Celebrating Unemployment in South-Central Chile [& briefly Argentina]

Finding myself briefly unemployed for a month in January, I was looking for a destination that I was comfortable with traveling alone to, that was reasonably cheap to fly to on two weeks notice, and that would scratch my itch for glaciers, mountains and trekking. That put me in South America and the Andes, where I found a reasonable (given the short notice) flight to Santiago. While we focused on Chilean Patagonia in our trip to Chile and Argentina last year, I chose to spend my time this trip in Central Chile and the Rivers and Lakes Districts, leaving Northern Chile for another trip. The destinations for this trip, in order were: Valparaíso > Pucón > Puerto Varas > San Carlos de Bariloche (Argentina) > Santiago.

Three weeks isn’t a long time by backpacking standards, but it meant I could spend between 2-6 nights in each location, which made the hours spent on transfers between places worthwhile. I started the trip with a fully planned itinerary, accommodations and transfers booked, and a spreadsheet of links to travel blogs and ideas of what I wanted to do each day. On day three I cancelled nearly all of my plans (flexible booking is worth the extra $1/night on booking.com and hostelworld.com) and went with a loose itinerary. I am an extreme planner and it was hard for me to abandon the certainty of my plans, but it led me to make many of the best decisions of my trip… It began with some shit weather in Temuco (it’s not a town worthy of sticking around more than a few hours), prompting me to abandon my plans to visit Parque Nacional Conguillio and hop on a bus to Pucón a day early. After falling in love with Pucón, I extended my stay there from 3 nights to 6, meaning something would have to slide from the rest of the trip. Rather than cut my time in Puerto Varas short, I skipped my previously booked $30 flight back to Santiago and stuck around. With nothing forcing me to Santiago, I hopped on a bus across the border from Puerto Varas to Bariloche, Argentina – completely forgetting that I had neither the correct power adapters nor the credit/debit card notifications set-up to support that venture… both easily fixable following the period of brief panic that ensued in the ATM line.

Through the challenges and the triumphs, this trip re-instated my confidence in solo travelling and has fundamentally changed the way I view trip planning [for trips > 2 weeks].

Valparaíso

Spending day 1 in Valparaíso was an instantaneous cultural reminder that you are, in fact, in South America. I hopped off the bus from Santiago and attempted to find my hostel amidst the chaos of the daily street markets, all the while praying that my clearly gringa appearance didn’t make me a target for Valpo’s notorious thieves. Once inside my hostel I felt more secure, but noticed right off that none of the other travelers were from English speaking countries. While my Spanish can get me by, it is far from conversational, and I immediately wondered if I’d be able to befriend fellow backpackers in a country where the general population doesn’t speak your language. After a day spent wandering the streets alone and in silence I came back to the hostel at dusk feeling alone and distant.

When I returned I saw what would become my two Bulgarian roommates checking in (in English!). I awkwardly invited myself to dinner with them, and they tolerated speaking English with me. We hung out the rest of my time in Valpo, and from that point on in my trip, solo travel evolved back into the social, backpacker culture I remembered from solo traveling in Europe, Canada and Australia.

Valpo has a reputation as a city that everyone who visits falls in love with and stay longer than planned. I’d heard it referred to as the “Cinque Terre of Chile”, but San Francisco resonated more with me – first because of the hills, and second because there was poop everywhere, a result of Valpo’s very healthy street dog population. After two and a half days here, the chaos and dirtiness wore me down, and I was itching to abandon the city for something more quaint and outdoorsy.

How to get there: By bus from Santiago: Uber or take the metro to the Pajaritos stop, adjacent to Bus Terminal Pajaritos. From Pajaritos, you can catch a bus to Valparaíso on Pullman (~$7000CLP) or a variety of other bus companies about every 20 minutes. By bus from SCLFrom the Santiago airport, you can make it to the colorful coastal city of Valparaíso (Valpo) in ~2 hours. Two bus companies TurBus and Centropuerto offer services to and from the airport to Bus Terminal Pajaritos (~$750CLP). Having done the bus ride twice, I can say it isn’t scenic enough to warrant staying awake when coming off a red-eye.

Where to Stay: Valparaíso has a crazy large number of hostel offerings making Hostel World a bit overwhelming. You make a trade-off between proximity to the bus station and proximity to the main tourist attractions. Here are two hostels I liked – one in each area: La Joya Hostel (dorm bed $18USD): La Joya is super-convenient to the bus station and has a great rooftop and chic, minimalist décor. You’ll have to brave the walk through all of the street markets carrying all of your bags to the hostel. This can get dicey given Valpo’s reputation as a heavy theft/crime area. I didn’t personally experience any theft/pick-pocketing, but was informed, alert and carried my backpack more like a shoulder bag. The location means it isn’t always as packed as other hostels, making meeting people more difficult. It’s got a good breakfast and is a good value hostel overall. Planeta Lindo (dorm bed $15USD): This hostel is in prime real estate in the Cerro Alegre / Cerro Concepcion area. The location boosts the price a little bit, but you make up for that in atmosphere, as it is one of the more social hostels in Valpo – better for solo travelers. It’s about a 25-minute walk from the bus station, but good news – it’s 2019 and Valpo has Uber! I’d recommend this one over La Joya for ease of meeting friends to roam around with.

What to do: Guided or Self-guided Walking Tour: Walking around is the best way to get to know Valpo. Valpo is known for it’s street art (broken down into legal murals, illegal graffiti, and illegal and effortless tagging), which can be found on the side of nearly every building, staircase, or broken down structure in the city.  Some of the more famous pieces can be found in the Cerro Concepcion tourist area. I followed the pre-made Google map on Lauren on Location’s blog and found the “We are not Hippies, We are Happies” and piano stairs amongst others. Tours 4 Tips Free Walking Tours: After walking around solo the first day, I jumped in on a Tours 4 Tips (T4T) free walking tour with my two Bulgarian software engineer hostel mates. They offer a 3PM tour of Valparaíso Highlights and a 10AM tour for Valparaíso “off the beaten path.” We did the 10AM and found it to be a good time for people who don’t typically enjoy tours. Our guide Camillo shared a wealth of both historical and current political controversies and provided some great recommendations for other activities after the tour. Watch the Sea LionsThe sea lions of Valparaíso put San Francisco’s small, lazy beasts to shame. These guys are vocal and energetic, fighting for positions on an abandoned pier. To find the pier follow Ave Argentina (near the bus terminal) to the coast and walk along the coastal boardwalk for about 100 feet. You’ll hear them before you see them. Viña del MarViña is Valpo’s neighbor to the north. It is a touristy little beach town with significantly more (and nicer) beachfront than Valpo. The beaches are always crowded in the summertime and loaded with people selling every possible souvenir tourists will buy. My recommendation – walk along the sidewalk near the waterfront, grab a skewer of chocolate covered strawberries, and hop on the mini bus 30 minutes further north to Concón. Concón: If you continue north on the mini bus from Viña, you’ll stumble upon Concón, a not super developed town characterized by huge sand dunes. Run to the jumbo (supermarket) across the street from the bus stop to grab some snacks and beer and head over to the dunes. If you want to sand-board or sand-sled, rentals are available hourly for a couple thousand pesos. If speeding downhill and getting sand in every crevice of your body isn’t for you, just trudge up to the top of the dunes and sip your beer while catching the sunset from the best viewpoint in town. Ride the Funicular elevatorsThe funiculars are a happy alternative to climbing hills or stairs when you’ve had enough for the day. They are cheap and unique and definitely worth a ride. Although you can see many of them throughout the city heading up it’s 40+ hills, only 7 are still operational. “This is Chile” provides information on operational funiculars (acensores) and where to find them. Party until the sun comes up (if that’s your thing): Not much intel on this area since I have a strict 10pm bedtime at home which was already stretched by not eating dinner until 11pm each night in Valpo. If you are on the hunt for late nights in the discos, Valpo is for you!

Where to eat/drink: Fauna: Fauna is great for amazing views, amazing food and a good selection of different types of entrees / price points. Highlights from our group were the provoleta and the lemonade with mint + ginger.  Lupita & SanchoIf you find yourself in a pinch on a Sunday night (when all restaurants close before normal Valpo dinner time) Lupita & Sancho will come to the rescue with late night Mexican food. It’s not the greatest Mexican in the world, but the Micheladas are spicy and it’ll get you through until morning. Cocina Puerto: Some hostel friends and I went to Cocina Puerto as a default after not being able to get in to it’s next-door neighbor (Samsara) and were pleasantly surprised. The fresh seafood was awesome and prices were reasonable for Chile. SamsaraWe were recommended Samsara by a local and each time we tried to eat there they were already booked up or closed – which I take as a sign of a good place. They do take reservations so make one day before or early on the day of if you want to get in.

Pucón

Pucón gets the reputation as the “Queenstown, NZ” of South America, which based on my limited perception on what Queenstown may be, seems entirely accurate.  It’s a gorgeously scenic town set on lake Villarica, overlooked by the hulking Volcán Villarica. After abandoning my visit to Parque Nacional Conguillio and an over-priced evening at Ecohostel Temuco (quick review: expensive, not great location, showers to dirty to use, no common living spaces), I called Chili Kiwi to reserve a bed a day early, walked over to the JAC bus terminal and hopped on the 7:40 AM bus to Pucón.

I got to Chili Kiwi just as the owner was giving the daily 10:30 AM English language overview of the town, the hostel, and activities/excursions around. Many of my recommendations come by way of what was recommended to me by James (the Kiwi of Chili Kiwi). His reviews were brutally honest and his tastes generally appealed to the more fit, adventurous travelers at the hostel.

I had planned on spending 3 nights in Pucón, but it turned into 6 and I could have spent more there. Two of the days incorporated the excursions for hydro-speeding (river boarding) and climbing Volcán Villarica. The others were filled with trips to Parque Nacional Huerquehue, local bus rides to hot springs, and trail runs along the beaches. Pucón is a pretty common stop along the Chile backpacker circuit. From there, everyone I met was either headed north back to Santiago or south to Puerto Varas and Patagonia. After my extended stay in Pucón, I traveled to Puerto Varas with 5 of the friends I met at Chili kiwi, and eventually followed two more of them to Bariloche, Argentina.  

How to get there: By busAs a popular tourist destination, Pucón is easily accessible by bus from Santiago (~8 hrs), Valparaíso (~10 hrs), Temuco (2 hrs), Puerto Montt (~5 hrs), Puerto Varas (~5 hrs), and many other cities. Bus tickets can be bought ahead of time on busbud.com, reccorido.cl, or on the individual bus companies website. You can also buy tickets from the kiosks at the bus terminals in each city. Even in the high season, I found as long as you purchased your bus tickets 1-2 days out you were always able to get a seat. By planeIf you find yourself in Valpo or Santiago and don’t want to deal with an all-day or overnight bus, you can fly (Sky airlines or JetSmart ~$30 booked in advance) to Temuco and catch a 2-hour bus from there.

Where to stay: Chili Kiwi LakefrontChili Kiwi ranks in my top two hostels ever (shout out to the other contender- Flutterby House in Uvita, Costa Rica). The hostel is a compound of rustic-looking wooden buildings comprising numerous dorms, 3 kitchens, camper vans, hobbit huts, tree houses and plenty of indoor and outdoor hangout space. They have a bar for hostel residents-only that offers 3 local craft beers on tap for $2,000-2,500CLP, about half of what you pay in town.

What to do: Climb Volcán VillaricaTons of people come to Pucón for the sole purpose of climbing Volcán Villarica. You have to do it with a tour group unless you are a qualified guide with the gear and the ability to convince CONAF (the Chilean park service) that you can safely and competently climb alone. Many agencies in town offer tours ranging from $75,000-120,000CLP. Chili Kiwi offers an exclusive tour with their own guides for $80,000CLP. Included in that price are the transport, park fees, insurance, guides, and all the gear you need to climb up and slide (yes slide, or glissade, on your butt hundreds of feet at a time) down the mountain. The guided climb caters to the slowest member of the tour, which was frustrating as you move slowly and take breaks so often you get cold and sun burnt. However, once you reach the top the sweeping views make you forget you were once one in an army of ants marching to the top of the volcano. On a clear day you can see for miles in all directions, and sometimes you can even see magma bubbling inside the crater of the volcano. Overall assessment – if you’ve never climbed a volcano, this is a good (& easy) opportunity, but if you’ve climbed one before, opt instead to summit one of the peaks in the surrounding national parks for sweeping views that include Volcán Villarica. Hike in Sanctuario El Cañi: Sanctuario El Cañi is a slightly shorter bus ride than Huerquehue, but the time is traded off in a slightly longer hike for similar views. The main hike offers stunning views of Volcán Villarica on a clear day. To get to Sanctuario El Cañi, hop on the local bus towards Los Pazones and get off at the stop for Cañi ($2,000CLP each way). Hike in Parque Nacional Huerquehue: Parque Nacional Huerquehue offers two main hiking routes and variations that offer different views of the volcano and surrounding mountains and lakes. Sendero Los Lagos: The shortest and easiest hike, the Sendero Los Lagos, treks through forest with minimal elevation gain to a loop of three lakes – Lago Chico, Lago Verde, and Lago el Toro. There are two miradors along the way offering views of Volcán Villarica set over Lago Tinquilca. Also along the way are short out and back paths to view two waterfalls (saltos). The waterfalls are nice, but less impressive than most others in South/Central America – I would skip the detours if short on hiking time. Mirador Villarica – extension of Sendero Los Lagos: On the day of our second attempt to hike the Sendero San Sebastian we found it closed once more. In an effort to salvage the gorgeous weather day, we began on the only open trail – Sendero Los Lagos. The Los Lagos loop is generally very crowded in the summer time, but as soon as you break off that path, the people disappear. The trek gets substantially harder as you work your way through the forest and eventually out of the national park before beginning the steep ascent to Mirador Villarica. The trail falls off and you find yourself ascending through rock, volcanic sand and shrubs. The mirador is at the summit of an unnamed mountain with amazing views of the three surrounding volcanoes – Villarica, Quetrupillan, and Sollipulli. Sendero San Sebastian: The Sendero San Sebastian was closed for the duration of my time in Pucón due to snow/ice (in the peak of summer!), but is at the top of my list for my return to Pucón. This trek summits Cerro San Sebastian for amazing views of Volcán Villarica from high above the tree line. Beware the weather in the park even in the high season. You gain significant elevation on the bus ride up, and we found ourselves caught in a blizzard in the height of summer. Come prepared with layers and head down from the mountains if the weather doesn’t cooperate. To get to Parque Nacional Huerquehue, take the local bus in the direction Huerquehue. In high season, buses leave Pucón at 08:30 and 13:30 and return from the national park at 14:10, 17:10 and 19:30. Hydro speedingCombine boogie boarding and white water rafting and you get hydro speeding. This was a great rainy day activity, and something you don’t generally see in the US. You’re given a wet suit, some flippers, and a board and taught to turn and roll in the river before setting off into the rapids (class 1-3). Several tour agencies in town offer this activity – Chili Kiwi also has an exclusive deal here. The guides were awesome, but beware the trip photo scam. Each person in our group of 12 forked over $2,000CLP for an email with a link to the trip photos that never came. Sailing: Off Limits Sailing Co. offers small boat sailing from the harbor just beside Chili Kiwi Lakefront. The small boats (5 people) run $22,000CLP each for two hours. The cool thing about this was the skipper was as hands on or off as you wanted – you could learn to sail, or just ride along for the booze cruise watching the sunset over Volcán Villarica. Hot Springs: Termas Geometricas are the boujee, well-known hot springs in the Pucón area. A quick Google search can identify that they are lovely and priced as such. Between the 2-hour bus ride each-way and the $36,000CLP price tag, some friends and I opted to explore Termas Los Pazones instead. A 1-hour bus ride from town and $12,000CLP total price tag ($4,000CLP in buses, $8,000CLP in entry) left us more than satisfied. These termas were still quite nice, having 7 pools of varying temperatures and were mostly populated by locals rather than tourists. Go to the beach: Playa Grande, the public beach on the north side of Pucón, is a great spot on a sunny day. Lago Villarica is refreshing and a necessary reprieve after torching your feet on the black (mostly rock) sand. Watch the Pucón Iron man!: If you happen to be in Pucón in mid-January and need some personal fitness inspiration…

Where to eat/drink: Latitude 39: I’m slightly embarrassed to say I came here three times on my 7-day stint in Pucón. They’re reasonably priced and well known for their burgers (& a kick ass Thai chicken wrap) that really hit the spot after a long day climbing Volcán Villarica or trekking in Parque Nacional Huerquehue. If you come early enough beers are 2 for 1 during happy hour. Cassis: The highlight of Cassis for me was definitely the dessert. They have tons of amazing crepe and ice cream desserts that are enough calories to constitute a full meal. If eating sweets-for-dinner isn’t your thing, the lomo a la pobre was also awesome – and a good check box for traditional Chilean cuisine. Don’t skip the cerveza here – they have a variety of craft beers served in giant goblets. Trawen: For the closest thing you’ll get to a full English breakfast (confirmed by two Brits), Trawen hits the spot. Desserts were also great here. Ecole: This is supposedly the best vegan restaurant in town, located inside a hostel of the same name. I can’t personally vouch for Ecole, but have heard great things. Beanies & Bikinis: If you want to party into the early morning to loud music that’s a blend of trap, house and pop while drinking 2 for $5,000CLP Pisco Sours Beanies & Bikinis is for you! If you’re staying at Chili Kiwi, there will be no shortage of friends to drink with until the music becomes bearable.

Puerto Varas

The town of Puerto Varas (PV) is a bit more touristy – lots of higher end hotels and restaurants – but shares a similar volcanic-lake-side setting to Pucón. I found the town of Puerto Varas best enjoyed from a 1-hour bus ride away in Petrohué. On a clear day, Petrohué is a volcanic wonderland with landscapes reminiscent of Iceland in the summertime (without the Scandinavian prices). I spent the two full days I had in town making the journey to Petrohué for amazing views of Volcán Osorno, which is often visible from Petrohué even on what appears to be a cloudy day in Puerto Varas.

The one thing about Petrohué that seems to have been missed in every travel blog I read on the area is that while January is ideal visiting weather, it’s also tábano season. Tábanos are HUGE Andean horse flies that swarm the Lakes Districts of Chile and Argentina each January to live a brief ~20 day life. It wasn’t uncommon to have 5-10 of the little assholes buzzing around you at any given time. The CONAF office in Parque Nacional Vincent Perez Rosales has a notice about them for the month of January that indicates that swatting and flailing your arms around like a crazy person only attracts more. While this is probably true, that requires entirely more self control than I have. If not a fan of horse flies, consider postponing your PV travels to February/early-March.

How to get there: By bus: Puerto Varas is easily accessible by bus from Santiago (~13 hrs), Valparaíso (~15 hrs), Temuco (7 hrs), Pucón (~5 hrs) and most easily Puerto Montt (~20 min), among other cities. Bus tickets can be bought ahead of time on busbud.com, reccorido.cl, or on the individual bus companies website. You can also buy tickets from the kiosks at the bus terminals in whatever city you’re in. Even in the high season, I found as long as you purchased your bus tickets 1-2 days out you were always able to get a seat. Beware – PV has individual bus terminals for each company scattered around the city rather than a single, central terminal. If leaving on a different bus company than you arrived, make sure you have your new terminal mapped out and give yourself plenty of time to get lost or follow incorrect directions. By planeThere is a small airport in Puerto Montt that has daily flights arriving in from Santiago and Punta Arenas. The national flights are generally cheap when booked in advance (check Sky, JetSmart and LATAM) and take significantly less time than travel by bus. Once you land at the airport in Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas is a quick 20-minute minibus ride via the frequent local buses.

What to do: Visit Parque Nacional Vincent Perez Rosales: Take the bus from Downtown Puerto Varas to the last stop in Petrohué ($2000CLP). Once in Petrohué, walk along the lake front and then make your way towards the CONAF office to register for some trekking – no fee here. The Desolation Pass Trek offers stunning views of Volcán Osorno as well as a few other nearby mountains and an amazing volcanic landscape for the entirety. I did this trek as a trail run with my Seattlite running partner that I picked up in Pucón. #1 reason to do the trek as a trail run: tábanos. It may have been a misconception, but they definitely seemed less interested in landing on us when we were moving quicker, or we just got out of the high tábano concentration areas faster – either way a win in my book. We finished up the trail run in about 4 hours, but the CONAF office will advise you to allow 6-8 if walking. Bear in mind that the last bus from Petrohué back to PV in the summer is at 18:30, and since there isn’t really a town in Petrohué, hitch-hiking opportunities are slim to none.  Saltos del Petrohué: The Saltos del Petrohué can be reached by getting off the bus from PV one stop before the termination in Petrohué ($1800CLP each way).  Once off the bus, you are shuttled through a CONAF office where foreigners pay a $4000CLP entrance fee. From the CONAF office to the falls viewpoint is maybe a 10 minute walk if you drag it out. While the view is lovely, because it is so accessible, you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other humans, regardless of the time of day you make it there. On my next trip, I would trade the time and money spent getting to the Saltos del Petrohué for another day hiking around Petrohué along the Desolation Pass trail system.  Go to the beach: About ten minutes walk east from the city center you find yourself wandering on a road along the beach/lake front of Lake Llanquihue. It’s black volcanic sand, so it gets warm, but the water is the perfect temperature to cool off on a summer day in PV. Oh, and the views of Volcán Osorno and Cerro Tronador on a clear day are tough to beat. And its 100% free! Recommend this as a first day activity as you’ll likely to get to town around noon and won’t have quite enough time to explore Vincent Perez Rosales National Park in time for the last bus out. Ferry to Peulla + hiking near Cerro Tronador: I didn’t have enough clear days in PV to make it all the way to Peulla, but the hiking there, near Cerro Tronador was recommended to me as beautiful. It’s a bit more effort (and $$$) to get there, having to first take the bus from PV to Petrohué, then from Petrohué taking the Cruce Los Andes ferry to Peulla. Go on the Cruce Los Andes cruise from Puerto Varas to BarilocheWhile this cruise sounded lovely in theory, the price tag – $300USD each way – deterred me. You can get slightly lesser, but still stunning views on the $20USD bus ride to Bariloche – just make sure to sit in a right-side window seat traveling PV > Bariloche and a left-side window seat for the return to maximize the views!

What to eat/drink: Most of my meals were either cooked at the hostel or trail food from the grocery store, however, I was recommended some great spots to share (& hit on my next trip to PV!). Casa ValdesRecommended to me as “the best seafood I’ve ever had.” Donde El GorditoRecommended to me for re-tracing Anthony Bourdain’s culinary travel footsteps – trying the Caldillo de Congrio. Mesa Tropera: Recommended for amazing sunset views, solid pizza, and tar tare de pulpo.

Bariloche

While I was in Pucón, I heard many of my southbound friends talking about hopping over the border to Bariloche post-Puerto Varas. I had no intention of going to Argentina on this trip, but was a bit surprised that Bariloche hadn’t been on my trekking radar. A few hours into my stay in Puerto Varas I decided that I would skip my $30 SKY Airlines flight back to Santiago and opt instead for a bonus day in PV followed by a bus journey the next day to Bariloche.

I developed a reputation while on our Just Two Bros (& Steve & Ali B) Iceland trip for sleeping through incredible views on car rides. The 6-7 hour bus ride from PV to Bariloche tested me. The first 3 hours or so are views of Chile that don’t compare to what you’ve already seen coming from Pucón/PV/ Petrohué. After the border crossing on the Argentinian side, things start to get more interesting. The views were good enough to keep me fighting to stay awake. You climb up through a mountain range with a lookout that is incredibly reminiscent of Black Tusk in Garibaldi Providential Park and then descend among the series of intertwined lakes and mountains to the northwest of Bariloche. Views from the right side of the bus were spectacular for the last 1.5 hours of the drive.

Bariloche is a well known trekking and skiing destination and some of the easier day hikes can get crowded during the month of January. Parque Nacional Nahuel Hupai is crazy beautiful and well worth spending multiple days in. This was my favorite trekking destination of the trip, and the jagged peaks and alpine lakes were a refreshing change of scenery from the large cone volcanoes of the Chilean lakes district. I found the terrain in the park similar to south/southwest Colorado in the US, but with some crazy volcanic landscapes thrown in. From the highest point on national park’s circuit you can see all of the volcanic peaks of the Argentinean and Chilean Lakes Districts – including Osorno even after driving for 6 hours from Puerto Varas!

The trekking in Bariloche can be a bit more technical than the hikes around Pucón and Puerto Varas, which can get a bit dicey when you’re trying to swat the aforementioned tábanos while needing to be using your hands. In an effort to not fall to my death, I attempted to ignore them and eventually was successful. I killed upwards of 40 on an 8-hour hike one day, letting them land and then slapping myself as hard as possible. In retrospect, I think I prefer the mice we dealt with in Patagonia – at least they didn’t make me a danger to myself on the trail.

How to get there: By busMy recommended bus course to Bariloche is via Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt. The bus ride is ~6 hours, including the two border crossings, and is extremely scenic. Get a window seat on the right side of the bus for the trip to Bariloche from Chile and a left side window seat for the trip back into Chile. The buses are readily available from multiple companies and I had no issues booking a seat only one day out. Note – there are no overnight buses from Chile to Bariloche (or the reverse) due to the border crossings – Remember to throw out any agricultural products on the return bus to Chile… From the bus station, you can either grab a SUBE card from the kiosk, then waiting for one of the multiple lines that travel from the terminal to the city center, or you can hop in a taxi for 170-200 Argentinian pesos, the equivalent of $4USD (worth it with your bags in my opinion). By planeYou can get to Bariloche in 2.5 hours by plane from Buenos Aires. The airport is ~20 minutes from town by bus or taxi. Getting around town by busBariloche utilizes a metro card system (SUBE card) for its local bus system. Buses from the city center can get you pretty much anywhere and run 25-50 Argentinian pesos. The SUBE card costs 90 pesos initially to purchase and then funds can be added to the card in cash at any local kiosks (look like little convenience stores). The schedule (horario) for each of the bus lines is generally on time and easily found on the Bariloche transportation webpage.

Where to stay: Bariloche hostels were in short supply and generally more expensive than the other regions that I visited on this trip. Hostel Like QuijoteThis hostel was a short 5 minute walk from the grocery store, beer triangle and city center. Rooms were small and showers were a little weak, but not a bad overall hostel. The combined dining room/lounge area was generally full of friendly people and it was easy to make friends between the lounge, kitchen and dorms. Breakfast (cereal, toast and jam) was included but didn’t begin until 8, which is basically a sunk cost if you’re taking the early bus to trek in the surrounding areas. Hospedaje Penthouse 1004: No personal experience here, but I regretted not staying here when, a week following my trip, the Hostel World 2019 HOSCARS named it the best hostel in Argentina. 

What to do: Trek in Parque Nacional Nahuel HupaiNahuel Hupai National Park is stunning, and like all national parks in Argentina – completely FREE to trek and camp. Sendero Refugio Frey: The Refugio Frey hike is one of the most popular day hikes in the Nahuel Hupai circuit – it’s a pretty easy climb, non-technical and only about 12 km each way. The trek can be started from either Catedral (line 55 bus from Bariloche) or Lago Gutierrez (line 50 from Bariloche). Starting at Catedral is a bit easier as the bus takes you up a size-able portion of the initial climb, but for a change of scenery (& because the line 50 buses come much more often than the line 55), we opted to go out from Lago Gutierrez and back via Catedral. The trail from Lago Gutierrez is a steady climb through a predominantly wooded area prior to combining with the trail from Catedral and continuing through the forest a ways. From Catedral, the hike is fairly flat, but sunny and exposed. The trails meet at what claims to be ~2 hours from Refugio Frey, but we found all of the time estimates to be significant over-estimates. The trek up to Frey can be done in about 2.5 to 3 hours versus the 4 hours stated on maps, and down in about half that. The laguna at the top is gorgeous, but you will be far from alone. Many people camp there and combining the campers with the day hikers, the laguna is packed at mid-day with people stopping for lunch or a swim in Laguna Towers. Look closely at the towers for climbers, as Frey is known for being a climbers paradise in the summertime. Sendero Frey – Jakob: From Frey, you can continue along the Sendero Frey – Jakob towards Laguna Schmoll and eventually Refugio Jakob. We finished up our Frey day hike at Schmoll, which is distance wise only about a mile from Refugio Frey. You walk along Laguna Towers for about a half-mile before climbing directly up into another alpine lake basin to view Laguna Schmoll. Adds about an hour and a half to the Frey day hike, but a worthwhile add-on, particularly if you do Frey in 3 hours or less. Refugio Jakob was one of the few refugios I missed on this trip, but I will be back to make my way up there as part of the complete circuit! Sendero Refugio Italia + Laguna Negra: The trek up to Laguna Negra was claimed by my hostel to be one of the more difficult treks, but I found it to be fairly quick and easy, and entirely non-technical. The trek is decent mileage, but the meat of it is very clear dirt path through the forest. I made it from bus stop (line 10 from city center to Colonia Suiza) to the laguna + refugio in 2.5 hours when the estimated time up was 5 hours. From the laguna you can either head back down to the bus stop in Colonia Suiza, or you can continue on and tack on the much more technical and completely empty trail up the backside of Cerro Lopez, down to Refugio Lopez, then returning back to Colonia Suiza via the Sendero Cerro Lopez. I will admit that doing this full Colonia Suiza circuit in one day is ambitious, but if you’re feeling fit, it is doable. Bus to bus time for me totaled just less than 8 hours, completed with plenty of remaining daylight in the summer season. From Laguna Negra the trail becomes less path and more trail-markers/route finding. It’s a moderate climb up a combination of loose dirt and boulder field to a pass just below the summit of Cerro Bailey Willis. From the pass you get your first taste of the incredible panoramic views to come, including Cerro Tronador and Volcán Osorno off in the distance. Then you head up a flat rock boulder field to the summit of Cerro Bailey Willis and then laterally along the ridge to the next pass where you descend into the valley separating you from Cerro Lopez. The trail through the valley becomes difficult to follow – maps.me was a bit deceptive here indicating multiple slightly off-course trails – but as you approach the loose scree that makes up the backside of Cerro Lopez, the red painted trail markers become more frequent and the route up the mountain is straightforward to follow. The views from the summit are 360 degrees of insanity, well worth the ½ mile of loose scree. Climbing down from Cerro Lopez on the refugio side was a dream. Its solid rock, with streams and glaciers flowing through – hands are necessary, but a super fun and easy to follow descent. Refugio Lopez is crawling with humans in the summer, but has an incredible pool overlooking the town of Bariloche and the surrounding mountains/lakes. From Lopez it is a quick-hour back down to the main road to Colonia Suiza and 2 km along the road to get back to the line 10 pick-up, and the Berlina Cerveceria Artesenal. Sendero Cerro Lopez: The more common (and significantly shorter) route to the summit of Cerro Lopez if to begin at the trail head for the Sendero Cerro Lopez, about 2 km up the road from the Colonia Suiza bus stop. It’s a quick and easy 1-2 hour climb up a dirt path to the refugio. The climb up to the summit from the Refugio Lopez side of the mountain is tough – a steep hands-on climb up solid rock – but definitely the favorable direction to summit from. The general consensus I found among the Colonia Suiza circuit hikers was that the direction beginning at Lopez and ending at Laguna Negra was more favorable in order to avoid the climb up Lopez in the loose scree. If you don’t have time or confidence in your route-finding abilities to do the full Colonia Suiza circuit, the day hike up to Cerro Lopez is a great option for panoramic mountain and volcano views. Full Refugio Circuit: The full refugio circuit begins with Frey and continues on to Jakob, Italiano (Laguna Negra), and finally Lopez. Doing this in 5 days, 4 nights, with a pack wouldn’t be super draining, but would maximize your time for enjoying the vistas, adding on short day hikes, and catching the stunning views at all different types of lighting throughout the day. I will absolutely be doing this on my next trip to Bariloche.

What to eat/drink: Bariloche has a thriving craft beer scene, and in my post-hike crash, I limited my eating out to snacks at whatever cerveceria my victory beer was coming from. Most of the local breweries have multiple taprooms in and around town, with a convenient cluster in what is called the beer triangle, near the city center bus stop. Manush CerveceriaManush had great beer and happy hour prices until 8 (or 8:30 if sitting at the bar). 60 Argentinian pesos, ~$1.5USD, gets you a pint of craft beer – the kolsh is the best I’ve had of the style – accompanied by some peanuts. Blest CerveceriaI preferred Manush to Blest for my taste and the variety of offerings, but Blest had 8-10 taps that would appeal more to IPA style beer drinkers. For snacks, I continued to embrace my love of the provoleta and found it very tasty here as well. Berlina Cerveceria (Colonia Suiza): I didn’t make it back to Colonia Suiza with enough time to grab a post-hike beer but that would be the ideal end to the Laguna Negra or Cerro Lopez (or whole loop) treks. The bus stop is next door so I got a taste of the atmosphere, despite missing out on the beer, which was amazing on a Saturday – packed and upbeat with a live band and food truck.

Santiago

Santiago is a huge city with great public transportation infrastructure. It can feel overwhelming, however, if you don’t have a direction to which neighborhoods you’d like to explore. I generally prefer small, outdoorsy towns to cities when traveling, so I found 2 full days in Santiago to be plenty. This gave me the opportunity to do one of the free walking tours with T4T, enough meals to try each of the local delicacies and enough time to take a walk up to Cerro San Cristobal – a rite of passage for visitors to the city.

My preferences when exploring Santiago were generally to avoid the large crowds at Plaza del Armas in favor or strolling through Barrio Providencia or Bellavista. These, quieter, less crowded parts of town offered amazing street art, better prices (on everything), cute shops and tons of restaurants and nightlife. After a couple of days of pretty intense hiking in Bariloche, a South American paced stroll through Barrio Bellavista was exactly what I needed.

How to get there: Santiago is one of the easiest cities in South America to get to – buses and planes available from literally everywhere.

Where to stay: Hostal ProvidenciaHostal Providencia is a giant hostel in the Providencia region of Santiago. It had convenient metro access, felt safe and was a short walk from my favorite neighborhood in Santiago, Barrio Bellavista. Facilities were good, numerous and clean, with awesome included breakfast, but no AC. The drawback of it being so huge is that it is actually harder to meet people. Utilize Tours 4 Tips! Plaza de Armas HostalA definite recommendation from one of my T4T friends – One of the rare Santiago hostels with AC (despite it being 95+ F in the summer) and an amazing rooftop overlooking Plaza de Armas.

What to do: Tours 4 Tips free walking tours: I hopped off my night bus in Santiago, dropped my bags at my hostel, and made a beeline for the 10 AM Tours 4 Tips “off the beaten path” tour of Santiago. This tour focused on the Santiago markets and cemeteries rather than the Highlights tour, which focuses more on the main plazas and tourist areas. While extremely touristy, I’ve always found T4T to be informative, different from what I would explore on my own, and a great way to meet people (particularly people that also speak English). I spent the rest of my first day in Santiago with my new Dutch and Australian friends that I met on my tour. In between stops we planned out what would be the basic white girls last night in Santiago – a trip up Cerro San Cristobal (initially meeting at a Starbucks) followed by completos, lomo a la pobre, terremotos, and pisco sours. Cerro San Cristobal + FunicularCerro San Cristobal is the famous hill in Santiago with the Christ the Redeemer statue and 360 view of the city – assuming a non-smoggy day. Google images photos suggest that these days exist, but I didn’t encounter any. Regardless, it is worthwhile to take a journey to the top of the hill. Central Fish and Fruit/Vegetable MarketsThese giant markets put Seattle’s Pike Place to shame – they span multiple blocks in all directions. The fruit/veg market will shock you with how cheaply you can buy avocados and fresh cherries. Stop into one of the restaurants along the perimeter of the seafood market for a crazy fresh seafood lunch (the restaurants in the middle will speak better English and cost twice as much). Wander around BellavistaThis was the best neighborhood I found for simply walking around. At lunchtime/early evening the patios of the abundance bars/restaurants lining the streets liven up with people. This neighborhood also encompasses, in my opinion, the greatest street art in Santiago. Souvenir Shop in the markets between the Santa Lucia and Universidad Catolica Metro StopsThis street market takes up a couple of blocks and sells every Chilean souvenir you could possibly think of. If you opted not to tote souvenirs along with you for the entirety of your backpacking trip, this is a great one-stop shop before flying back home from Santiago.

What to eat/drink: Piojera: Piojera is a restaurant and [mostly] bar located right off the Puente Cal y Conto metro stop. Their claim to fame is the “Terremoto” a traditional Chilean drink meaning earthquake – partially because Chile is the most Seismically impacted country in the world, and partially because after your first terremoto, the floor starts to shake… The drink is essentially a float of pineapple ice cream, grenadine, and Pipeño – a sweet fermented wine. They are sickeningly sweet and surprisingly strong – a rite of passage on a trip through Santiago. Piojera does not claim a food menu, but when three small girls claimed to need sustenance to combat the terremotos our server obliged with a giant platter of lomo a la pobre (translation = poor mans steak – a generous portion of French fries, grilled onions and steak, topped with two fried eggs). Chipe LibreChipe Libre was recommended by my Bulgarian friends from Valparaíso as a place for Pisco flights and strong Pisco cocktails and it delivered. The cocktails were strong, intricate, and ran about $8USD for the caliber cocktail that would cost $20 in NYC. CompletosYou can’t leave Chile without trying a completo at least once. It’s a hot dog smothered in tomatoes, avocado and mayo. A Chilean friend in Pocono made me one for dinner one evening, and the combination is surprisingly tasty. You can find them being sold by street vendors and almost any restaurant in tourist districts. 

I came to Chile with a few places to check off my list and left with a new list, more than double in length. You could take a year to travel the length of this amazing country and still not experience it all. Here’s to hoping I can make it back for the third year in a row in 2020!

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