Chilean Patagonia boasts endless temperate rainforests and snow-capped volcanoes but only in Puerto Varas on the shores of Lake Llanquihue in the northernmost corner do these natural wonders overlap with modern infrastructure and good quality of life. This quaint town of 38,000 inhabitants grew up as a crossroads: a rail stop on the north-south route to the ocean port at Puerto Montt and a terminal for the trip east by lake ferries to Bariloche, Argentina. Today, it has easy access to the main highway and lies a 20-minute drive from El Tepual airport.
The downtown streets of Puerto Varas are full of cosy B&Bs, devil-may-care hostels and larger hotels. Restaurants offer local seafood and Italian coffee, satisfying the summer tourists from South America and points beyond, some of which decide to extend their holidays – the fresh air, mountains and lakes an opportunity too good to resist.
US philanthropists Doug and Kris Tompkins run the Conservation Land Trust – which privately develops wilderness parks – from a restored mansion. The house has almost 800 sq m of living space, all of which needed a new foundation, high-efficiency windows and endless hours of work to remove burlap insulation. Such restorations are getting more common. Architect Pablo Moraga, who helped write a new historic protection plan for 17 hectares of the old town, says there used to be little awareness of the value of preservation. Today, newcomers with belt-sanders compete against demolition-minded hotel developers, each seeking to create the city’s future. Home prices have soared to match the most upmarket parts of Santiago.
Puerto Varas has also become a design centre, whose properties include Arrebol Patagonia Hotel, a crisp modern structure sheathed in sticks with bark intact. Interior design consultant Teresa Varas has used her restored home to display South American crafts, such as Mapuche masks and black and white porcelain tiles, while Vicki Johnson’s converted potato warehouse, The Barn, is a delightful place to stay.
“People are very open here,” says Sergi Sola, a sustainable developer who owns an organic food shop. “I arrived here from Barcelona five years ago and there’s not a chasm of di’erence.”
Despite the cosy interiors, outdoor recreation remains a major draw for the largely young, fit crowd of visitors. Rafting, kayaking, fly-fishing, sailing, glacier treks and bird-watching are all just a short trip by car, bus or bicycle. And in summer, the most intrepid even ride horses over the Andes to Argentina.