Foreign Travel: Beyond the Bo-Bo

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
News for Adventurous Travelers, December 1996

Foreign Travel: Beyond the Bío-Bío

Chile's forgotten Lake District comes of age
By Kathy Martin O'Neil

Never really a stop on the adventure traveler's worldbeat, Chile's serene Lake District has long been overlooked in the rush to the expedition hubs of the Bìo-Bìo River to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south. But in between those placid lakes are national parks, whitewater torrents, and some 1,500 active and defunct volcanoes. All of which are the backdrop for a heaping Chilean sampler of rafting, climbing, trekking, horseback riding, canoeing, fishing, windsurfing, and sailing.

What the area historically lacked was an adventure tourism infrastructure. Aside from do-it-yourselfers, most travelers glimpsed this landscape on the popular lake-hopping route from Puerto Montt, the regional capital, to Bariloche, in Argentina, out the window of a bus, train, or boat. But now, as hosts of last month's World Congress and Expo on Adventure Travel and Ecotourism, local outfitters, hotel and restaurant owners, and car rental agents are beefing up their operations to put the Lake District on the international map--not necessarily great news for those who like their wilderness vacant. The action begins 650 miles south of Santiago in the resort town of Puerto Varas, on the shores of Llanquihue, the third-largest lake in South America.

Despite the huge number of peaks to choose from, climbers are drawn to 8,730-foot Volcžn Osorno, a perfectly shaped, glacier-capped cone inside Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales. The ascent is only moderately technical, but weather can be dangerous, so it's best to go with a guide. Aqua Motion (011-5665-232747), a top-notch Puerto Varas company with an international roster of guides who speak English, German, and Spanish, leads full-day climbs for U.S. $200 and treks along the volcano's base for $65.

Trekking, the classic Andean pastime, takes two forms here--foot and horseback. The best hiking treks are Aqua Motion's one- to five-day trips to the Callao hot springs or Rìo Cochamo through old-growth rainforest ($100-$490) and naturalist-led day hikes through Parque Nacional Alerce Andino, Chile's 3,000-year-old redwood forest, offered by Eco Travel ($54; 011-5665-233222). Prime horseback routes wind through meadows on Volcžn Calbuco, along the ice-blue Rìo Cochamo, and on the lakeside trails of Hacienda Rupanco, a cattle ranch with more than 1,000 horses (Aqua Motion, $40 per day).

Volcanic minerals in the Lake District's fast-flowing rivers tint the water a turquoise green so mesmerizing that rafters and canoe paddlers tend to miss the scenery beyond the riverbanks. The area's signature whitewater rafting romp is the Class III+ Rìo Petrohue, a half-day, 11-mile run that obligingly offers views of three volcanoes--Osorno, Puntiagudo, and Calbuco (Aqua Motion, $38). Canoeists head for the lush Coihueco River, a premiere bird-watching site north of Lake Llanquihue near the city of Puerto Octay, and camp along the riverbank. (Eco Travel runs three-day trips for $200 per person.)

Fly-fishing for salmon and trout is serious business here--outfitters will use canoes, horses, four-wheel-drives, and even a helicopter to get you to the biting action (Eco Travel, $200). Windsurfing and sailing are also taking off on breezy Lago Todos Los Santos, walled in by mountains in Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales. (Aqua Motion offers custom trips; ask about its 20-day All-Chile Windsurf Safari.)

Lan Chile flies from Santiago to Puerto Montt daily ($326 round-trip; 800-735-5526). In Puerto Varas, 12 miles north of Puerto Montt, stay in centrally located Hotel y Caba˜as del Lago (doubles, $83, with breakfast; 011-5665-232291) or rustic Caba˜as Rìo Pescado, which has its own fishing marina (cabins, $49-$68; 011-5665-338360). A more remote base camp, in Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales, is Hotel Petrohue (doubles, $99, with breakfast; 011-5665-258042), an elegant sporting lodge on the shores of Lago Todos Los Santos.

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