Things to do in Puerto Varas & Finding the Iconic View

Puerto Varas is a picturesque village nestled in Chile’s lake district. Views of the snow-capped Osorno volcano make it easy to fall in love with the town. I spent two weeks in Puerto Varas and put together a complete guide of things to do to help you make the most of your time there. I’ll also give you advice on how to take the iconic photo of Puerto Varas with the church and volcano in the background. It’s not nearly as easy as it seems!

To Be or Not to Be in Patagonia

Patagonia is the southernmost region of South America and offers stunning scenery and bragging rights. There are plenty of opinions on whether or not Puerto Varas is located in Patagonia. So, let’s (try to) set the record straight.

According to Wikipedia, most scholars accept the Araucanía district of Chile as the line where Patagonia starts. Puerto Varas falls south of this line, meaning that to these folks, you’re in Patagonia!

Side note- Wikipedia offered the most specific details on Patagonia borders that I could find, if that gives you any indication of how tricky this topic is.

Map of Patagonia. Photo credit: Wikipedia.
This map shows the border of where many scholars claim Patagonia begins (the dark orange color marks Patagonia). Photo credit: Wikipedia

Best time of year to visit Puerto Varas

Unlike more southern Patagonian destinations, Puerto Varas can easily be visited any month. Tours in the area run year-round. That said, the theme to southern Chile is to visit during the summer. This will give you the best chances of having…ahem…nicer weather.

Since we now know that Puerto Varas is partly in Patagonia, with that comes unpredictability and frequent changes in weather year-round. In fact, it’s common for the weather to change by the hour!

Puerto Varas by Season

Spring: Mid-September to Mid-December

These are considered shoulder months with November and early December having increasingly nicer, more summer-like weather. It’s not the rainiest time of year and the sun shows its face more than in winter, but temperatures are notably cooler. Highs are in the 50’s, sometimes reaching low 60’s, with lows firmly in the 40’s and sometimes upper 30’s.

Summer: Mid- December to Mid- March

Highs in Puerto Varas range in the 60’s (and can even get into the 70’s, if you’re lucky!) with lows dropping into the low 50’s to upper 40’s. Rain and wind come and go. However, overall this time of year receives the least amount of rain and clouds (relatively speaking!). Bonus- you’ll get to enjoy the longest daylight of the year!

Fall: Mid-March to Mid-June

Just like in the spring, the fall is a shoulder month for weather and tourism in Puerto Varas. Aim for the end of March into early April and you’ll stand a better chance of having fairly good weather and encountering fewer tourists. Rainfall, clouds, and temperatures are similar to those in the spring. The weather gets increasingly winter-like the closer you get to June.

Winter: Mid-June to Mid-September

As mentioned earlier, Puerto Varas is a year-round destination in the sense that tours and hotels stay open all year. However, winter weather is unpleasant, at best. Your chances of enjoying views of the Osorno Volcano, and surrounding scenery, are the slimmest during these months. This is also the rainiest and cloudiest time of year. For temperatures, you can expect highs in the upper 40’s or low 50’s and lows in the mid to low 30’s. Snow in the town is rare.

Cloudy day in Puerto Varas.
Clouds cover what would normally be a view of the Osorno Volcano from Llanquihue lake.

General Weather Advice for Puerto Varas

My tip for you- as your trip approaches, try not to dwell on your Google weather search. From my experience, the forecast was mildly accurate, at best, on the day I was checking it for.

Bring clothes you can layer and a waterproof windbreaker jacket. Don’t forget sunscreen- when those grey skies suddenly turn blue, you won’t even notice you’re getting burned!

Tourist Season in Puerto Varas

I spent two weeks in Puerto Varas in February. Although this was during the high season, regardless of where I went in and around the town, I never felt that there were hoards of tourists. In fact, it was nice to have those that were present around. This was especially the case in the evenings to give ambiance to the plaza and boardwalk.

When asking about tour availability and how quickly things fill up, I got the impression that even last-minute bookings during the high season usually wouldn’t be an issue.

Therefore, if you’re a tourist-encountering-worrier, you should be able to rest pretty easy traveling during the high season in Puerto Varas.

How many days to spend in Puerto Varas

Setting aside all the day trips that are worth doing from Puerto Varas, let’s focus on one thing. The Osorno Volcano.

So many travelers are enticed by visions of a romantic walk along the lake or feasting on fresh fish while staring at the volcano. The problem is, depending on the number of days you’re in Puerto Varas, seeing the Osorno Volcano can feel- and is- impossible.

For example, of the two weeks in February that I spent in Puerto Varas, there were only three days when I could see the Osorno Volcano in the morning. During that same two week period, the clouds lifted from the volcano in the afternoon over half the time. Especially heading into the evening, which wasn’t an issue since it was summer and stayed light out late. However, there were days in a row where clouds covered the Osorno Volcano completely.

Again, we’re talking summer here- the time when there’s the least amount of cloud coverage.

What struck me most was how it could be a sunny day in town and looking out across the lake there were clouds covering the volcano. Similarly, it could be a cloudy day in Puerto Varas and there sat the volcano, the clouds framing it beautifully. Truly unpredictable!

Even on cloudy days you can sometimes see the Osorno volcano.
The Osorno Volcano can be seen on some cloudy days.

So, friends, my point is this- if you want the best possible chance of seeing the Osorno Volcano, give yourself a handful of days in Puerto Varas. Enjoy the town, take the day trips we’ll discuss below, and make sure to return in the daylight to try to catch a glimpse of the volcano in all its beauty.

The Osorno Volcano aside, how many days do you actually need in Puerto Varas? Two to three full days should be good for most people.

How to Get to Puerto Varas

There are lots of ways to get to Puerto Varas, but these are the most popular three:

  1. Flying (1 hour 40 minutes) or taking a bus (12 – 13 hours) from Santiago.
  2. Andean Crossing (Cruce Andino) from Bariloche. Read about my experience taking the Cruce Andino here!
  3. Flying (2 hours 10 minutes) from Punta Arenas, after a visit to Torres del Paine.
The Cruce Andino can be taken to or from Puerto Varas.
Cruce Andino crossing from Bariloche to Puerto Varas.

When flying to Puerto Varas, note that you’ll actually be flying into the airport in Puerto Montt. Puerto Montt is about a 20 minute taxi ride / 30 minute bus ride from Puerto Varas. It’s a larger, more industrial port city and doesn’t offer the charm of Puerto Varas. So, if you’re thinking about staying in Puerto Montt, I’d encourage you to reconsider.

Things to do in Puerto Varas

Puerto Varas is a charming town best explored by foot. Among the biggest attractions in the town itself are strolling along the lakefront boardwalk and enjoying views of the Osorno Volcano. The town also has some cute boutique shops. Artisan chocolate is kind of a thing there, but it’ll pale in comparison if you’re coming from Bariloche!

Aside from meandering around town, below are other things to do in Puerto Varas.

1. Rent a Bike

Renting a bike is among the top things to do in Puerto Varas.

In a country where everything feels expensive, I was impressed that the town of Puerto Varas offers free bike rentals. The outdoor bike rental facility is located a short distance from the Plaza de Armas on Del Salvador Street.

The catch? It only operates in the summer.

To rent a free bike, all you need to do is leave some form of ID (passport, driver’s license, etc.). A copy is fine, they don’t need the real thing.

You’ll be allowed to use your bike for two hours. If no one is waiting for a bike when you return, you can continue renting it for additional two hour periods.

People took advantage of this service, but even with me being there during peak travel season, I never noticed a time when all the bikes were rented out. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a longer biking experience, or if you’re visiting outside of summer, your best bet is to pay to rent a bike from one of the shops in town.

Where to ride your bike

Once you’ve got your bike, I recommend heading down to the lake and riding down to the right. There’s a bike path along the road for a while, but eventually, you’ll need to use the road.

The road doesn’t hug the lake for very long. However, you’ll get to ride into the countryside, so it’s still a pleasant outing.

About 50 minutes into my bike ride, I came across an adorable ice cream shop that was located in a cow pasture. Such a shame it was closed. Eating ice cream with cows in a pasture is the newest item on my bucket list!

Ice cream stand in a cow pasture.

If you ride down to the left side of the lake from town, you’ll have the option to go to the top of Cerro Philippi. This hill was designed for mountain bikers. It offers beginner, intermediate and advanced paths.

The free bikes are mountain bikes, so give it a go! Just don’t expect spectacular views of Puerto Varas from the top since it’s filled with dense foliage.

Hours of operation for free bikes: Daily during the summer from 9:00am – 9:00pm (with the last bike rental being at 7:00pm). However, I was told that things “really get going” at around 9:30am. This was very much my experience but hey, one can’t complain about a free service.

2. Visit the Pablo Fierro Museum

Visiting the Pablo Fierro Musem is one of the best things to do in Puerto Varas.

When you’re walking or biking along the lakefront boardwalk heading down to the right from town, you’ll come across a peculiar looking blue house.

This “house” is a museum designed by artist Pablo Fierro. The building was formerly a pump house for the town’s water supply in the 1940’s. Donated to Pablo by the town of Puerto Varas in 2006, Pablo restored it into a piece of art. Free to enter, the three-story building brims with charm. Antiques are scattered about and Pablo’s drawings and paintings cover every corner of the wall.

Fun fact: Frames around the paintings are from floorboards, window and door trimmings from old houses that Pablo collected!

The museum radiates the feeling that it belongs to everyone. Hundreds of notes from guests written to Pablo are taped around the house. You also won’t find any employees guarding the pieces of art. The informality of it all is part of what makes the museum so special.

On the second floor, make sure to take a picture of yourself with the iconic “Titanic” pose where the boat juts out from the house!

3. Visit the Princess Licarayén Statue

Lady statue in Puerto Varas.

We’ve talked a lot about visiting the lake on the right side of town. Now let’s give the left side some love!

La Puntilla is located at the end of the boardwalk on the left side of town (when starting at the lake from town). Here, you’ll find the Princess Licarayén statue. On a clear day, you can take a picture of her with the Osorno Volcano as a backdrop!

The paved road, wrapping around the lake, ends in La Puntilla. You may find yourself as intrigued as I was by the dirt road that continues up a hill from there. Feel free to take the short walk to the top where you’ll have some partial views of Puerto Varas town. However, the road ends at the top of the hill and leads to a hotel, so there isn’t anything worth sticking around for.

4. Visit the Church

The church in Puerto Varas.

The Sagrado Corazón de Jesus (Sacred Heart of Jesus) church is the red roof building that you see in so many photos of Puerto Varas. It’s located a short walk from the main plaza. However, it felt out of the way to me since so much activity is down by the lake.

It’s definitely worth a visit for pictures and a pass-through. That said, as of February 2019 it’s in need of some TLC. So, it’s better to set your expectations to see peeling, faded paint instead of that bright red roof you see in all the photos. Given that the church is such a tourist focal point in advertising for Puerto Varas, the whole experience felt a bit anticlimactic to me.

The church is gated and there doesn’t seem to be any set hours for when it opens. When the gates that lead to the church premises are open, the actual church itself may or may not be open. Nevertheless, you’ll be able to take photos of the church from below, if you arrive when the gate is closed.

Although you’ll be on a hill, you won’t be able to see much of the town or volcano, due to the trees. Before you leave the area, make sure to cross the street to visit the grotto and small park.

5. Walk up to Monte Calvario

Things to do in Puerto Varas include visiting Monte Calvario.

Monte Calvario is located towards the back of town. It will take you around 20 minutes, or so, to get there. We’ll dive a little bit deeper into this hill when we talk about taking the iconic picture of Puerto Varas.

But for now, know that you can get one of the best views from a public place at Monte Calvario.

The hill is small and they have a few different paths that lead upwards. It should feel obvious when you’re there, but just in case it doesn’t, for views of the town choose a path that wraps around to the left side of the hill. All paths end at a small religious site at the top.

6. Get out on the water

Things to do in Puerto Varas- take a boat ride on the lake.

When you’re heading to the Princess Licarayén statue, you’ll pass by some cute lakeside huts. Here, you can rent a motorboat, go kayaking, or book a fishing tour.

As with many things related to activities in Puerto Varas, you may want to wait until the day of to see what the weather is like.

7. Check out events at the Plaza de Armas and Mirador

Concert in Puerto Varas.
Concert at the Mirador in Puerto Varas.

My favorite way to end each day in Puerto Varas was to head into town to see if there were any events going on at the Plaza de Armas or Mirador (the circular viewpoint across from the Radisson hotel).

On a near daily basis, there were activities taking place in at least one of these venues. Oftentimes, in the evening, there were either bands or other artists that were given permission by the town to perform. Other times, there were more amateur performers.

The Mirador, in particular, was designed for performers and has a little built-in stadium for viewers. Does it get any better than enjoying a free performance with the beautiful Osorno Volcano as a backdrop?

Day Trips from Puerto Varas

As you now know, Puerto Varas is small. Although there are a number of attractions that the town offers, one of the reasons to visit Puerto Varas is to leave it! Puerto Varas is an excellent base for day trips, which allows you to explore other parts of Chile’s lake district.

1. Frutillar

One of the best things to do in Puerto Varas is taking a day trip to Frutillar.

Frutillar is located on the western side of Lake Llanquihue. Buses run every 10 – 15 minutes from Puerto Varas. Simply head up the Del Salvador Street and wait at the bus stop next to the Banco de Chile.

The cost is 1,200 pesos and the ride will take around 35 – 45 minutes. Just make sure that the bus reads Frutillar “Bajo” and/or “Playa”. This means that the bus will take you down to the lake, which is where you want to be. If the bus only reads “Alto” it will only stop in the upper part of Frutillar, creating a massive and unnecessary walk for you to get lakeside.

Sit on the passenger side when traveling from Puerto Varas to Frutillar for views of the Osorno Volcano along the way!

Bus to Frutillar.

Frutillar offers more direct views of the Osorno Volcano than Puerto Varas. For this reason alone, Frutillar is worth the visit.

Aside from enjoying views of the Osorno Volcano (and basking by the beach while doing so if you’re there during the summer), other attractions include visiting the two churches on the main street and exploring the little shops. You don’t have to worry about getting lost. Everything of touristic importance is along the two roads running parallel along the lake.

It just so happens that I came across what ended up being my favorite restaurant in the entire Chilean lake district. Karl and Amalie is a Bed and Breakfast located at the quieter, far end of Frutillar. It’s located in an old house and has a beautiful porch for dining with stunning views of the Osorno Volcano. On a near daily basis, I crave their spicy potatoes!

Karl & Amalie Cafe in Frutillar.

Travel Tip: The last bus from Frutillar to Puerto Varas departs around 8:30pm. It’s easy to overstay, especially during the summer when it’s light out well past this time. So, plan accordingly, or else you’ll be paying for a taxi!

2. Puerto Octay

If you’re heading to Frutillar, add Puerto Octay to your list. Frutillar is a halfway point between Puerto Varas and Puerto Octay, meaning that for approximately 40 more minutes of travel, you’ll get to visit another Llanquihue Lake town.

But there’s a catch.

Getting to Puerto Octay involves a little extra legwork than getting to Frutillar. For starters, the buses to Puerto Octay only leave from the terminal in Frutillar Alto. This means that you’ll need to take a bus from lakeside Frutillar Bajo to Frutillar Alto. Just tell the bus driver “Terminal para Puerto Octay.” Buses run frequently and it’ll only take around 5 minutes to get to the Frutillar Alto terminal.

Once at the terminal, hop on a bus to Puerto Octay. Buses leave frequently. However, be mindful of your timing since buses from Frutillar back to Puerto Varas only run until the early evening.

Once in Puerto Octay, enjoy doing more of the same- walking around the lakeside village, soaking in views of the Osorno Volcano, eating fresh fish, and exploring the little shops. Trust me, this doesn’t get old quickly, and the traditional wooden German houses will fill your camera!

3. Petrohue Falls

Petrohue Falls.

A visit to the Petrohue falls is a must if you’ll be in Puerto Varas. Hop on a bus from town and you’ll be at the entrance to the falls in around 45 minutes.

Make sure to sit on the driver’s side when traveling from Puerto Varas to Petrohue. This way, you’ll get to soak in views of the lake and Osorno volcano.

Once you arrive at the entrance of the falls you’ll need to pay the entrance fee (credit cards are accepted). From there, it’s a short walk through a forested trail to arrive at the lookout point.

I visited Petrohue as part of the Cruce Andino crossing to Bariloche. However, coming from Puerto Varas this was the first stop in the morning, making the chance of clear skies extra unlikely.

As you saw in the photo above, I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the Osorno Volcano. However, if I were to do it again, I would have made a separate trip to Petrohue to try to hit the falls on a clearer day.

There’s not much else to do in Petrohue aside from seeing the falls and walking through the tourist shop. I saw a different path through the forest leading away from the falls, but it was closed.

Travel Tip: Those beautiful photos of water gushing over the Petrohue Falls are usually taken during or just after winter. If you’re traveling during the heart of summer, don’t be surprised if the “falls” seem more like a stream.

4. Osorno Volcano

Hiking the Osorno volcano is are among the things to do in Puerto Varas as a day trip.

If views of the Osorno Volcano from afar don’t quench your thirst, there are options to visit it directly!

But first, know that in order to do so, you will either need to join a tour or hire a taxi. There aren’t any public buses that run to the volcano.

From the base of the volcano, you can hike up through the beautiful Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park. Along the way, you’ll get to see the La Burbuja Crater and (weather permitting!) views of the surrounding valley.

There are tours offering trekking options for different hiking levels. The most common is a trek to the base where you can take a ski lift up to a viewpoint over the Osorno Volcano. Such a tour lasts around 5 – 6 hours, including the 50 minute transfer, each way, to Puerto Varas.

5. Chiloé Island

Palafito houses on Chile Island.

I saved Chiloé Island for last on this list, not because it isn’t worth visiting, but because it’s worth so much more time than a day trip. If you’re able, consider spending a night or few on the island.

I’ve written a full blog post with ideas for how to spend your time in Chiloé. But to give an overview, Castro is the capital and is where the palafitos houses on stilts are located. That said, it’s a bit of a beastly trip to get to Castro- around 4 hours one way, by bus, from Puerto Varas.

Chiloé is famous for its 16 UNESCO World Heritage churches of the approximately 150 other churches that were (and are) around the island which, in my opinion, are just as beautiful! The island is also filled with wildlife, traditional dishes found nowhere else in Chile, and penguins (during certain times of the year).

Things to do in Puerto Varas include taking a day trip to Chile Island to visit the churches.

If you’re visiting Chiloé Island as a day trip from Puerto Varas, I recommend focusing your time on Ancud, which is the first main tourist attraction in the northern part of the island. From Puerto Varas, a trip to Ancud takes around 2.5 hours. You can also visit Castro on the same day, but be prepared for lots of traveling!

If you’re visiting during the months of September through April, a trip to Islotes de Puñihuil is an excellent side trip from Ancud. This is where a colony of penguins visits! Buses to Puñihuil are limited and won’t save you much money, so this is your guilt-free pass to sign up for an organized penguin tour in Ancud.

Where to take the iconic photo of Puerto Varas

You know the one.

The picture with blue skies, the bright red roof of the Sagrado Corazón de Jesus Church, and the snow-capped Osorno Volcano in the background. It’s the iconic photo seen on most every pamphlet and website that mentions Puerto Varas.

I expected to arrive to Puerto Varas and follow the crowds to this viewpoint. However, when I arrived to the town, I was surprised that there didn’t seem to be a nearby hill higher than the church.

My perplexity continued when I started asking locals about how to take the picture. Answers ranged from “It’s impossible” to “It can only be taken from inside a private school” to “You need a drone.”

All seemed confused by the question, which in turn, confused me. Don’t visitors want to know where they can take the iconic picture of Puerto Varas?

If you’ve taken notice of the photos in this post, you’ll see that I was never able to find- or better put, access- the iconic viewpoint. Here’s what I gathered, so that the same doesn’t happen to you.

Tips for taking the iconic photo of Puerto Varas

  1. The iconic photo of Puerto Varas is taken from inside the upper story floors of the Colegio Germania. You’ll see this German school, in all its cement wall glory, on your way up Monte Calvario. Once at the top of Monte Calvario, you’ll understand how that picture is taken and wish you had superpowers to jump over the wall.
  2. Certain other houses offer similar viewpoints with the church and volcano. If you’re lucky, you may land an Airbnb with such a viewpoint.
  3. Bring a drone. This is your best bet at taking that photo. Head up near the German school to get that perfect angle (without breaking any laws, please!). You likely could take the photo from Monte Calvario using a drone.
Best view I could find of the iconic view of Puerto Varas.

If none of these options are feasible for you, then I recommend taking a walk up to Monte Calvario. From there, you’ll be able to take photos of both the Osorno Volcano and the church…just in separate photos.

The view of Osorno from Monte Calvario is particularly stunning and worth the walk solely for that. To get the best pictures of the church, you’ll need to walk off the path into the grass and get creative with taking the shot around the trees.

Of course, the photo will only be as good as the weather. This circles back to building as many days in Puerto Varas as your trip allows, in order to have the best chance possible of seeing the Osorno Volcano.

Conclusion

Boat on Lake Llanquihue.

Puerto Varas is a nature lover’s paradise, offering an array of things to do in and around the town. Chile’s lake region can easily be accessed on your way to or from Torres del Paine, Bariloche in Argentina and the central and northern regions of Chile.

Have you been to Puerto Varas? Better yet, were you able to take the iconic photo? I’d love to hear your own tips and tricks in the comments section!