Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Commentary - Puerto Montt – Entrance to the Chilean Lake District

Even after a relaxing day at sea, we weren’t quite ready to explore our first landing in Chile – Puerto Montt, the entrance to the Chilean Lake District. We consider ourselves experienced travelers with a significant number of cruises under our belts. Rarely do we ever book an excursion with the cruise line, knowing that the company charges well above market for the short day trips they sponsor in each port (indeed, excursions are a huge profit center for the cruise industry) and that they cram passengers into buses like sardines in a can on their group outings. Instead, at a fraction of the ship’s price, we usually engage a local tour guide who provides a truly personal experience for our family or small group. I go on the Internet before any trip – land based or cruise – and “interview” several tour guides in places we plan to visit before engaging the one who seems the most knowledgeable and interesting. So far, we’ve had fantastic good luck. Alas, this time my usual approach didn’t produce the results I’ve come to expect. In the seven ports the Crown visited on our cruise, I could find few if any tour guides listed on the Internet (I did find a Chilean tour company that operated in most of the ports but its prices were as or more expensive than NCL!). Several travelers had posted info about some of the ports but in most cases it was quite vague (“you should find taxis at the end of the pier that you can engage by the hour”). We also found one helpful Website – PortReviews.com (www.portreviews.com ) and its South American subsite (click on each port listed on the lower left of the page at www.southamericaportreviews.com) – with detailed and, as we confirmed, accurate information provided by Nancy Norris (you can try emailing her at PortSideTrvl@aol.com ) for each of the ports. But we still were missing any specific tour guide info.

We decided to take a chance of finding a guide “at the end of the pier” in the first port, Puerto Montt, but to pre-book excursions online with NCL for the other ports to be sure we got to see what we thought was the “don’t miss” destination at each venue. We planned to cancel these tours if we thought we could do better on our own (the ones we pre-booked cost $750). Puerto Montt was our “test port” because it was the first stop and because NCL wanted about $100 each to visit Petrohue Falls and Lake Esmeralda, the “must see” attractions. As it turned out, despite our success in Puerto Montt, we didn’t cancel our other NCL tours. First, we encountered some ugly weather in our next three ports and we were skeptical about the availability of locals, bargaining with them in rain and cold, and about them getting us back to the ship on time (we’ve heard horror stories about local tour guides missing the ship’s departure time and we didn’t want to be stuck at the end of the world!). And at the last three ports, in order, there was no worthwhile tour (Falkland Islands), a tour we couldn’t chance missing (the penguin reserve at Puerto Madryn), and a ship’s tour that was as cheap and as good as anything we’d find locally (Montevideo).

When we got to the end of the Puerto Montt pier we found a local tour operator trying to get folks to form a small group (three couples at $25 per person) to take the seven to eight hour roundtrip tour to Petrohue Falls and Lake Esmeraldo. We joined him in enticing others from our ship but those who hadn’t booked NCL tours decided to spend their time in town (there was a recommended Craft Market along the nine blocks walk into town but we had “been there, done that” when it came to handicrafts). We eventually agreed to pay $100 for the two of us (about half the NCL price but that included lunch!) with a private driver. Our driver turned out to be a college kid (according to Barbara, the spitting image of Cupas, the assistant wrestling coach at the University School in the early days of the boys’ athletic careers) who was studying to be a civil engineer. He was from Puerto Montt but studying at the University in Santiago and home for the summer to earn money to pay for school.

On our way to the Pan American highway, we stopped in a park at the edge of the city where we had a wonderful view of the town and the bay, with volcanoes dimly seen in the hazy distance. The advantage of having our own guide was the freedom to stop and see what seemed to be interesting. So when we asked about an interesting looking church on a hill off to our left, our young driver exited and took us to see Sagrada Corazon, a church built by German immigrants, with a lovely interior of contrasting blue and light wood. We couldn’t avoid, however, some of the mandatory stops, including the handicraft market in Puerto Varas, where our college guide found time to chat with an attractive young lady who obviously was his friend!

Most of the ride to the falls and the lake was taken up with “oh, gosh” spectacular views of three snow-capped volcanoes – Orsorno, Calbuco and Hornopiren – and the stunning beauty of the shores along Lake Llanquihue. It seemed as if every time we turned a bend or came out from behind a row of trees we had another unparalleled scene mixing water, mountains, clouds and snow. On top of those views, there were lovely homes, small resorts and rental cottages to consider. I hope the photos we’ve attached provide some sense of the lush and idyllic countryside we traveled on our way to Petrohue Falls.

Our guide shared with us that an unusual drop in rainfall and snow runoff from the mountains meant that the water was low in the lakes and the rivers (he attributed this and all other environmental problems to global warming). As a result, he warned us that Petrohue Falls would be less impressive than normal. That may have been true but the falls certainly caught our full attention! Unlike waterfalls that tumble over a high cliff and plunge far down to a deep pool below, Pertohue Falls is composed of fast driving water rushing through black volcanic rock formations that twist through a number of narrow but wild cascades and culminate in swirling and brilliant blue-green pools. Be assured that there are very special sights and sounds at Petrohue Falls!

Not far away from the Falls, along the Petrohue glacial river (with Class III-IV rapids in some parts), lies Lake Todos los Santos, better known as Lake Esmeraldo, one of the featured bodies of water in the Chilean lake district. We got to spend a half hour walking along the shores of the lake with cloud-shrouded mountains in the backdrop. The azure color of the water is striking and it’s easy to see why Chileans and tourists seek to spend time at the resorts and campsites that dot the shoreline.

The return drive to Puerto Montt was more of the same beautiful scenery. We truly couldn’t get enough of the combination of the sun striking off of dancing lake waters and sparkling snow-studded mountains. We ended up back at the ship after driving through a seemingly prosperous and attractive downtown Puerto Montt. We thanked our young guide (and added a tip that both surprised and pleased him – we have to support kids going through college!) for a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the lake district of Chile. On to cocktails at the Lido Bar where we watched the mountains that surround Puerto Montt fade into a slowly rising haze!

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