The landscape of Patagonia’s unparalleled beauty is the highlight of the ‘Cruce Andino’ Tour. Bordering Chile and Argentina, the Andes Mountains stretch 4,400 miles from southern Venezuela along the western coast of the continent to the southern tip of the Argentina territory, making them the longest mountain range in the world. With an average elevation of 3,962 meters above sea level, the Andes are also the second highest mountains in the world — only the Himalayas are higher.
More than 500 years ago, on the southern part of this mountain range, native Puelche and Poya people began to cross the Andes Mountain to trade root vegetables, seeds and ceramic goods, creating the first trade route between the pacific coast and central territory. After Luis Ponce de León captured and sold Tehuelches (‘Fierce People’) people as slaves in a 1649 expedition, the Spanish faced uprisings by the local population. Nevertheless, the early indigenous groups here were wiped out by epidemics brought by the Europeans and through assimilation with Mapuche invaders. Later, the Huilliche and Mapuche continued to use this route to trade livestock.
Today this classic Patagonia journey is retraced by visitors on the 11-hour Andean Lakes Crossing Tour from Puerto Varas to Bariloche (or vice versa).
Patagonia’s German Influence
Although centuries have passed since this trade route was established, the area wasn’t settled until Carlos Wiederhold, a German descendant born in Chile, crossed the Andes and set up a warehouse he named La Alemana (The German).
Immigrants — mostly from Austria, Germany, and Slovenia — began to settle in the area and thus was born ‘San Carlos’ in 1895, today the city of San Carlos de Bariloche.
This ancient immigration route crosses a variety of lakes including Llanquihue, Todos los Santos, Frías and Nahuel Huapi. Throughout the region, visitors see the Alpine-style architecture typical of Patagonia dotting the landscape.
After the first world war, this was developed into a commercial tourism route by Ricardo Roth Schütz, an Argentine born to Swiss parents. Today people from all over the world visit this area, captivated by its virgin nature that has remained unspoiled over the decades.
The Trip: Puerta Varas to Bariloche
Starting in Chile, the tour departs from Puerto Varas at 8 a.m. It begins with an hour-long drive around Llanquihue Lake, and through the Llanquihue Nature Reserve. During this leg of the trip you will be able to see the Calbuco Volcano, one of Chile’s most active on the right-hand side of the road, surrounded by the Valdivian jungle, a temperate rain forest.
Among the beautiful foliage in this rainy micro-climate is the Pipilvoqui, a climbing liana, that only grows natively in this region. The Arrayán, or Chilean Myrtle, is also unique to this ecosystem and dominates this area of the Quetrihué Peninsula. This endangered tree sheds its bark and features a distinctive red-colored trunk. Some specimens of the Arrayán in this area are 650 years old. The ash cloud of the Puyehue volcanic eruption in 2011 severely affected the trees here, but if the area remains unexploited they should repopulate in the rich volcanic soil.
After approximately 50 kilometers, the tour arrives in Petrohué to visit the Saltos de Petrohué (Petrohué waterfalls) crossing a short pathway to walk along the Petrohué river. The group then boards the first catamaran to navigate the calm Lake Todos los Santos.
On clear days, there are amazing views of the snow-capped Osorno volcano, Puntiagudo Hill and Mount Tronador, with its nine glaciers glistening on the summit. This first boat ride last for an hour and 45 minutes, and is the longest of the trip.
Puella, Chile: an Optional Overnight Stay
Once in Peulla it’s time for lunch and coffee surrounded by the immensity of the Valdivian jungle at the Natura Hotel, the only lunch option in this remote area.
Other activities at this four-hour stop in Peulla are canopying, horse riding and hiking. Visitors have the option to stay overnight at the homey four-star Natura Hotel Patagonia and continue the journey the following morning.
Whether staying overnight or not, the tour guides will provide the immigration form that required for the Chilean Customs Office. Get your passport ready, eat your snacks and ditch your shank before going through customs — fresh groceries, dried fruit, and weapons are not permitted across the border.
From Peulla, a bus takes visitors through the Perez Rosales National Park for approximately two hours. On this stretch, the guides highlight the various bird and plant species of the 1,000 year-old Valdivian Jungle as well as the bordering points between Chile and Argentina in various stops.
Puerto Frías is the formal entry point to Argentina. In Puerto Frías visitors can see a replica of the 1939 Norton 500cc motorcycle that Ernesto Che Guevara used to cross the Andes and nicknamed the ‘La Poderosa,’ or ‘The Mighty One.’
Frías Lake is an emerald lake that gets its crystalline greenish color from the melting glaciers’ minerals. This smaller lake is only five square kilometers and its navigation takes around 15 minutes. If the sky is clear, this portion of the trip provides one of the best views of the Mount Tronador, the highest in Nahuel Huapi National Park, at 3,491 meters above the sea level. In winter, shallow parts of the lake freeze into a turquoise color that lends itself to amazing landscape photos.
Puerto Blest & Nahuel Huapi Lake
Once the boat arrives to Puerto Alegre, there is a quick bus ride to reach picturesque Puerto Blest. In Port Blest there is time for a brief visit to the Hotel Puerto Blest, a lodge dating to 1904 (which was modernized and reopened in 2015) with an incredible panoramic view of the Cerro Tres Hermanos (Three Brothers Peak). Those who chose to spend the night in Peulla, will arrive at Blest port around midday, which allows for an optional two kilometer walk to visit the Cántaros Waterfall. Those who do the whole tour in one-day won’t have time for this trek due to time constraints to get the boat to Puerto Pañuelo.
The Nahuel Huapi Lake, located in the national park of the same name, is the largest lake in Argentina at 557 square kilometers — the equivalent of three times the surface area of Buenos Aires. The greatest depth measured is 464 meters, in the Blest arm of the lake.
This last navigation on Nahuel Huapi takes approximately one hour, passing by the Isla Centinela (Sentry Island) and the Cascada Blanca (White Cascade waterfall). Centinela Island is where Francisco Pascasio Moreno, a scientist and explorer is buried with his family.
Moreno was a judge in the border negotiation between Chile and Argentina and declared that the frontier between the two countries should be based on the highest mountains instead of an aquatic boundary. Since this decision in 1902, the border goes through the highest mountains on the Argentinean side of the range, such as Mount Tronador.
For his efforts, the national government donated a huge mass of land to Moreno, that is today part of the territory of Nahuel Huapi National Park. With this, Moreno became the creator of Argentina’s national parks, making Argentina the third country in the Americas to have a national park system.
In Puerto Pañuelo (Handkerchief Harbor) resides the emblematic Llao Llao Hotel, a circa 1938 hotel that is a traditional destination for VIP’s visiting Bariloche, such as the Obama family in 2015. It is also the location for the 2018 G-20 summit.
The Llao Llao sits on a steep incline over the dramatic Punilla valley. This stop offers a good chance to take some pictures before the last bus stretch to downtown Bariloche, 25 kilometers from Puerto Pañuelo. In Bariloche visitors are dropped at their respective hotels.
Whether done in one day or two, the Andean Lakes Crossing Tour is an extraordinary experience for nature lovers through unforgettable Patagonian landscapes. —Daniela Massolo
⇒ Learn more about the Andean Lakes Crossing tour here.
- Note: This tour can be done the other way around, departing from Bariloche with Puerto Varas as the destination. It can also be extended into a two-day trip. To arrange it, please get in touch via our contact form with ‘Andean Lakes’ in the subject line.