Puerto Montt: Gateway to the Chilean Lakes District

No Chilean city enjoys a more impressive setting than Puerto Montt, where a cordon of forested mountains and snowcapped volcanoes stretches south along Chile’s island-studded “Inside Passage.” Still, this midsize port can’t match the prosperity and cultural diversity of cities in comparable surroundings, such as Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. Attempts at improvements haven’t managed to improve its presentability. Part of the waterfront, with its dramatic views, has become a park, but the lawns have died for lack of maintenance and graffiti vandalism defaces many new constructions, and traffic clogs downtown streets.

Puerto Montt owes its growth to shipbuilding, extractive industries such as forestry, and the fish-farming sector. As a city whose potential, to this point, exceeds its achievements, the capital of Region X (Los Lagos) is mainly a gateway to the Andean lakes district, the Chiloé archipelago, Chilean Patagonia, and parts of Argentina. As a transport hub where mainland Chile ends and archipelagic Chile begins, it enjoys air, land, or sea connections in all directions but west. Cruise ships call at its port of Angelmó, though there’s barely room for them to maneuver in and out of the congested harbor; the largest vessels have to anchor offshore and shuttle passengers to the pier.

View of a snowcapped mountain on the way to Puerto Montt.
Summer snow on the way to Puerto Montt. Photo © Eduardo Zárate, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Puerto Montt dates from 1853, when German colonists landed at the north end of the Seno de Reloncaví in what was then called Melipulli, a Huilliche word whose definition—Four Hills—aptly described the site. It grew slowly until 1912, when the railroad cut travel time to Santiago to 26 hours and it became the jumping-off point for southbound colonists headed for continental Chiloé, Aisén, and Magallanes.

In 1960, a massive earthquake destroyed the port and most of what Jan Morris called “structures in the Alpine manner, all highpitched roofs and quaint balconies.” Rebuilt in a mostly utilitarian style, Puerto Montt is only now beginning to sport newer buildings of distinction. The earlier style survives in nearby Puerto Varas.


Puerto Montt’s strength is its magnificent setting, but it also has a handful of architectural monuments and other sights. On the south side of Plaza Manuel Irarrázaval, built of alerce, the copper-domed, Parthenon-styled Catedral de Puerto Montt (1856) is the city’s oldest building. Surrounded by woods, the hillside Torre Campanario del Colegio San Francisco Javier (1894) rises behind the Iglesia de los Jesuitas (1872), at the corner of Guillermo Gallardo and Rengifo.

As of 2014, the waterfront Museo Juan Pablo II (Av. Diego Portales 991, tel. 065/2223029, museojp@yahoo.com) was undergoing major renovation to accommodate its collections on natural history, archaeology (including dioramas of the Monte Verde early human site 35 kilometers west of town), anthropology, early Spanish and 19th-century German colonization, and the city’s history from its origins as the hamlet of Melipulli to the 1960 earthquake and up to the present. For locals, the high point is the 1987 visit from Pope John Paul II, which resulted in the museum’s renaming.

Puerto Montt and Angelmó, two kilometers west, have gradually merged along the waterfront. The port retains its own identity and attracts more visitors than other parts of town, thanks to its sprawling crafts market and gaggle of marisquerías (simple fish and seafood eateries) jammed with lunch and dinner patrons. Taxi colectivos out Avenida Diego Portales go directly to the port, which is also the departure point for southbound ferries.

Monumento Natural Lahuén Ñadi

Little native forest remains near Puerto Montt. However, substantial stands of alerce, ulmo, mañío, coigüe, and other species survive in this 200-hectare woodland between the city and Aeropuerto El Tepual, despite the steady encroachment of trophy houses surrounded by high fences and guarded by Rottweilers.

Located on the private Fundo El Rincón, the Conaf-administered Monumento Natural Lahuén Ñadi (tel. 09/8570-2388, US$3, authorization required) features a small visitors center, a cafeteria, a short nature trail, and one slightly longer hiking trail. Midway between the Panamericana and the airport, a bumpy gravel road leads to the park, about three kilometers north. Water can cover parts of the road when rains are heavy, but the surface is firm gravel and vehicles without fourwheel drive pass easily.

Any airport-bound bus will drop you at the junction, which is about a 30-minute walk from the park. Visits now require authorization from Conaf’s Puerto Montt office (Urmeneta 977, 5th Fl., tel. 065/2486115).

Getting There and Around

Other than Santiago, Puerto Montt is the main gateway for air, land, and sea connections to Chilean Patagonia and across the Andes to Argentina. Only in summer can overland travelers begin the Carretera Austral by heading southeast from here, as Naviera Austral’s Hornopirén-Caleta Gonzalo ferry link operates in January and February only. Otherwise, it’s necessary to take the ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, or the occasional sailing from Castro or Quellón.


LAN (O’Higgins 167, Local 1-B, tel. 065/2253315) flies several times daily to Santiago, usually nonstop but sometimes via Valdivia, Temuco, or Concepción, or a combination of those. It also flies at least twice daily to Balmaceda/Coyhaique and three or four times daily to Punta Arenas, occasionally stopping in Balmaceda/Coyhaique. Occasionally it flies from Santiago to Puerto Montt and on to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.

Sky Airline (Benavente 495, Local 4, tel. 065/2437555) flies frequently to Santiago, less frequently to Balmaceda/Coyhaique, and to Punta Arenas and occasionally Puerto Natales.

No carrier has lasted long on the air-taxi route to Chaitén, a major starting point for overland trips on the Carretera Austral. Aerocord (tel. 065/2262300) and Cielomaraustral (tel. 065/2264010, cielomaraustral@surnet.cl) fly to nearby Santa Bárbara (US$85). These leave from Aeródromo La Paloma, on the hill immediately behind the downtown area.


Still undergoing a major renovation that will include a four-star hotel, Puerto Montt’s Terminal de Buses (Av. Portales 1001, tel. 065/2283000) is about one kilometer southwest of the Plaza de Armas. Services are frequent to rural, regional, and most long-distance destinations, as well as to Bariloche, Argentina. Buses to the Chilean Patagonia destinations of Coyhaique and Punta Arenas, which pass through Argentina, are less frequent but reliable.

From the bus terminal, Buses ETM (tel. 065/2256253, US$4) connects to inbound and outbound flights at Aeropuerto El Tepual (tel. 065/2252019), which is 16 kilometers west via the Panamericana and a paved lateral.

Cruz del Sur (Av. Salvador Allende and Av. Presidente Ibáñez, tel. 065/483127) and its affiliated companies have opened a new terminal on higher ground near the Panamericana but continue to use the downtown terminal as well.

From a dedicated platform, several companies go to Puerto Varas (US$1.50, 30 minutes), including Expreso Puerto Varas and Thaebus. Thaebus also passes through Varas en route to Frutillar and Puerto Octay.

Buses Fierro (tel. 065/2252909) goes to Lenca (US$2.50), the southerly access point to Parque Nacional Alerce Andino, at noon and 4:30pm daily. Buses JB (tel. 065/2290850) goes to Correntoso (US$2.50), the northern access point to Alerce Andino, five times daily between 7:40am and 8:30pm, except Sunday when it goes at 9:10am and 8:30pm.

Daily at 7am, 8am, 1pm, and 3:30pm, Kémelbus (tel. 065/2256450) goes to Hornopirén, also known as Río Negro (US$7.50, four hours). One bus daily continues to Chaitén (US$18, 12 hours) via the Ruta Bimodal, which involves ferry crossing from Hornopirén to Leptepu and Fiordo Largo to Caleta Gonzalo. Still, more visitors use the ferry from Puerto Montt or from Castro or Quellón, on the Chiloé archipelago, to reach Chaitén.

Numerous carriers serve the capital city of Santiago (US$40-75, 12-13 hours) and intermediates including Temuco (US$14, 5.5 hours). Chiloé destinations include Ancud (US$7, two hours) and Castro (US$11, three hours).

Buses Trans Austral (tel. 065/2709840) goes to Futaleufú (US$45, 11 hours) via Argentina Monday and Saturday at 7am, and to Coyhaique (US$57, 21 hours) Sunday at 11am via Argentina. It also goes to Bariloche (US$25), El Bolsón (US$41), Esquel (US$60), Comodoro Rivadavia (US$79), Caleta Olivia, Trelew (US$111), and Puerto Madryn (US$111) Monday at 11am. Feryval (tel. 065/2721312) and Lago Espolón (tel. 065/2721215) also serve Futaleufú.

Several companies operate between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas (US$85, 28 hours) via Argentina, including Pullman Bus (tel. 065/2254399), Queilen Bus (tel. 065/2253468), and Turibús (tel. 065/2252872), all of which normally begin in Castro (Chiloé) and pick up passengers here and in Osorno. These are through-buses, not permitted to drop passengers in Argentina. Queilen also goes to Coyhaique (US$57, 22 hours) Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at noon.

Five companies cross the Andes to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina (US$23-27, six hours), via Osorno and the Cardenal Samoré pass: Andesmar (tel. 065/2312123), Buses Norte Internacional (tel. 065/2233319), Cruz del Sur (tel. 065/2252872), Tas Choapa (tel. 065/2254828), and Vía Bariloche (tel. 065/2233633). Igi Llaima (tel. 065/2259320) goes to the Argentine cities of San Martín de los Andes (US$35) and Neuquén (US$45).

Andina del Sud (Antonio Varas 216, Oficina 907, tel. 065/2228600) sells tickets for the bus-boat relay to Bariloche (US$230) via Puerto Varas, Ensenada, Petrohué, and Peulla. These leave Puerto Montt in the morning, arriving early evening in Bariloche. Summer departures are daily. During the rest of the year, departures are Monday-Friday only and require an overnight stay in Peulla.


From Puerto Montt there are passenger and passenger/vehicle ferries or bus-ferry combinations to Chiloé and Chaitén in Region X, Puerto Chacabuco (the port of Coyhaique) in Region XI (Aisén), and Puerto Natales in Region XII (Magallanes). Since these routes follow the sheltered inland sea, seasickness is usually a minor problem except on the openocean crossing of the Golfo de Penas (literally, Gulf of Sorrows), en route to Puerto Natales. In the new passenger terminal, the two main companies are Naviera Austral (Av. Angelmó 1673, tel. 065/2270430) and Navimag (Av. Angelmó 1735, tel. 065/2432360). Vehicles, however, still board at the Terminal de Transbordadores (Av. Angelmó 2187), about 500 meters west.

Naviera Austral runs routes between Puerto Montt and Chaitén (8-12 hours) on the cramped, aging rustbucket Pincoya (US$19) and the newer, sleeker Don Baldo (US$30 pp reclining seats, US$59-66 for a bunk) five times weekly. Vehicle rates are US$165 for passenger vehicles and small trucks; bicycles cost US$11 and motorcycles US$38. For passengers, the Pincoya is cheaper, but it has no bunks.

The replacement of the Evangelistas by the smaller Edén has increased passenger pressure on Navimag’s Puerto Montt-Puerto Natales route, so reservations are imperative in the summer peak. If in Santiago, visit the Navimag office there. Still, it’s worth trying for a last-minute berth or cabin. Fares depend on the season and the level of accommodations but start around US$350 per person with full board. Bicycles cost an additional US$53, motorcycles US$152, passenger cars US$528, and light trucks US$564; other vehicles pay a linear meter rate.

From September-May, Cruceros Marítimos Skorpios (Av. Angelmó 1660, tel. 065/2252996) operates luxury cruises to Laguna San Rafael that begin in Puerto Montt; rates on the 140-passenger Skorpios II start at US$1,400 per person and range up to US$3,300 per person.

Car Rental

For car rentals, try Econorent (Antonio Varas 126, tel. 065/2481261) or Europcar (Antonio Varas 162, tel. 065/2286277). Note that taking a vehicle into Argentina requires notarial permission.

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