A considerable amount of logistical preparation is involved with any international trip to Chile and any ultra marathon. Vulcano Ultra Trail was both, which made it an especially big effort. With this travel guide, I hope to make VUT logistically easier for you. It’s based primarily on my experience in Chile, with some additional input from Joe Grant and Nico Barazza.
This Google Map includes all key landmarks. View it in a larger window.
Puerto Varas is the center of race activity. Its the location of the pre-race meeting and vendor expo, and where most runners stay overnight. There are some outposts of civilization closer to the start/finish area at Petrohue (e.g. Las Cascadas, Ensenada) but services are very limited.
The closest major city to Puerto Varas is Puerto Montt, which is a 10-hour drive or 90-minute flight south from Santiago, Chile’s capital city.
Getting to Puerto Varas
There are two ways to reach Puerto Varas. I recommend flying to Puerto Montt (PMC), likely via a domestic flight from Santiago (SCL). From the airport, take a rental car, taxi, or public bus to Puerto Varas.
Alternatively, take a bus from Santiago to Puerto Varas, as Joe and Nico did. You can see more from ground-level than from 30,000 feet, but it’s not efficient or conducive to peak race performance — it’s a 10-hour overnight drive in a half- or fully-reclined seat.
There are only a few non-stop flights between the US and Santiago. I flew out of Houston, via United; Joe and Nico flew out of Dallas, via Delta. I think I also saw flights from Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. It was a 9-hour flight from Houston to Santiago, which is just long enough for a decent red-eye experience.
As always with international flights, budget extra time for layovers in the event it’s a long wait in Customs or it’s a long hike between terminals.
I was able to book my entire 3-leg flight through United, even though the final flight was operated by Sky Airlines. They must be partner airlines. However, United was unable to issue my SCL-PMC ticket in Denver, and Sky Airlines was unable to issue my SCL-IAH and IAH-DEN tickets in Puerto Montt. I had to get these tickets in Santiago.
The Sky Airlines flight between Santiago and Puerto Montt continues to Puerto Arenas (or is coming from there), which is the the go-to airport for Patagonia and Antarctica. Expect to see trekkers with sleeping pads, big backpacks, and trekking poles — or maybe even a polar explorer.
Length of stay
Make the long flight to Chile more worthwhile by tacking on time before or after the race. I picked afterwards, so that I could enjoy a culinary binge and so that I could exhaust myself on a worthy hike or climb if I found one.
Arrive no later than Thursday, so that there is a 24-hour cushion to manage any travel delay or baggage mix-up.
Depart no earlier than Monday, so that there is time to recover from the race, eat some food, see a few things, and do some gift shopping.
Alternatively, arrive a week or two early, so that there is time to do some cool things before needing to kick back for a few days before the race, assuming you are taking the race seriously.
If your travel plans replicate mine, you’ll start and end with a domestic flight, and have an international flight in the middle. When flying south, you’ll pass through customs in Santiago, then need to go back through domestic screening. When flying north, you’ll pass through customs in Houston, then need to go back through domestic screening.
When you pass through customs in Santiago, you’ll be given a receipt from Policía de Investigaciones de Chile (PDI). Hold onto it — you’ll need to give it back to the customs official before entering the international terminal.
Chile does not require a tourist visa for US citizens.
I chose to rent a car, so that I’d be free to explore the region without needing to rely on taxis, public buses, or shuttles. We especially appreciated the independence after the race, by which time we felt like we’d seen all there was in Puerto Varas.
Relative to average US rental rates, I thought it was expensive, which may or may not be the norm. Since my auto insurance does not extend to international car rentals, I got the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) insurance. I found out later that this is a perk of my credit card, which would have helped reduce the expense.
The race offers shuttle buses between Puerto Varas and Petrohue, for those without a car. It seemed well organized and reliable.
There is a car rental agency in Puerto Varas, if you only want wheels for a day or two.
Major roads are well surfaced and have good signage. I-5 runs north-south through most of the country. There are occasional tolls, and always at the exits. Secondary roads are often gravel. The road system is simple, and I felt very comfortable with a paper road map from the rental car agency.
There are many hotels in Puerto Varas. The race website has a dedicated page with links and contact information.
We stayed at Hotel Pinacoteca El Greco, a small boutique hotel located a few blocks south of the city center. The rooms for comfortable and clean, but they lacked sound-proofing — we could hear people on the stairwell, in the downstairs restaurant, and outside. We did not eat at the restaurant. They have WiFi, but it seemed strained and unreliable when the hotel was full. The cost was about $80 per night, which is quite a bit less than hotel rates in the US for a comparable facility, tourist city, and high-season.
Puerto Varas is small, walkable, cute and full-service. There is some money there: nice hotels, nice homes, nice restaurants, a casino, etc. I imagine that it is a popular spot for international tourists and wealthy Chileans. And from what I saw when outside PV, it’s not representative of the entire country.
If you need to shake out your legs, run down to the lakeshore and follow the paved sidewalk east. It may run west, too, but I didn’t check.
There is not a whole lot to do or see in PV. I arrived mid-afternoon on Thursday, and by Sunday morning (with the race on Saturday) we were ready to see something else.
I encountered few Chileans who spoke decent English, even those in service jobs who regularly interact with English-speaking tourists, e.g. clerks at airline counters, rental car counters, and hotel front desks.
It’s really helpful to know some Spanish. If you’re not fluent, download the Google Translate app (Android, iTunes), which does not make you conversational but which will get you through transactions.
My international travel experience is limited and my Spanish is poor, but I always felt comfortable on this trip. I had no concerns about, say, driving the rental car, walking the streets of Puerto Varas, or leaving my belongings in my hotel room.
Food and drink
Tap water was safe to drink.
Food is generally less expensive than in the US, especially local food like steaks and salmon. For instance, Joe, Nico, and I had an excellent post-race feast that cost us just $30: meat & cheese appetizer, delicious salmon entree, two drinks each, and desert.
Cassis has an excellent lakeside downtown location. The omelettes are superb and inexpensive (less than $10 with an espresso), but Joe and Nico had less positive things to say about their lunch and dinner options.
Gringo 360 is an awesome steak place. Make reservations.
Mirador 620 had creative dishes and excellent service.
In early-December 2015, one USD converted into 710 Chilean pesos (CLP). To make mental conversions easier, I assumed 700.
About half of vendors accepted my Visa credit card, which is my preference — the exchange rate is best, and it reduces the amount of cash I need to carry.
Small and local merchants were often cash-only; I retrieved cash from an ATM with a Visa debit card. Because of the transaction and conversion fees associated with ATM withdrawls, this is a less efficient way to pay for purchases, and less secure, too.
Before I left, I put travel notifications on all of my credit and debit cards, so that I would not be blocked on purchases or cash withdrawls.
Santiago and Puerto Varas are in the CLT time zone, which is UTC-3:00. This put me 2 hours ahead of EST, 3 hours ahead of CST, 4 hours ahead of MST, and 5 hours ahead of PST. The long days of the austral summer were a welcome break from Colorado’s dark days of December.
The 100k race starts at midnight CLT on Saturday morning, or 8 pm MST on Friday. This was odd but I managed.
American 110-120 volt plugs do not work in Chile, where they use a 2-prong Italian-style socket with 220 volts. Before you leave, buy a universal plug adapter; I was unable to find one in Puerto Varas.