Villarrica, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, rises more than 9,300 feet above the lake and town of the same name
Every specialist and South American enthusiast knows about the Atacama Desert in Chile’s north, so Travel Agent ventured south, to the Lake District, and discovered good old-fashioned hospitality, tradition, culture and beautiful landscapes—enough to make a lifelong memory.
The reason we visited Chile’s Lake District was because that’s where TravelMart Latin America 2009 was held.
William H. Coleman, founder of TravelMart Latin America, told media members that this year’s event attracted roughly 300 buyers, down from 350 in the last year’s event in Quito, Ecuador. Total attendance, including suppliers (capped at 250 companies), media members and VIPs, came to about 1,000 delegates.
However, Coleman noted that last year’s event was a “benchmark,” attracting the most delegates in the 33-year history of the show. “Since last year, the bottom pretty much fell out of the economy worldwide,” Coleman said, noting that uncertainty beyond 2009—along with the swine flu scare—also hurt the industry.
There are plenty of beautiful sites, landscapes and old-fashioned churches to admire in southern Chile. But if you really want to narrow down the itinerary for your clients, the three activities you must book are a boat ride to see some of the many fjords (lakes formed by glaciers cutting U-shaped valleys); eating curanto (which means “get together”), a local Chilean feast prepared in a hole in the ground; and a visit to a few hot springs.
Travel Agent took a nearly two-hour boat expedition to the south on Wicked Trips Chile from the Lake District town of Ingenieros Militares with stops at two fjords, Quintupeu—where our group saw a gorgeous waterfall—and Cahoelmo, where we came across a colony of sea lions. Although the sounds they make resemble an old man groaning in pain—imagine 100 of these at the same time—their flipping and flopping about is an adorable sight.
Puerto Varas is one of Chile’s most charming villages and a hub for adventure tourism, located on the shore of Lago Llanquihue
Perhaps our biggest moment in the Lake District was at Chiloé Island. Here, we visited the quaint fishing town of Punihill. We drove a bit to a small bed-and-breakfast called Turismo Rural Chiloé. Now, there are tons of places that serve curanto, but because we weren’t really in a tourist area, it felt 100 percent authentic.
Basically, the meal was cooked in the ground, but it’s much more appetizing than it sounds. A pit is dug, hot coals poured in it and then just about every delicious kind of food you can think of it is placed in it before covering it with grass, shrubs and bushes to trap the heat.
Once the feast begins, your clients will stuff their faces with shellfish, meat, potatoes and vegetables, along with a healthy serving of red and white wine.
While the colder side of Chile can produce some gorgeous sights, the weather will take its toll on anyone, including those who are accustomed to cooler climes. After a long day on a boat, bundled up in sweatshirts and woolens, suggest that your clients reward themselves with a visit to some hot springs. It’s surreal to take a dip in a hot pool, warm as can be, while being surrounded by snow-covered mountains.
Agents, take note: Gerardo Niklitschek has been among the best guides in our visits to Latin America. He owns a tour company in Puerto Varas called ALSURexpediciones and can be reached at [email protected].
The best hot springs were at Hotel Termas Llancahue on Isla Llancahue, which is about a 20-minute boat ride from the town of Ingenieros Militares. While the rooms are nothing to brag about, you come here for the food and the hot springs.
We stayed at Hostria Catalina in Ingenieros Militares, a small cabin-like hotel and took a boat to the hot springs.
The Best Hotels of the Lake District
The first property where I stayed, Hotel Cumbres Patagonicas, was one of Puerto Varas’ best. I was told the hotel opened roughly a year ago and is the region’s only five-star property. And after just a short stay, I saw no reason why Puerto Varas would need another.
I stayed in room #307, a standard room. Like the others, my room had front views of the lake, and a flat-screen TV. The lobby had a fireplace, which added to the luxury feel. In fact, I could smell wood smoke throughout the entire property, evoking memories of camping in the woods as a child and relaxing near a campfire. Perhaps the most luxurious place I stayed was The Cliffs Preserve in Patagonia, an 8,000-acre, six-villa, 18-room property that literally sits on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Though each villa comes with a hot tub big enough for eight people, the one at villa #6 has the best ocean views.
Staying at The Cliffs Preserve will cost roughly $1,200 per person, per night or $2,400 a couple. That sounds incredibly expensive but when you consider that this includes everything (food, minibar, excursions, a daily spa treatment, etc.), it’s actually quite reasonable. Nevertheless, we still recommend pitching this property to your more affluent clients.
For something more affordable but still luxurious, book Yan Kee Way Lodge, also in Patagonia, which Chile shares with Argentina. Yan Kee Way, however, is closer to the airport whereas The Cliffs Preserve requires a nearly 45-minute ride on a bumpy dirt road—a small price to pay for the treatment you get there.
At Yan Kee Way, you have a choice of nearly 20 rooms. The best are the bungalows since they have two floors. The place is only $450 a night per person. I say “only” because that again includes everything—food, wine, excursions, etc.
A cozy fire welcomes guests back from a day of outdoor activities at the Melia Patagonia in Puerto Veras
If you have clients looking for a more businesslike atmosphere, recommend Melia Patagonia. Like Hotel Cumbres, this property is smack in the downtown area of Puerto Varas, where you can shop for local crafts as well as delicious yet affordable wine.
I stayed in room #202 at Melia. It is a standard room but suited me just fine. It was huge and the bed was as comfortable as the ones in any other Chilean resort I stayed at. The flat-screen TVs were also a nice touch as was the liquor store downstairs. There is a store near the lobby that sells some of Chile’s finest wines at reasonable prices.
Speaking of wine, the Cabernets in Chile are exceptional, as are the Malbecs since it is so close to Argentina. But if your clients go there, make sure they don’t leave without a bottle of Carmenére. This wine is produced only in Chile. It originated in the Mèdoc region of France many years ago and was available there until the grape was lost and rediscovered later in Chile.
Things to Know
Clients traveling to Chile will have to pay a $130 entrance tax. If they are connecting at Santiago, Chile’s main hub, to Puerto Montt, near Puerto Varas in the south, like we did, give them at least two hours to make their connection since they will have to wait in a queue to pay an entry tax and clear customs before shifting to another queue for the baggage drop-off.
Checking in bags at this airport takes a little longer than at the U.S. airports, which usually have an assigned place for baggage drop-offs for each flight. In Santiago, there is just a single line for all flights, so it takes longer.
As for the tax, if the flight’s early in the morning, like ours was, there may only be one person behind the booth collecting payments—another reason to make sure you have time in between flights. The tax is a one-time payment for the duration of your passport. In other words, your clients will never have to pay it again when visiting Chile until their passports expire.