Shaped roughly like an equilateral triangle, Lago Llanquihue is one of southern Chile’s most visited areas, thanks to towns like Frutillar, with its Germanic charm, and Puerto Varas, with its distinctive architecture, exceptional accommodations and fine restaurants. Both enjoy panoramas of Volcán Osorno, its snow-topped cone mimicking the perfection of Fujiyama.
For more than a century now, the bus-boat shuttle from Varas across the Andes to Argentina has been a cornerstone of the local economy, but there’s another part of the lake that gets too little attention: from Puerto Octay, at its northern tip, a newly paved road follows the lakeshore southeast to reach the hamlet of Ensenada, where it meets the road from Puerto Varas.
For a couple decades, I’d seen this road on the map but until a few years ago I had never driven the length of it – clearly it was scenic, but it was narrow, slow and mostly loose gravel. I often received letters from cyclists who told me about battling tábanos, the large but harmless horseflies that buzzed them as they pedaled up the hills (Except in early summer, when the flies are numerous, the road makes an ideal cycling route).
Now that the road’s completely paved, though – other than one graveled stretch of just 300 meters – I decided to drive it again on a Friday afternoon in December. I started from Puerto Octay, where the density of German-style architecture may be greater than in either Frutillar or Puerto Varas – I loved the historic Hotel Haase, with its second-story wrap-around balcony. Beneath its steep-pitched roof, the arched interior of the Iglesia San Agustín displayed glistening woodwork and walls.
I didn’t eat in town, but made a brief stop at the Casa Ignacio Wulf, another architectural landmark where Lácteos Octay lets visitors sample the cheeses at their retail outlet. Then I hit the highway to the southeast, foregoing the first paved segment to take a shorter gravel road along the lakeshore at Maitén, with Osorno’s symmetrical cone never out of sight. Just two days after Christmas, it was a balmy if breezy day, but only a handful of locals were enjoying the black sand beaches – in a week, though, they’d likely be packed.
Beyond rows of conifers that yielded volcano views, the route continued through a dairyscape of Guernseys and close-cropped pastures to Puerto Fonck – one of numerous small ports that dotted the lakeshore in the days when even gravel roads were a distant dream. I stopped to see the steepled German church and restored graveyard, where all the tombstones bore surnames like Galle, Konrad and Opitz, before intersecting the paved road at Puerto Klocker.
At Klocker, there’s a gravel turnoff to La Picada, where a good footpath lets hikers traverse the volcano’s northwestern flank to arrive at Petrohué, on Lago Todos Los Santos, where the catamaran crossing to Argentina starts. The paved route continues to Las Cascadas, a second-home beach community where I had hoped to lunch but, in the limbo period before New Year’s, I could barely find an open grocery for a chocolate bar that had to suffice until dinnertime.
Beyond Las Cascadas there’s no public transportation, but the newly paved road – with a wide bike lane - hugs the shoreline even through some very rugged areas such as Abanico, where a cantilevered bridge overhangs the lake. At a wider spot in the road, I pull off onto a wide spot and walk back to the bridge, where two Brazilian cyclists have arrived from Ensenada but decide to turn back because the tábano attacks are increasing (you can’t swat them when you’re on a bicycle, without risking a fall). Other cyclists, though, continue to speed past me on the downhill segment toward Las Cascadas.
Another reason I stop is because the road cut reveals an outcrop of columnar basalt, similar to others I’ve seen at California’s Devil’s Postpile and Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower. Abanico can’t match the size of those, but its distinctive polygonal landforms continue to fascinate me, even as I brush away the tábanos.
Beyond Abanico, the road soon enters Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales, Chile’s first national park, and there are several new pullouts along the road for different panoramas of the peak, which looms closer than ever. While the lakeside road proceeds to Ensenada, a steep but narrow paved spur climbs the volcano’s flanks, sometimes passing through forest so dense it feels like a tunnel, before emerging onto a treeless ski area.
In summer, the lifts carry hikers into the high country but, if you don’t care to do so, there’s food at two restaurants, including the stylish new Nido de Cóndores (pictured above). Otherwise, at Ensenada, it’s a right turn back to Puerto Varas, or a left to Petrohué.