Petrohue Falls & Vicente Perez Rosales Nat. Park
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Puerto Montt Overview
Puerto Montt, tucked into a V-shaped slit along the side of a mountain, isn't a big city, and when you arrive from the ship via tender, you might think you've been plunked down into a corner of Bavaria ... if it weren't for the signs in Spanish. Founded in 1852 and named for Manuel Montt, the president of Chile at the time, Puerto Montt was populated by German immigrants who brought with them their architecture, customs and culture.
You'll still experience Germanic influence today: Don't miss munching "kuchen," a German-influenced fruit flan, accompanied by the local German-style beer, Kunstmann. But what Puerto Montt is really all about is recreation -- lots of it. Though the small, mostly industrial city lacks the urban energy of Santiago to the north and the pristine beauty of the Tierra del Fuego region to the south, Puerto Montt -- at the southernmost end of Chile's Lake District -- is set among lakes, fjords and rivers, and nestled at the foot of snow-capped mountains.
After cruising up the coast from Punta Arenas, or down the coast from Valparaiso, a day enjoying the outdoor opportunities in and around Puerto Montt is just what most cruisers crave. Take your pick: hike up the perfectly symmetrical Osorno Volcano, try your hand at flyfishing, go whitewater rafting, waterski on Lake Llanquihue, try a zipline canopy tour, kayak along a river, paddle a canoe across a lake or ride a bicycle.
If you've come to Puerto Montt seeking less active pursuits, you can also have a lazy day with a lakeside picnic on a Pacific Ocean beach in the area, shop for local products and crafts at the artisan market, or try on leather boots in the shops.
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Other South America & Antarctica Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos • Stanley • Ushuaia
Spanish, mostly, but there are a great many people in the region who also speak "Mapudungun," the language of the indigenous Mapuchu peoples, clusters of which are found throughout the Lake District. Tour operators, the occasional banker and hotel front desk personnel might speak English, but it's a rare occurrence.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Chilean peso (one U.S. dollar is equal to about 550 pesos). Most banks will not exchange money, and no banks in Chile will deal with traveler's checks. There are several ATM's throughout the city (including just outside the banks), and several casas de cambio (exchange centers) where, for a small fee, you can exchange U.S. dollars for pesos and cash traveler's checks. The artisans in the booths along Feria Artesanal Angelmo, near the tender dock, accept U.S. dollars, although the items are priced in pesos (i.e. if an item is priced at 1,100 pesos, you can pay $2 USD.)
Where You're Docked
Puerto Montt is a tender port, but the ship is actually quite close to the town. The "tenders" are large, locally run, flat-bottomed boats that take you through an inlet to a small dock near the Puerto Angelmo fishing cove.
Editor's note: If you look at a map of Chile, Puerto Montt almost looks as though it's landlocked in the middle of the country. Well, not quite, but it isn't on the Pacific Ocean, either. The city itself is at the edge of a huge estuary, Seno de Reloncavi, with a very narrow mouth to the ocean.
There are a few kiosk-type shops directly beyond the docking area and some international telephones. If you are choosing to explore Puerto Montt itself or have plans that do not include a ship excursion, you can walk right from the dock into the city, where you'll find grocery stores, cafes and the craft market stalls for souvenirs. If you are taking a shore excursion arranged by the cruiseline, the buses line up at the parking lot adjacent to the dock.
If you're visiting the town or going to the German village Frutillar or lakeside city of Puerto Varas, you can walk or grab a cab for a reasonable price. The best way to see the area on your own, however, is to rent a car for the day; all of the major U.S. rental firms (Hertz, Budget, Avis) have an office in downtown Puerto Montt and the rates are quite reasonable. The Pan American Highway and the roads to most of the main tourist attractions are well maintained (they're privately owned, so tolls are the norm. Plan on paying about $10 or $12 for a full day of sightseeing).
There are two types of taxis, "colectivos" and private. A "colectivo" works like a mini-bus, following a fixed route and picking up passengers -- up to four -- along the way. They are identified by their colors, either solid yellow or solid black, are extremely inexpensive and indicate their general route via a rooftop sign. A regular taxi is yellow with a black roof, will take you where you want to go and works on a meter (also quite inexpensive).
Woven items, knitted sweaters and leather goods (including hats, ponchos and boots) are the must-buy items here. In fact, the artisan market in Puerto Montt is the best place in all of Chile to get a bargain on these goods.
Fine Chilean wines or the national alcoholic drink, the Pisco sour, which tastes like a cross between a daiquiri and a margarita (Pisco is a brandy made from the skin of white grapes).
Watch Out For
Chile's Lake District is rainy to begin with, but the summer season, when the cruise ships call, is also the wettest season in the area. The city itself, because of the way it's situated in the mountain crevasse, is also very windy. No matter: Just take appropriate clothing, be prepared and you're bound to enjoy your day.
If your chosen activity gets rained out, there are plenty of shopping and lunching opportunities in Puerto Montt and in the lakeside resort town of Puerto Varas, just a 15-minute taxi drive away, or the seaside town of Playa Pelluco, also very close.
Puerto Varas: Located about 12 miles northeast of Puerto Montt, this "City of Roses" is quaint and charming, perfect for a nice walk along the shores of Lake Llanquihue with the reflection of the cone-shaped, snow-covered Osorno volcano always present. There's a great craft market and several cafes to enjoy a nice coffee and a raspberry kuchen.
Parque Nacional Alerce Andino: This national park celebrates -- and protects -- the endangered alerce tree, all but extinct except in this 153-square-mile national preserve. Similar to giant sequoias in California, with some as old as 4,000 years, alerce was used to build houses and other structures in the region, and the forests were seriously depleted. This is a lovely national park, complete with 40 small lakes, and a wonderful place to spend at least part of your day.
Frutillar: This small hamlet perfectly preserves the German and Austrian architecture from the immigrants in the late 1800's; talk about a picture-perfect postcard view! The town edges onto Lake Llanquihue, is filled with flowers and timbered chalets, and if you're lucky, you'll be there for the Semanas Musicales de Frutillar, a series of weekly outdoor concerts (mostly classical, some jazz) held during the months of January and February.
Feria Artesenal Angelmo: The artisan market stretches for blocks and blocks, and is reportedly the best place in all of Chile to purchase Chilotan products (woven items of wool and alpaca) from Chiloe, an island off the coast near Puerto Montt. You have to bargain, but even if you don't, the posted prices are low enough to make you want to empty your wallet. Those cruising in late November or early December should plan on getting the bulk of their Christmas gifts here.
Been There, Done That
Pelluco Beach Resort: Playa Pelluco (the name means "dripping water," which belies the charms of the place) is a lovely place to spend a sunny day. Filled with pubs, shops and lunching options, it's a Chilean vacation spot: Picture Martha's Vineyard or Newport Beach in the southern hemisphere.
Petrohue Falls and Vicente Perez Rosales National Park: The gorgeous route through this national park on the way to the foot of the Osorno Volcano takes you slightly off the main road to these falls. Created from an eruption of the Osorno several centuries ago, the large volcanic rocks form the basis of the multiple cascades. The falls aren't high or as impressive as Niagra, Victoria or Iguazu, but there are several pathways and bridges that traverse the river, offering incredible photo ops, especially with the ever-present Osorno in the distance (and the sound is nice too). It is for these views that people love visiting this region.
Osorno Canopy Zipline: These have become very popular in places that have rainforests, but is equally impressive here, in the forested land at the foot of Osorno. On the zipline located here, there are 14 platforms and 11 cable rides at an average of 125 feet above ground level. From here, you get spectacular views of not only the treetops but also of the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes and of Lake Llanquihue. You must be fit to take this trip, and certainly not afraid of heights!
Editor's note: You can take many of these recreational activities as ship excursions, but if you want to go independently, there is a tourist office kiosk near the tender pier and another one at the main square in town. There, you can learn of what's available and contact tour operators. Or, you can book in advance through an online provider such as Viator, or check Cruise Critic's South America destination boards for operators other members have used. (There are also several independents who show up at the tender dock; they have signs.)
Take your pick ... seafood or meats, upscale or diner, German or Chilean. Puerto Montt has variety aplenty, and all of it in this area is reasonably priced. You can dine at a swank "yacht club" (minus the yachts but overlooking the water), or you can join the working class as they break for delicious fish stew or a plate of mussels in the stalls near the artisan's market. The German and Austrian influence in the region also means you can choose schnitzel or wurst from any number of spots in Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas or Fruitillar. Here are our favorites:
Local Favorite: Club de Yates (Phone: 56-65-284000) This waterfront restaurant (not really a yacht club) is open for lunch between noon and 4 p.m. and features an extensive menu of meats, seafoods, salads and soups, plus a fabulous list of Chilean wines to sample. It's truly gourmet food and atmosphere at a very reasonable price. There's a second one located in Puerto Varas, too, for those who are spending the day there.
Luxe Lunch: Gran Hotel don Vicente. Located along the waterfront in the city, this newly renovated chalet-style hotel's restaurant offers an extensive seafood buffet lunch for around $12 U.S.
Only the outside is Bavarian; inside it's pure Chilean hospitality.
At the Market: Feria Artesenal Angelmo. Mixed in among the artisan's stalls are "kitchens" serving crabs, mussels, clams and other fresh seafood plucked up from the central seafood market just across the road.
This is where the dockworkers and other laborers stop for lunch, rubbing shoulders with the tourists who are enjoying a non-touristy, authentic and cheap meal. Hours vary.
Puerto Montt is one of those places that has such a wealth of shore excursions that it's really, really difficult to choose which one to take. Remember to evaluate the activity level of the excursion you select and to leave time for some walking around and shopping before heading back to the ship.
Petrohue River Rafting: Fly through class III and class IV rapids on this adventure along the Petrohue River. Wetsuits and picnic lunches are provided on these trips. Guests must be at least 12 years old and physically fit. You'll be required to paddle, sometimes strenuously, and you'll get wet.
Fly Fishing on the Maullin River: Did you ever want to try your hand at catching that elusive "big one?" This is your chance. With only two guests per guide, you'll get personalized instructions. Although not guaranteed, you are more than likely to catch at least one brown or rainbow trout, perhaps even a salmon (all fishing is catch and release). Wear light clothing to avoid being buzz-bombed by the area's horn flies.
Sailing Among the Volcanoes: You can enjoy the region without working up a sweat. Sail around Lake Llanquihue on a 65-foot motor yacht, between the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes, which are reflected in the water. After this magical trip you'll stop at Puerto Varas before returning to Puerto Montt.
Osorno Volcano: There are several excursions that include this ancient cone-shaped landmark, ranging from exhilarating trips in 4-by-4 vehicles over rough and bumpy terrain, to trips that have you hiking up part of the mountain from the ski center to gentle "photo safaris" -- requiring minimal activity. Most of these journeys have you ascending as much as 4,200 feet, so be sure to bring sweaters and lots of film or media cards for the photos you'll take of Lake Llanquihue, Osorno, Calbuco, Puerto Varas, the Petrohue River and its falls, and Laguna Verde.
Staying in Touch
There are international telephones right at the tender dock. They are set up by an independent company for cruise ship traffic and quite reasonably priced. There is less of a line and crowd either very early in the day or quite late, before and after the ship's crew comes ashore.
There's an Internet cafe in the center of town, Cybercafe Mundosur (San Martin 232). Charge for use is less than $3 U.S.D. per hour.
For More Information
On the Web: www.interpatagonia.com/puertomontt
Cruise Critic Message Boards: South America
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Chile
--by San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.
--All photos (except Angelmo fish market) are courtesy of Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor..