there was nothing to complain about, except the bill. Look, I’m not judging anyone, everyone has their own preferences. Speaking for myself, I’ve decided to grab a bottle of Malbec with a plastic cup and take it to the beach to watch the sunset to enjoy the pretty settings without the white tablecloths and the elevator music of an orchestra playing The Beatles instrumental songs or something like that, you know what I mean 😉
Bariloche‘s centre (Centro Cívico) hosts plenty of restaurants, cafés and bars. Generally, it was refreshing for me to grab a few and not pay the London price for a pint like in southern Patagonia. Other than that (or because of that?), I turned a bit lazy, with the great excuse of having my right knee a bit overloaded from the previous 6-12hrs treks a day for a few weeks in a row, as I’ve mentioned above.
I’ve stayed on Juramento street and there were a few nice little trendy joints offering snacks, burgers and artisanal beers and the music they’ve played was also decent-ish, AKA not the usual mainstream or the even worse and otherwise regionally mega-dominant reggaeton. My fav feature of any establishment: terraces were also present, not to mention the rather dangerous happy hours 😉
As for safety, I have to admit that I’ve felt like watching my back here, more than in any of the Patagonian locations I’ve visited in the last 6 weeks. I don’t mean like it felt dangerous but being busier and bigger, the city did feel more predatory, while the easiest prey were the most naive tourists. At the end of the day, Bariloche is a considerably large city and I’m 100% sure that there’s at least some scamming and pickpocketing going on in town. However, I believe that normal common sense and usual precautions should, however, do the job.
Get in and out and get around Puerto Varas and Bariloche
Getting around the towns
As for Puerto Varas, the city is pretty much walkable, if you stay in or near the centre. The local buses leave from the Central Bus Terminal and you can get informed on the spot. In Bariloche, it’s a different story, especially if you arrive at the bus terminal that’s at the beginning of this rather large urban area.
For public transport, you need to purchase a top-up card a’la Oyster Card called SUBE. This card is also usable in Buenos Aires so if you’re planning to visit the gorgeous capital of Argentina, it’s definitely worth getting it. The prices for journeys are then rather cheap. Otherwise, then there are the ever-present taxis and ubers and the usual lot…
Getting to the respective capitals
From Bariloche, you can either take a 22hrs bus across Argentina to Buenos Aires or pay about $10USD extra for a short flight. There are shuttles to and from the airports available. From Puerto Varas, it’s a short bus ride to Puerto Montt, which is a city with the nearest airport, in case you were heading to Santiago. Buses between Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt are frequent and cheap.
Local long distance Buses
Puerto Varas to Bariloche is a rather stunning 6 hours ride through the Andes @ 18 000,-CLP (€12,90). FYI, you can also fly here from Buenos Aires on cheap if you book early.
Castro to Puerto Varas is a short, 2,5hrs bus journey that would get you to Chiloé‘s capital for 7500,- CLP (€10).
For train travel enthusiasts, there’s also an interesting and tempting option of taking the 826km (513 miles) long journey with Tren Patagonico from San Carlos de Bariloche to the Atlantic shore city of Viedma, which is about another 12 hrs of train journey away from the capital.
The train makes the journey once a week each way. It takes about 19 hours, setting the average speed at about 44km per hour (27 mph). But in the summer, the train also offers the disco and movie carriages 🙂 Timetables and prices could be found here. The official site could be found here (both sites are in Spanish only). Pls, note, that this train is notorious for being behind schedule.
Few practical notes
If you were taking the bus from Puerto Varas to Bariloche or wise versa over the Andes mountains, I can’t recommend enough trying to get one of the upper front seats AKA to let your eyes feast on the beautiful nature you’ll be driving through.
Also, if you’re travelling to Chile, please make sure to follow their customs of not importing any seeds, animal products or fruits. More information about that could be found here. Once you are allowed in the country, keep the paper slip they’ll give you, you’ll need it upon your departure.
Both cities have extended and diverse options for accommodation, ranging from basic hostels to luxurious hotels. There’s a lot on offer as well as a lot of competition so please make sure to check both major platforms (Airbnb as well as Booking) to get the best deal for you. Expect things to be pricey, like nearly everywhere in Patagonia, if not even more, especially if you don’t want to share the room.
As for myself, I’ve mostly given up on single rooms in pricey Patagonia. I thought why spend extra on the already pricey accommodation expenses if I’ll trek the whole day and then fall asleep like a baby? So in Puerto Varas, I’ve stayed in one of the cheapest places in this rather expensive town. Airbnb‘s Juanita’s place for $12 was just about all right for its price to serve the purpose.
In Bariloche, I’ve picked Airbnb‘s Bariloche Patagonia Jazz Hostel. Given the $12.50 per night for a dorm it was again one of the cheapest accommodations, one can get in town. The staff was super-friendly and the place appeared to attract a nice crowd. It was pretty much centrally located and there were community dinners. Overall it’s a nice place and I have good memories of this hostel 🙂
Sort of epilogue
I’d say that Puerto Varas is a nice little town, probably the prettiest on the Chilean side of Patagonia, however, it wasn’t exactly what I would call my cup of tea. I mean it’s a place that has its own huge Casino as well as other luxurious establishments and the city appeared to be attracting the high society, AKA old money posh Chileans.
Bariloche, on the other hand, had a much livelier vibe. The city is bigger (108 000 people as opposed to Puerto Varas‘ 42 000 inhabitants). I’d say that Puerto Varas was more of a “Norah Jones” kind of vibe, if you know what I mean, while Bariloche felt more local and studenty, with a wee bit more diverse and fun cultural kick to it.
I would humbly also apply the same conclusion when it comes to the natural surroundings of both cities. Even here, I’d say that due to the close proximity to the Andes, Bariloche has more variety of trekking options and activities to offer and would need a little longer to explore, if compared to Puerto Varas.
Useful and interesting links
- Bariloche Turismo gov. site with events, with plenty of info about activities, trekking, refugios in the area and so on
- Bariloche.org site with (more) events, activities, car rental, tourism, etc…
- Puerto Varas org site with places to visit, tours and so on
- Puerto Varas Municipality site with tourism info (in Spanish)
- Volcan Osorno site for the fans of winter sports with tariffs, promotions, alerts, etc…
- Parque Nacional Lanín official website
- Museo de La Patagonia in Bariloche
- Cerro Catedral Alta site for the biggest skying resort in Latin America with webcams, tariffs, updates and so on…
Other popular destinations nearby
A 320km/4hrs bus journey would get you to the heart of the Chilean Lake District, the town of Pucón. Like Puerto Varas, Pucón (pop. 22000) is also located by a lake and volcano. It offers a variety of adventure sports and activities for tourists, mainly in the three national parks in the area (Villarrica National Park, Huerquehue National Park and Villarrica National Reserve).
About two hours of bus drive south of Bariloche, there’s is the small town of El Bolsón. Because of another German immigrant wave (well before the Nazis), it’s known for its production of cheese and beer. For the previously mentioned reasons I did not go myself but many people, I’ve met several travellers who raved about the “hippie vibe” of El Bolsón, its hiking routes and Cajón de Azul, a’la a stunning lake where you can also swim.
In Puerto Varas, you will be very close to the largest Chilean island Isla Chiloé, where you can check out very different Ireland-like landscapes, its typical carpentry architecture, as well as its less touristy/more local vibe, not to mention the less, visited national parks on the island. More info about Chiloé could be found here;
Rather than a place, this is more of an option for your own little road movie experience. I’d definitely recommend exploring at least a part, ideal the full length along the 1200km long Carretera Austral that cuts through incredible nature. More details, including how to, places to see and other practical tips could be found here.
More popular Patagonian destinations further south
About a day’s drive further south, you can get to a trekking paradise nearby a cute little Argentinian town of El Chaltén, which is located in Los Glaciares Parque Nacional just “under” the iconic Mt Fitzroy. More details, including the trekking, logistics and more could be found here, in case you were interested.
Perito Moreno Glacier
Travelling further south for 3 hours from El Chaltén would allow you to visit the majestic Perito Moreno Glacier from the nearby city of El Calafate. A little guide on how to visit Perito Moreno could be found here.
Torres del Paine
Only about 5-6 hours’ drive from El Calafate over the Andes mountains would take you to Puerto Natales, which is a gateway town to the iconic Torres del Paine Parque Nacional. More details, popular treks, logistics and more could be found here.
End of the World
Well, in case you’ve had more time on your hands, fancy going a bit further south? I mean nearly as south as one can get? Here‘s a little guide for Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost city in the world: Ushuaia.
Santiago de Chile and Valparaíso
From Puerto Montt, you can get a cheap connection to the country’s capital, which is only 2 hours drive away from the bohemian city of Valparaíso on the Pacific coast. Read more about Santiago here and in case you were tempted to explore Valparaíso, which I fully recommend, find more details here.
Buenos, Buenos Aires
I have to admit, at this point, I was missing social life. I was missing different conversations other than about trekking and how much is what hostel or park entry. I’ve missed a city. I thought I was ready for the city people, tango, wine, cafés and terraces of Buenos Aires 🙂 Was I? I guess I was certainly ready for some social life but I wasn’t quite prepared for the charm/vibe/buzz of this fantastic city, which I ended up falling in love with within days. Read the extensive guide about things to do, see and experience in Buenos Aires here, in case you were interested.
Traveller’s Guides to the Patagonian countries of Chile and Argentina
For more complex information about both countries that are home to Patagonia, please click here, respectively here. Expect learning about basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit and more.