The Chile To Argentina Lake Crossing: Is It Really Worth It? An emerald-green lake, a village in the middle of a national park only accessible to the outside world via boat, the chance to take a helicopter flight around the crater of an extinct volcano… It doesn’t exactly sound like your average border crossing, and, […]
An emerald-green lake, a village in the middle of a national park only accessible to the outside world via boat, the chance to take a helicopter flight around the crater of an extinct volcano… It doesn’t exactly sound like your average border crossing, and, given the sights on offer, this route between the two cities of Puerto Varas in the Chilean lakes region and Bariloche in Argentina has rightly become a sought-after tourist experience in itself.
But is the lake crossing from Chile to Argentina really worth it, when cheaper and less taxing alternatives exist? What’s it like to cross by boat, and how much of the experience do you lose if you choose to do the whole journey via bus instead?
The passage, known as the Lakes Crossing, is the only water passage through the Andes. And needless to say, the scenery is unique and breathtaking – hell, even Che Guevara couldn’t resist checking it out on his epic 1952 motorbike journey across South America (you can see Lago Fría appear in the film remake Motorcycle Diaries). Originally used as a trade route by the indigenous people of the region and later established by German settlers, nowadays many travellers opt to cross from Chile to Argentina this way, via a combination of buses and boats which take you through national parkland and across three lakes.
The route runs from Puerto Varas on the shores of Lake Llanquihue in Chile to Bariloche on Nahuel Huapi Lake in the Argentinian province of Río Negro, and vice-versa. The trip takes a full day, and I mean full: the first bus leaves Puerto Varas around 08:00am, and is the first in a series of buses that will take you between the three ferry crossings before reaching Bariloche at around 21:00pm, but it can be even later.
Only one company, Cruce Andino, actually runs the ferry service, although seats on their boats are sold by a myriad of different travel agents in Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas. This monopoly accounts for the generally high prices; depending on the season and which tour operator you purchase your tour from, it’s not uncommon to pay nearly $300 USD per person to get to Bariloche.
General consensus regarding the Lakes Crossing is that the landscapes are spectacular but that the organization of the tour leaves much to be desired. For starters, the crossing is made unnecessarily long by a lunch stop in Peulla, a small village on the western shores of Lago Todos los Santos in an otherwise-inaccessible part of the Vincente Perez Rosales national park. Many passengers who’ve come over on the ferry will be there for a day trip and not to cross into Argentina, so this stopover is designed to give those day-trip passengers the chance to take part in optional adventure activities like canopy treks, horsback riding, and even a helicopter ride past nearby Mount Tronador before heading back on the ferry to Puerto Varas. However, if you’re not in the market for an adrenaline rush you may find yourself at a loss for things to do in Peulla to fill the obligatory 3-hour layover there, and it’s been known for guides to herd travellers who’ve opted out of the adventure activities into the restaurant of the village’s only hotel to kill time.
This region is nothing if not wet (apparently it rains 280 days in the year), and how much you enjoy the Lakes Crossing will be heavily dependent on the weather. Not only does rain mean coldness and wetness, but it will also obscure the view of volcanoes and rainforest that you would otherwise get from the ferry. Occasionally, heavy rain can also wash out the un-tarmacked roads and complicate the bus transfers. So if your itinerary allows for it, wait until it’s a really nice, sunny day in Puerto Varas before buying your tickets, and that way you’ll limit your chances of arriving in Bariloche soaked through to the bone. And trust me, if there’s one country where the Drowned Rat look doesn’t fly, it’s in ever-stylish Argentina.
Given the Lakes Crossing’s cost and dependence on good weather, it’s no surprise that lots of people opt for a comparatively fuss-free bus ride over the border. If you’re not already acquainted with the near-palatial experience that is Latin American bus travel, get ready to be impressed. Perhaps I exaggerate, but given the non-existent railway system and the expense of domestic flights, most Chileans and Argentinians use buses for long-distance travel, and this means that bus companies are highly competitive in terms of price and comfort. A suited attendant serving you sandwiches and cookies is not an unknown phenomenon on Latin American buses, and if you choose the “cama” or “semi cama” option you’ll also get a reclining seat.
The bus from Puerto Varas to Bariloche takes between five and six hours, depending on the operator and the border crossing. Buses keep to their timetables (one of the few things that do in Latin America…) and there are generally lots of available seats so you’re unless you’ve travelling in the summer months you’re normally fine if you leave booking until the day before you want to travel. Puerto Varas doesn’t have a central bus station so the buses leave from their offices, which is also where you need to go to book your tickets. The Bus Norte and Cruz del Sur buses are operated by the same company and leave daily from their office on 1317, San Francisco Street in Puerto Varas. Pullman buses leave from 318, Portales Street. Buses from Puerto Varas about $18,000 CLP (about $27 USD) but you can also take one from the same three companies from Puerto Montt or Osorno.
When you book your bus tickets you’ll be given the option to choose from the available seats on a screen. Go for the front row of the upper deck and you’ll get a great view of the sparsely-populated Chilean Lake District and of the mountains and lakes that appear further along the drive.
The border crossing itself tends to be free from hold-ups but if you’re American, Candadian or Australian remember to pay your reciprocity fee online before travelling. Once your payment has been processed, print the receipt and present it at the border.
Is the lake crossing worth it? If money is no problem and you’re willing to brave some rainfall, go for it – you’ll see incredibly remote places which you can only get to by boat, and arrive in Bariloche feeling about as adventurous as any motorbike-riding revolutionary. But if comfort’s your thing and all you care about is getting to Argentina, then the bus is a more than adequate alternative.