Puerto Montt is a little port town on the Reloncaví Sound, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean to the north of the gulfs that separate Chile’s eastern mainland from its southern archipelagos. Ships park in the sound to take passengers south through the channels of Chile’s icy Patagonia region. Local fishing boats putter to shore to vend their daily catches at the markets. Snow-covered volcanoes and glittering royal blue lakes cover the surrounding countryside.
In the mid-1800s, the Chilean government sponsored a German immigration program with the goal to develop southern Chile. As a result, the people, culture, and buildings of Puerto Montt and its surrounding region have a significant German history that can still be felt today.
Somehow I found an amazingly good deal on a nice hotel in Puerto Montt, costing just a bit more than a hostel, so I splurged and indulged in three glorious nights in a new room with an eighth floor hillside view of the sound. Needless to say, my four star digs really enhanced my enjoyment of Puerto Montt.
Among the town’s main attractions are the creations of the area’s local artisans. These are centered at the Angelmó fair, a seafront artisan marketplace named after the bay which it overlooks.
I didn’t have to be told twice to go shopping! On my first sightseeing afternoon in Puerto Montt, I headed out under the turbid summer clouds towards the tiny Angelmó bay at the far end of town.
The avenue leading to Angelmó is lined with market stalls selling flamboyant wool sweaters, scarves, and hats, jewelry, art, books, games, knickknacks, and other handicrafts that tourists love. Luckily, I purposefully didn’t bring any extra cash so I couldn’t be tempted to buy one of the gorgeous wool sweaters on display.
I darted around clusters of shoppers browsing the artisans’ handiwork and made my way to the red wood-shingled entrance gate to the fair.
The shops, market, and restaurants of the fair overlook the Angelmó bay and the Canal de Tenglo, which separates the mainland from the little Isla Tenglo. The fair’s red buildings sell original jewelry and artwork, mouthwatering stacks of chocolate, handmade crafts, knitted wool clothes, locally grown fruits and vegetables, and exceptionally fresh fish for consumption at one of the restaurants or cooking at home.
In and around the bazaar I went, wandering through the smelly fish market, leaning over the dock railing to watch the fishermen anchor their boats in the bay and unload their catches of the day at the oceanside market, and covertly watching an artist paint a picture of a blue fishing boat on an easel set up next to the water.
It was a very fun day of shopping-without-buying.
After stuffing myself with eggs, cheese, ham, fruit, cake, coffee, and fresh squeezed raspberry juice from my hotel’s delicious breakfast buffet the next morning, I decided to venture out into the lake region just a short bus ride from Puerto Montt. I took a local bus to Puerto Varas, a touristy town of German-esque buildings on the shores of Lake Llanquihue (that’s “yawn-KEY-way”) with stunning views of volcanoes on the other side of the lake.
I ambled along Puerto Varas’s costanera, admiring to my right the hotels that could have come directly from a Bavarian alpine village and to my left across the lake the surprisingly round top of the Volcán Osorno. Another volcano, Calbuco, could barely be seen through a thin layer of clouds gracing the opposite shores of the lake.
When the buildings of German-influenced architecture started fading into gas stations and mini warehouses, I figured I must be in the outskirts of town, so I darted inland and uphill to a residential neighborhood. At the top of the hill, a sign announcing a place called La Gringa (meaning “the white girl”) appeared in front of me. It was calling me! (Unlike in some Latin American countries, in Chile the term “gringa” or “gringo” is usually not meant offensively.)
La Gringa turned out to be a cheerful coffee shop in a historical house. I sipped down a dulce de leche latte, then continued on a paseo towards downtown along the side of the hill with lake and volcano views.
When I arrived back in the main part of town, a bus heading to Frutillar was waiting at the bus stop. I made an impromptu decision to visit the tiny lakeside town and hopped on the packed bus.
Frutillar is a stretch of German-style houses-turned-hotel, restaurant, and artisan shop along the Lake Llanquihue waterfront. On this mildly warm summer day, families tossed balls at the beach, tourists shopped for handicrafts and handmade clothes at the small shops, and everybody lunched or happy hour’ed at outdoor restaurants.
After I had walked on the costanera from one end of the town to the other, I settled into a window table at a cafe in the Teatro del Lago, a modern wooden theater built on a pier on the lake, and passed the rest of the afternoon with a glass of vino blanco and lake and volcano views.
Back in Puerto Montt that night, I was feeling particularly lazy. I thought a low-key dinner at my hotel’s restaurant just two floors up via elevator would be the perfect answer to my lassitude. I rode the glass elevator to the tenth floor, where the restaurant’s wall-to-wall glass windows greeted me with a view of the sound and the sun setting behind Isla Tengo.
As is customary in Chile, I chose a table and sat down, waiting for the hostess to bring me a menu. A few minutes later she came over, sans menu. “Do you have a reservation?” she asked me. I replied no, thinking it couldn’t be that big of a deal since the restaurant was practically empty.
Apparently I was wrong. In just a few minutes, every table in the place would be filled with families eating a late dinner. The unbelievably friendly hostess somehow managed to squeeze an extra table for me among the rest, and fifteen minutes later I was enjoying a mariscos panqueque, a crepe filled with fresh shellfish.
But why was the normally empty restaurant so full on this night?
My confusion was shortly quelled. The hostess informed me that there was going to be a fireworks show over the sound, and it would occur as I was eating my dinner!
Every year, there is a grand pyrotechnic display of fuegos artificiales to commemorate the anniversary of the town’s founding on February 12, 1853. I just so happened to be in the town on this day, and I just so happened to be eating on the top floor of a hilltop restaurant with panoramic windows that would provide a perfect view of the show.
Man, do I love fireworks.
This was one time that my laziness paid off. Had I not been so slothful that night, I likely would have been at a restaurant inland from the sound with no view of the show. The booming sound probably would have tipped me off, but I would have had no idea what was going on.
The unexpected and spontaneous happenings are some of the best things about traveling.
And now, I am about to catch a bus that will take me south to Castro, the capital of Chiloé Island.