When it comes to exploring the Lake Districts of Chile and Argentina, people often think of them as discrete places. You choose to visit one or the other and base yourself in Bariloche or Puerto Varas accordingly. It’s actually easy to include both on your Patagonia trip by road or by cross-border trek, but it is at its most spectacular when done by boat. The Cruce Andino offers just such an opportunity, transforming an otherwise mundane border crossing into an adventure in itself.
The Cruce Andino is a great trip in either direction, but let me share my experience of travelling earlier this year from Bariloche into Chile.
While it’s only about 145 kilometres (a shade under 90 miles) between the two cities as the condor flies, it’s important to note that the Cruce Andino is a full day excursion that takes around 12 hours in total. For that, you get to cross three Andean lakes plus four legs by bus to stitch them together. Thankfully, one ticket covers everything: you just need to turn up with your bag and passport.
My trip began at the Turisur Office in the centre of Bariloche. There are two Turisur offices only a block apart from each other, so make sure you go to the right one across the street from McDonald’s. After checking in with my luggage I was given my ticket, with a reminder to keep it safe as it had four separate barcodes to get scanned during different parts of the trip. I was also given an entry form for Chile to be completed before the border.
With that it was into the bus for the first leg of the journey to Puerto Panuelo, the embarkation point for the boat trip across Lake Nahuel Huapi.
This leg is relatively touristy, as many travellers embark on a scenic day trip before returning to Bariloche. If you’re coming from Chile, you’ll find the morning boat ride on Lago Todos dos Santos equally busy, as it’s a popular excursion from that side.
Before boarding the first boat, make sure you still have some Argentinian pesos on hand to pay the Argentinian boarding tax of A$350 at Puerto Panuelo. After that it’s literally plain sailing.
The boat trip across Lake Nahuel Huapi was incredibly beautiful. They call Bariloche the Switzerland of Argentina, but it was more reminiscent of sailing on the Norwegian fjords. Most people sat out on the deck to drink in the views, but if it’s wet then there’s still space inside along with a snack bar and guided information in English as well as Spanish to tell you more about the area.
The boat journey to Puerto Blest lasts about an hour, at which point you transfer into a bus for a ten-minute ride to Puerto Alegre across our second mountain lake of the day. This is Lago Frías, and what most of the day trippers are coming for. It’s a tiny lake that takes just 15 minutes to cross, but what makes it special is its remarkable deep emerald colour, a shade only heightened by the forest-clad mountains that surround it.
When we reached Puerto Frías the day trippers turned around and headed back to Bariloche. Many of them queued to have their taken by the border’s most singular attraction: a replica of the motorcycle that Che Guevara rode here on his epic trip through South America in 1952.
For those of us continuing, our Argentinian guide ensured smooth entry into Chile by inputting everyone’s names at the office, and then withdrew to let his Chilean counterpart take over for the rest of the journey to Puerto Varas.
Border control on the Chilean side actually takes place in Puella, a small town on the highest pass between the two countries (and another short bus ride: our third of the day). This provided an excellent photo opportunity as we switched national parks as well as countries, checking out of Nahuel Huapi National Park and entering Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park.
We crossed the border a little after one in the afternoon. Lunch was at Hotel Puella, and for all the spectacular scenery it was lovely to be able to stop for a couple of hours. Brunch cost about US$25. A few people had actually booked in here to spend the night – a really charming place to break the trip.
While I was looking forward to reaching Puerto Varas, I did leave Puella with one regret. When I went down to the jetty for our final boat trip I realised that there was a little corner where people were swimming. Anyone will tell you that as soon as I see a body of water I want to jump in it, and couldn’t believe that I had missed out on this opportunity! My tip then: after eating lunch, walk down to the shore for a dip or just to sit out on the shore for a bask.
Despite this brief disappointment, the final boat trip was the absolute highlight of my day. In the gorgeous late afternoon light, Lake Todos los Santos looked its sparkling turquoise best. We cruised under the shadow of Cerro Tronador on the Argentina border, past the crooked fingers of Puntaguido, and whenever the clouds cleared were rewarded with views of the perfect snowy cone of Osorno volcano.
I hadn’t anticipated quite how much the scenery was going to change on the western side of the mountains. The Chilean Lake District gulps up all the wet air from the Pacific, so the landscape here is a lot more lush and green than on the Argentinian side of the Andes.
It took about an hour and forty minutes to cross Todos los Santos. With all the Bariloche day trippers left behind there were only about a dozen of us on board and we quickly fell into that easy conversation that travellers so often have, helped by a glass or two of wine from the onboard bar.
We docked at Petrohue just after 6pm, from where a bus was waiting to take us the final hour and quarter to Puerto Varas. I opted instead to end my trip here, checking into the Petrohue Lodge instead because of its easy access to rafting, kayaking and hiking trails in the national park.
When we disembarked and everyone else hopped on the bus, I had a lovely gentleman grab my bags instead and walk me up the hill to the lodge. There was a wood fire in the lounge and I collapsed into a chair to unwind before dinner. The lodge has a luxurious wood cabin feel to it, but with a few extra mod cons: the lodge’s jacuzzi that night even made up for missing out on my swim at Puella.
It was a long day of travel, but it was more than worth it. The Cruce Andino wasn’t just a means of crossing a border, it was a whole experience. Seeing the landscape transition as we crossed the Andes was the perfect introduction to Chile, punctuated by a series of sublime alpine lakes. After all, who ever gets to say they took a boat trip over a mountain?
Want to follow the Cruce Andino yourself? Swoop Patagonia are the Argentinian and Chilean Lake District experts. For more information or for help planning your own Patagonia adventure, get in touch today.