The Lake District in Chile is a region of lush farmland, dense forest, snowcapped volcanoes and clear lakes – largely hidden in the mountains. It was once inhabited by the Mapuche (literally “people of the land”), who fought off the Inca and resisted Spanish attempts at colonisation for 350 years before finally falling to the Chilean Army in the 1880s.
In the century since German, Austrian and Swiss settlers have transformed this region into some of the finest dairy farmland in Chile, and the extent of German influence is evident in architectural and culinary form, particularly in Valdivia, Osorno, Puerto Varas and Frutillar.
The efforts of the European settlers effectively kick-started tourism in the Lake District in Chile, and visitors have been coming here for over a hundred years. Yet while much of the Chilean Lake District’s population lives in the main cities – Temuco, Osorno, Valdivia and Puerto Montt – these are mainly transportation hubs, with less to offer than the countryside.
If you’re looking for things to do in Chile's Lake District, then consider where the real action lies in the national parks and around the adventure sports capitals of Pucón and Puerto Varas.
The western slopes come into their own in winter with a small ski centre offering amazing views, three drag lifts, a chair lift and three runs.
Lots of volcanic activity means there are more commercialised hot springs in the Pucón region than near any other town in Chile.
Temuco is the largest city in the Lake District. Most visitors use it solely as a transport hub or as a base for exploring nearby Parque Nacional Conguillío. But the city itself has a rich Mapuche heritage, particularly evident in and around the colourful markets.
The diagonal Avenida Caupolicán separates the city’s quiet and exclusive residential districts to the west and the unattractive maze of shops and offices to the east.
Travel to Temuco’s centre and you’ll find the relaxing Plaza Aníbal Pinto, luxuriant with fine native and imported trees, set off by a large monument depicting the struggle between the Spanish and the Mapuche Indians.
Visit the Lake District in Chile and you can’t miss the grey peak of Volcán Llaima (3,125m) looming over the horizon about 80km east of Temuco. Wrapped around its neck is Parque Nacional Conguillío, which the volcano does its best to destroy with belches of black lava.
The northern route into the park is through the village of Curacautín (97km from Temuco), entering the park at sector Laguna Captrén. The southern road from Melipeuco enters at sector Truful-Truful, via the compact village of Melipeuco.
If you’re considering where to stay in the Lake District, then the latter makes a convenient base, with a couple of good accommodation options. From the west, a little-used dirt road runs from the village of Cherquenco past the Centro de Esquí Las Araucarías.
Parque Nacional Conguillío also offers a good selection of hikes for all abilities, with trails and incredible views to be found in and around the Sierra Nevada range, Lago Conguillío and the Truful-Truful valley.
The park splits neatly into two main sectors, formed by the volcano’s western and eastern slopes. The western slopes (Sector Los Paraguas) come into their own in winter, offering a small ski centre, the Centro de Esquí Las Araucarias.
Lago Villarrica is the Lake District’s most visited lake. The reason for its popularity is Pucón, a prime outdoor adventure centre. So if you’re looking for things to do in Chile’s Lake District this is a good place to stop. At the other end of the lake from Pucón is Villarrica, its more sedate counterpart.
Villarica’s waterfront has been transformed with an attractive promenade, replacing the rather dirty beaches, thus attracting its fair share of visitors, who find it to be a more low-key, authentic destination than the ultra-touristy Pucón.
The small mountain town of Pucón in Chile’s Lake District has firmly established itself as a top backpacker destination. Each November to April season brings scores of outdoor lovers looking to ascend the volcano ride the Río Trancura rapids or hike in the remote forested corners of the nearby Parque Nacional Huerquehue.
Evenings are generally spent eating, drinking and partying in the Pucón restaurants and bars, or soaking in one of the many surrounding thermal springs. The place gets particularly busy in January and February when the international travellers are joined by Chilean holidaymakers.
As soon as you arrive in Pucón, you’ll realise the town’s main attraction is the Volcán Villarrica. The path leaves from the ski centre, and it’s four hours up to a crater in which, if you’re lucky and the gas clears, you’ll see bubbling pits of molten rock.
If it’s not too windy, the chairlift trims an hour off the climb. While it doesn’t demand technical climbing skills, you do need a hard hat, ice-axe, sturdy boots, gaiters, waterproof overtrousers and crampons – all provided by the tour agency you go with.
The view from the top on a clear day is stupendous (though you won’t linger for long because of the noxious fumes), followed by a rollicking tobogganing down the side of a volcano along snow slides, using your ice-axe as a brake.
Overshadowed by the popular resort of Pucón, the region known as Siete Lagos – Seven Lakes – is the next one south of Villarrica. Six of the lakes are in Chile, one (Lago Lácar) in Argentina, and all are linked by rivers in one hydrological system, with attractive villages along their shores.
The busiest lakes are the largest ones, the relatively warm Lago Calafquén, 30km south of Villarrica along a tarred road, and Lago Panguipulli, 17km further on. The next valley down contains the slightly smaller Lago Riñihue, hardly visited and perfect for nature lovers and fishermen.
To the east of Lagos Panguipulli and Riñihue are the most remote of the Siete Lagos, Lago Neltume and Lago Pirihueico, neither of which was accessible by road until thirty years ago and today are rapidly making their way onto the map.
Fifty kilometres west of the Panamericana lies the attractive city of Valdivia, one of Chile’s oldest settlements. Post-independence there was a great influx of German settlers who founded shipyards, breweries and mills, leaving a lasting legacy.
Today Valdivia is a vibrant, cosmopolitan university town. It’s a mixture of the colonial and the contemporary, even though many of its old buildings were lost to earthquakes, fires and floods throughout the last century.
Bierfest Kunstmann, at the end of January, celebrates the joys of locally produced craft beer, while between the second and third Saturday in February “Valdivia Week” sees the river light up with a parade of boats and a fireworks show.
From tentative beginnings, it has grown into a thriving agricultural city mainly as a result of the industry of European settlers who felled the forests and began to develop the great dairy herds that form the backbone of the local economy today.
The German heritage is evident in the row of wooden houses along Calle Mackenna, built between 1876 and 1923, and declared national monuments.
As the transport hub for the southern Lake District in Chile and starting point for the region’s main road into Argentina, Osorno has an abundance of public buses. This makes surrounding attractions such as Parque Nacional Puyehue, one of Chile’s most-visited national parks, much easier to visit.
Parque Nacional Puyehue is one of Chile’s busiest national parks, largely because of the traffic on the international road that runs through its centre. It’s part of a massive, 15,000-square-kilometre area of protected wilderness.
The land is high temperate rainforest spread over two volcanoes, Volcán Puyehue (2240m) to the north, and Volcán Casablanca (1990m), on the west slope of which is the Antillanca ski resort. The park’s divided into three sectors: Aguas Calientes where the termas (thermal springs) are, Antillanca and Anticura, straddling the international road near the Argentine border.
Visit the Lake District in Chile and you’re bound to hear talk of hot springs. While many of them lie in remote areas around the Chile Lakes, visitors have two easily accessible options, the first being the thermal springs of one of Chile’s most famous and fashionable hotels, the Hotel Termas de Puyehue.
The second, and cheaper, option is the resort at Aguas Calientes, right at the entrance to the Parque Nacional Puyehue. It has tinas (personal bathtubs), double tinas (so you can bathe with a friend), a hot outdoor pool and a very hot indoor pool.
Located just off the Panamericana, Lago Llanquihue is an immense inland sea of 870 square kilometres, a backdrop for one of the icons of the Chile Lakes, the Mount Fuji-like Volcán Osorno (2661m).
The little towns and villages around Lago Llanquihue have a shared German heritage, but differ greatly in character. Puerto Varas, at the lake’s southernmost point, is a bustling adventure tourism centre to rival Pucón.
Frutillar, on the lake’s western shore, is a summer holiday resort beloved by Chileans visiting the lakes, while Puerto Octay, to the north, is a neat little Bavarian-looking town. By the time you come to the village of Ensenada, on the far eastern shore of the lake, forest has overtaken dairy fields and the land begins to rise as you enter the foothills of the Andes.
Travel to the Chilean Lake District and you cannot miss Puerto Varas. If you’re thinking about places to stay in the Lake District, Chile, then consider that this is arguably the most appealing base along the shore of Lago Llanquihue. Puerto Varas is a spruce little town with wide streets, grassy lawns and exquisite views of two volcanoes, Osorno and Calbuco, particularly at sunset.
Like Pucón, the reason you come to Puerto Varas is because it’s a prime location for all manner of outdoor activities, with volcanoes, rivers and forests throwing down a gauntlet that few outdoor enthusiasts can refuse.
Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales, Chile’s first national park, was established in 1926, and covers an area of 2,510 square kilometres.
It is divided into three sectors: Sector Osorno, Sector Petrohué and Sector Peulla, and comprises some of the most sensational scenery in the Lake District: the emerald Lago Todos Los Santos, the thundering turquoise waters of the Saltos de Petrohu.
It also includes the imposing peaks of the area’s main volcanoes: Osorno, Tronador and Puntiagudo. Coupled with the fact that this vast chunk of wilderness provides endless hiking opportunities, it’s little wonder that this park is the most visited in the whole of Chile.
On the way back to Ensenada from Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales, a southern fork, 1km before the town, will take you 33km along a good road, fringed with large bushes of wild fuchsia and giant rhubarb plants, to the tranquil Estuario de Reloncaví.
The fjord is a good place to escape and unwind or to horse-trek into the Cochamó Valley, home to some of the oldest standing trees in South America. Your first view of the bay comes as you descend to the village of Ralún, from which an unpaved road leads you through wild, dramatic scenery deeper into pioneer country and the village of Cochamó.
Seventeen kilometres south of Puerto Varas, the Panamericana approaches a large bay – the Seno de Reloncaví – with snowcapped Volcán Calbuco and Volcán Osorno towering beyond.
On its edge lies the administrative and commercial capital of the Chilean Lake District – Puerto Montt. The city is strung out along the bay, with the central part of town located on a narrow flat area along the main Avenida Diego Portales, and much of the city crowding the hills behind it.
Puerto Montt is an important transportation hub, with buses to many Chilean and Argentinian destinations. Though even some of the locals refer to it as ‘‘Muerto Montt’’ (‘‘Dead Montt’’), on a sunny day, this gritty town is quite attractive, with snow-tipped volcanoes visible across the bay from the seafront promenade.
In a beautiful setting on the shores of Lago Llanquihue, this wood-shingled boutique hotel oozes tranquillity. All centrally heated, cream-coloured rooms are decked out in native woods.
This Bavarian-style guesthouse is tucked away on the banks of the Cautín river. Its guest cabañas make it an ideal base for exploring the Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas.
An American-owned hostel in central Valdivia with serious eco credentials. Colourful, secure dorms and snug private rooms are popular with international backpackers.
A backpacker and cyclist favourite in Puerto Octay. A canoe, bike, sailing boat, climbing gear and a scooter are available to rent, and the breakfast spread is extensive.
The hospitable Brazilian owner/chef Eloa receives guests at this beautiful guesthouse in a tranquil part of Ensenada, with excellent views of Calbuco and Osorno volcanoes.
High up on a hill above Cochamó, this gorgeous little hostel consists of a four-bed dorm, a twin and three doubles, and is run by a friendly and knowledgeable Swiss/Chilean couple.