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How to get from Puerto Varas, Chile to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina?
I had a choice to make. The Andesmar bus takes seven to eight hours and the price is a reasonable 22,000 to 27,000 Chileno Pesos. (i.e. 33 to 41 US dollars.) Get a seat on the right-hand side of the bus and some nice views may be had!
There is another option. It is:
- much shorter in terms of distance covered
- takes an extra five hours and
- costs seven times as much!
That’s the one I took!
Known as the Cruce Andino the trip is a combination of bus and boat that takes you over water and back roads travelled by few. On a clear and sunny day the views as you cross, for example, Lago Todos Los Santos are fantastic. And thanks to the $280. U.S. cost it is a journey that few can justify! I had read the reviews (see TripAdvisor here and here) and they were mostly very positive. Excellent weather was forecast for the day I wanted to go so I decided to splurge. Read on – and check out the pix I took – to find out if it was worth it!
The map below shows the Cruce Andino route from Puerto Varas. It is made up of the following bus and boat segments –
- Puerto Varas to Petrohué – 65 km. by bus along the south shore of Lago Llanquihue
- Petrohué to Peulla – 35 km. by boat across Lago Todos Los Santos
- Peulla to Puerto Frias – 26 km. by bus across the border and over Paso Perez Rosales
- Puerto Frias to Puerto Alegre – 4 km. by boat across Laguna Frias
- Puerto Alegre to Puerto Blest – a 3 km. bus ride
- Puerto Blest to Puerto Pañuelo – 25 km. by boat across Lago Nahuel Huapi
- Puerto Pañuelo to various hotels in Bariloche – 18 km. by bus
Three boat rides and four bus rides – that alone would help explain some of the additional expense. Instead of one person putting my luggage into the bus in Puerto Varas and taking it out in Bariloche, there would be at least a dozen Turis staff along the way handling the bag and making sure it got there. They have the routine down; everyone’s luggage made it!
I bought my ticket at the Turis Tours office in Puerto Varas on a Friday afternoon, a couple of days before my Sunday departure. A few hours later I headed for the Refugio Teski on the side of Volcan Osorno for the start of a climb of the volcano that I had arranged with Huella Andino Expeditions. Now it was Sunday morning and while the climb had been a great success, my calves and quads had seized up and I could barely bend my legs as I carried my duffel down to the pick-up point by the Turis office! A day of passive boat and bus riding would do my legs good!
In the satellite image below you can see the snow-covered peak of Volcan Osorno (2652 m or 87o1′) on the east side of Lago Llanquihue. It and Volcan Calbuco (2015 m or 6572′) are the two striking peaks you can see from Puerto Varas, with Calbuco no longer having its snow top thanks to a recent eruption in 2015.
When I first got to Puerto Varas I stood on the shore of the lake and got a shot of the two cloud-covered peaks. Osorno, the one on the left, is 47 kilometers away while Calbuco to the south-west is 31 kilometers distant.
Puerto Varas to Petrohué By Bus (65 km.):
Our Cruce Andino tour bus left at 8:30 and took me back along the road to Osorno. On the way we stopped at a couple of spots for photos; the two below are the ones I got from the side of the road of the two volcanoes.
It is a 65-kilometer ride to Petrohué and the first boat. The elevation along the lakeshore is about 65 meters; by the time we got to Petrohué, we were at 195. The 130 meter gain in altitude? Well, that would be the Saltos del Rio Petrohué – the Petrohué Falls – a scenic drop in the river as it makes its way south to the Pacific Ocean.
We stopped there for perhaps 45 minutes and walked through the building pictured below to access the trail to the falls themselves. I walked up to a line-up – and yet one more expense – a ticket to see the falls! Noticing another tour group just walking right through the entrance, I ended up just joining them instead of waiting for my chance to buy a ticket. Given what Turis is charging, this additional ding is annoying. Entrance to the falls should be included in the $280.! How is that for rationalizing my action?
As for the falls, While I have paddled up to and portaged around many more dramatic ones on my canoe trips, what makes the Saltos distinctive is the backdrop of Volcan Osorno to the north. It was especially neat to look at the volcano and think that twenty-four hours before I had stood on top!
While it seems like the volcano is fairly close, it is actually about eight kilometers from the falls to the top of the volcano. Its looming presence is one of the highlights of the day’s journey and we would see it from various angles as the hours passed.
Our photo taking done, it was back to the buses for the last bit of the ride up to Petrohué. Returning to the parking lot a bit early, I did not see our bus anywhere. My sense of panic led to a brief conversation with a bus driver who told me that my Turis bus had just taken the baggage to Petrohué and would be back soon to pick us up. Whew! And then other people from the bus that I recognized started showing up and I knew I could relax!
Petrohué to Peulla – 35 km. by boat
My lack of patience is undoubtedly my worst trait! This trip would give me many opportunities to practise the art of waiting without getting all stressed out. Line-ups to get off the bus, on the bus, on the boat, off the boat – over and over all day! My camera did give me something else to focus on, as did potential conversations with my fellow passengers.
I felt a special connection with the bicycle tourists that I saw at the dock. Months before my plan had been to join an organized bike tour of the region but I had waited too long to book a spot. So I decided to go visit the Lakes region on both sides of the Andes anyway – but with a hiking instead of a cycling focus.
The boat ride across Lagos Todos Los Santos is one of the two long sections of the day spent on the water. The Google satellite image below captures the lake from the left (Petrohué) to the right and east end (Peulla). It took us about two hours to cover the about thirty-five kilometers.
The view of Osorno with Petrohué in the foreground was one of my favourites of the day. It would pop up in most of my shots for the first hour or so!
While I did have a window seat inside on the first deck I spent most of my time outside framing shots without any glass between my lens and the scene! Also out there was an Austrian bicycle couple whom I started chatting with about their trip. They were on their way to Bariloche and were going to bicycle the road parts. Their mountain bikes with 45mm tires were perfect for the gravel roads they would be dealing with until they got to Puerto Pañuelo a couple of days later.
Peulla to Puerto Frias by Bus:
At about 1 p.m. we got to Peulla at the east end of Lago Todos Los Santos. This was to be our lunch stop before we hopped on to the bus for the twenty-six-kilometer bus ride through and over the Andes.
From the docking area, it is a pleasant half-kilometer walk up to the Peulla Hotel. There is a shuttle bus for those who are not keen on walking or who want to get to the hotel and the restaurant faster. I walked along with the two Austrian cyclists for a bit and then it was time for them to push on. They would have some altitude to gain before they stopped for the night at Puerto Frias on the Argentinian side.
The Hotel Peulla is certainly in a nice location. Some travellers stretch the journey into two days by spending the rest of the day here and then continuing on Bariloche the next day. It gets mixed reviews from trip advisor contributors! (See here for the latest reviews.)
The recommendation made by most guide-books is to bring along a lunch from Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt, given the cost of lunch – and its mediocre quality – at the hotel dining room. Being a vegan limits my food choices even more! I ended up walking back over the bridge to the take-out spot and checked out their menu.
My question “Tienes algo vegetariano?” got me a couple of corn empanadas which hit the spot once they arrived about twenty-five minutes later. The small kitchen was swamped with orders! I was clearly not the only one who had decided to make it a picnic instead of a white-tablecloth lunch! I found a shady spot and a log to sit on and framed the two photos below while I waited for my name to be called.
The actual crossing of the Andes would be the focus of the next part of our trip – the bus ride from Peulla at 192 meters a.s.l (above sea level) to the Paso Perez Rosales at 1092 meters and then back down on the Argentinian side to Puerto Frias at about 780 meters. The elevation chart below gives you an idea of the elevation gain as you travel the 26 kilometers of gravel road. Along the way, I saw the Austrian cyclists. They had pulled off the road to let the bus pass; we were stirring up a lot of dust! Luckily for them, other than the tour bus there are almost no vehicles on this stretch of road.
As we made our way up the river valley towards the pass, we stopped at a spot where I was were able to get close to the river and get a shot of Cerro Tronador (3478 m), along with Volcan Osorno on the west side of Lago Todos Los Santos, the dominant peaks in the area. The sign looks like it has been there for some time!
The three Tronador peaks are about 13 kilometers away from where I took these photos. About ten days later I would be on the north side of Cerro Tronador in my tent above the Refugio Otto Meiling, but still five kilometers from the summit! In the Refugio Meiling that night I would chat with a guide and his two clients. They would be getting up at 3 a.m. for their walk across the glacier and then a bit of an ice climb to the top. While I had considered doing the climb, the $600. U.S. seemed a bit too steep for me.
After our photo-op stop, it was back in the bus for some serious altitude gain! From the river at about 300 meters a.s.l. it was another 700 meters on a series of switchbacks as the bus engine groaned its way to the top at Paso Perez Rosales. Somewhere along the way, we crossed the border; the Turis staff had organized things so that there were no border formalities to take care. A quick ride down the other side of the mountains and we were in Puerto Frias, Argentina!
Puerto Frias to Puerto Alegre – 4 km. by boat
The boat crossed Lago Frías to Puerto Alegre where waiting buses took us for a quick ride to Puerto Blest. We would line up to get on board our second – and shortest at 3 kilometers – ride across the lago. I scanned the side of the small lake as we motored across and given the steep terrain I could see why they’ve never undertaken a road to cover the short distance.
On the other side is Puerto Alegre, not much more than a dock and a parking lot where the shuttle buses were waiting to take us down to Puerto Blest. My lack of photos tells me it all happened very quickly. I think I was also getting a bit tired and blasé about the trip by this time as the scarcity of images for the rest of the trip – I’ve posted three down below – probably indicates! It was about 5 p.m. and we had been on the go for eight hours. Our finest views were behind us.
We had a bit of a wait in Puerto Blest; the boat was not yet there. Some passengers went into the restaurant attached to the small hotel. I walked down to the end of the Peninsula, a narrow spit that goes out into Brazo Blest, an arm of Lago Nahuel Huapi, the lake we would be cruising on all the way to Puerto Pañuelo. I did notice a number of hikers with their packs. There is a hiking trail from Pampa Linda that ends here; they would be joining us for the boat ride back to Bariloche. I talked to one hiker and she was aghast at how much the ride cost. She gulped when I mentioned the $280. U.S. I had paid! (The Cruce Andino is 25% cheaper if you are a Chilean or Argentinian – $220.!)
There are about 25 kilometers of water to cross from Puerto Blest. The Google satellite view below shows Lago Nahuel Huapi and Bariloche to the east.
As we approached Brazo Trieteza, I took the shot below. That is Cerro Lopez looming over the water. I did not realize it at the time but a week later I would be tenting near the Refugio Lopez on the side of that mountain!
Rather than go by boat right to Bariloche, we debarked at the dock at Puerto Pañuelo, some 25 kilometers west of the city. Just above us as we docked was the Llao Llao Hotel, one of Argentina’s most famous. I meant to get a shot from the water but waited too long – a missed opportunity! Once we were on land my focus changed to trying to spot my blue Helly Hansen duffel bag. There it was!
One more bus ride – and one tired bus rider! When we bought our tickets in Puerto Varas we were asked to provide the name of our hotel. Now as we headed east on Avenida Bustillo and then on Avenida San Martin, the bus stopped at the various establishments. I had reserved a room at the Hostel 41 Below on Juramento, just off San Martin and very close to the Hotel Bariloche Edelweiss, a five-star business-class hotel. That is where I got off the bus. It was now past eight o’clock as I lugged my baggage up Juramento towards the hostel.
I was amazed by the scene in front of me! Juramento is apparently the heart of “el distrito de la cerveca artesanal” and I had walked into a street party! As I approached 41 Below a rock band was putting out an incredible trippy sound. I was totally enchanted – and rejuvenated by the energy on the street and in the music. Over the next few days, I would get to know Bariloche better and that first very positive impression would remain.
Is The Ride Worth It?
As for the Cruce Andino, all in all, I had enjoyed the twelve-hour journey from Puerto Varas. If the point of travel is to experience things a bit out of our ordinary, then it had been a success. There were memorable views and great photo-framing opportunities as the day unfolded. Kudos to the Turis crew for making it all happen seamlessly – with no drama, very little waiting, and no one left in a panic over lost luggage.
Would I do it again? I think so – even though the $280. cost is maybe $100. too much. While backpackers in their early twenties will almost certainly be on that $40. bus from Puerto Varas to Bariloche, if you can afford it, I’d say “Go for it!” While you are not really cruising in a catamaran through the Andes – it is more like you approach them by water on the Chilean side, take a bus through and over them, and then boat away from them on Lago Nahuel Huapi once you get to the Argentinian side – it is still a great trip.
As my photo of the line-up of mostly older and financially secure travellers – and that would include me! – shows, I was not the only one who was able to rationalize the extravagance!