Travel tips: the Chilean and Argentinian Lake Districts

This is the first of several long-delayed posts of tips from our trip to South America in 2009. Here I cover our visit to the Chilean and Argentinian Lake Districts.

We flew into Bariloche from Patagonia, rented a car, and crossed into Chile over the Paso Cardinal Samore. In Chile we stayed at Puyehue hot springs for 2 nights, and then drove down to Chiloe for 2 nights. We then returned via the same route, staying at Villa L’angostura and just outside Bariloche.

Tiptop travel tip – Go to Chiloe

Okay, so if I had one tip for the area – its this – go to Chiloe. Its an island off Chile which I’d never even heard of until I was in Chile. The people there are allegedly from Polynesia and there’s certainly a Polynesian influence – Easter Island-ish statues, cuaranto (seafood and potato stew). Also of note, it was the last place in Chile occupied by the Spanish so lots of forts.

Chiloe also has the Churches of Chiloe, a dozen or so beautiful wooden Jesuit chapels scattered around the island. There’s a couple within easy reach of the main road when you trundle down to Cucao.

To be specific – go to Cucao, Chiloe

Now, if there’s one place you should go to on Chiloe, its Cucao (map). Its halfway down Chiloe on the west coast. Very remote. Very beautiful. There’s the Chiloe National Park for hikes, epic beaches (think Point Reyes meets rainforest), and I’m pretty sure its the southernmost inhabited spot on the Pacific seaboard of the Americas. Everywhere further south is on some fjord. Amazing boardwalks (easy for kids or sore hips), beach to infinity, friendly park rangers. Slightly out of the way and hence quieter than some places. Note the road is now tarmaced (shown as dirt on some maps)

Cucao beach

Aside from Cucao, we also visited the following places in Chiloe.


  • Moderately untouristy. Feels like a “real” Chilean working town so actually quite interesting to wander round.
  • Cute little river houses down on the estuary
  • Cathedral of San Francisco – hence giggles for Californians.
  • Excellent seafood near the cathedral: <need to dig out receipt>


  • Destroyed by a monster earthquake in the 50s, so very untouristy
  • Excellent cuaranto at the aptly named Kuaranto restaurant (has fabulous decoration). Warning: its very filling, and easily enough for 2.
  • I don’t recommend the Hosteria Ancud, despite its great location by a clifftop fort. Inside its shabby, and we think infested by mould since my girlfriend had a really bad allergic reaction.
  • Instead I would recommend the Hostal Mundo Nuevo which we drove past and which looked really cool and friendly. It also has some great reviews online.

Cuaranto restaurant in Ancud

Elsewhere in Chile

We stopped briefly at a couple of places between the Argentinian border and Chiloe.


  • A pretty little town with a distinctly Germanic vibe. It was settled by Germans in the last century and you feel like you are in the environs of Hamburg. This feeling is amplified by the Euro-ness of the motorway which passes close to the town.
  • Walk along the lago with views across to the volcanoes and some kitsch German restaurants. Excellent apfelkuchen.
  • Much less touristy than the nearby Puerto Varas. Good place to stop off from the freeway.

Puyehue Hot Springs and resort

  • I’d recommend this place if you want a bit of luxury after slumming and overdoing the journeying. We crashed here for 2 nights and found it very rejuvenating.
  • Just over the Paso Cardinal Samore from Argentina. Basically hang the first left.
  • One of Chile’s premier 5 star resorts. Has a distinctly James Bond meets General Pinochet vibe. Approximately $150 per person per night. This sounds pricey but it includes high quality room, breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets, access to baths. Do the maths and work out the European/US equivalent.
  • Hot springs baths are very developed but very pleasant.
  • Spa services cost extra for mud baths (my first), massages etc.
  • Beautiful grounds for hikes and running
  • We were lucky and had the place almost to ourselves. May be horrific when busy with families and so on.
  • Worth at least stopping off for a tour!
  • Note: there is a more down to earth alternative further down the road at the National Park, where there are cabins and another public hot springs.

Puyehue wildlife

The border crossing

I don’t often say this – do the drive. Skip the Cruce de Lagos bus/ferry option. Its pricey, you have limited flexibility to wander, AND its hyper touristy. We met a few other travellers who regretted taking this route.

We drove the Paso Cardinal Samore (1314m). Its got some cool history – Argentina planned an invasion of Chile via 3 mountain passes, including this one, as late in the 70s. Luckily they got distracted by the Falklands War and Mrs Thatcher. There are separate customs on each side of the pass, with a beautiful 20 mile drive through No Mans land between them. Allow at least 30 mins for each customs and all the lovely paperwork. I believe it gets quite backed up in season so take a book and fill up your tank. The American in our group were not charged any fee to enter Chile.

Its interesting how the landscape and fauna changes on each side of the Andes.

  • The Argentinian side is a lot more mountainous with lots of Alpine-esque lakes. In fact the Argentinian Lake District feels reminiscent of the Swiss Italian Alps.  The bulk of the Andes seems to be on this side, with the dry steppe to the east.
  • In contrast, the Chilean side has a more “spread out” feel. There are some huge volcanoes but they are pretty scattered. The Andes quickly blend down through rich verdant forest (the Chilean side gets a lot more rain) into high cultivated dairy pastures by the coast.

Paso Cardinal Samore

Argentinian Lake District

The Argentinian Lake District has a distinctly Italian Alps feel. Its beautiful, but in a very different way to the Chilean side since the mountains are much denser. The food is stunning and much richer than Chile, but be prepared for some nutcases on the road. We also found it a lot busier with tourists than in Chile.


  • A rather bustling touristy town – I would not recommend staying in the town unless you like chocolate shops.
  • Random place to go: the tiny, cosy, Paleontology museum, which is a nice stroll down the lake from the city centre.
  • If you do stay – I would not recommend the Hostel Ciervo Rojo (which is bizarrely Lonely Planet’s top tip). Its noisy, right in the centre of town by a busy set of bus stops. Also breakfast is a bit naff and the rooms are very minimal and a bit dingy.
  • Swanky out of town option: Design Suites Bariloche. Definitely higher budget although we got a great deal out of season. Fantastic brekkie, views across lake, in room jacuzzi. Pool was a bit small although it is nicely split into indoor and outdoor halves which you can swim between. About 10 mins drive outside Bariloche.
  • Mini tour: drive around the Circuito Chico. Its a couple of hours loop with plenty of amazing views, and some short hike options. Note its quite touristy so don’t expect it to be very secluded. Look out for Noe the St. Bernard. If you see him, say hi and ask for a refill for Rick.
  • Goofy hobbit style restaurant in the town, built entirely of Patagonian cypress with an amazing round wooden door that Bilbo would be proud of: Tarquino

Noe the St. Bernard on the Circuito Chico.

Luxury at Design Suites Bariloche

Villa La Angostura

  • Again touristy but much smaller than Bariloche, and with a small national park on the doorstep. An hour east of the Paso Cardinal Samore.
  • Very walkable town centre – touristy, but pleasant selection of stores and restaurants.
  • We found a nice B&B (there are loads)
  • Excellent national park (Los Arroyones, part of the Parco Nahuel Huapi) just south of town on the peninsula which sticks into Lago Nahuel Huapi. Do the day long walk the length of the island, combined with a ferry either to or from town. Note they close park entry midmorning since you can’t complete the walk after a certain time.

Park Los Arroyones, near Villa La Angostura

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3 Responses to Travel tips: the Chilean and Argentinian Lake Districts

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