The Lake District, which stretches 339km from Temuco in the north to Puerto Montt in the south, is a region of lush farmland, dense forest, snowcapped volcanoes and deep, clear lakes, hidden for the most part in the mountains. Until the 1880s, when small farm settlements arrived, the entire region was blanketed in thick forests: to the north, the high, spindly araucaría; on the coast, dense selva valdiviana; and to the very south, two-thousand-year-old alerces – “Chile’s Yosemite”. These forests were inhabited by the Mapuche (literally “people of the land”), who fought off the Inca and resisted Spanish attempts at colonization for 350 years before finally falling to the Chilean Army in the 1880s.
In the century since the subjugation of the Mapuche, 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. Native culture survives as well: the Mapuche heritage is a badge of honour in today’s Chile, and at least half a million of the region’s population claim this ancestry, many of whom reside on the extensive indigenous reducciones (reservations) throughout the Lake District.
The efforts of the European settlers also opened the area up to travellers, and visitors have been coming here for over a hundred years. Yet while much of the Lake District’s population lives in the main cities of Temuco, Osorno, Valdivia and Puerto Montt, with the exception of Valdivia these are mainly transportation hubs, with less to offer than the roads less trodden. The real action lies in the region’s many national parks and around the adventure sports capitals of Pucón and Puerto Varas, where the options abound for hiking, volcano-climbing, rafting, kayaking, canyoning, horseriding and soaking in the many thermal springs. In the winter, skiing down volcanoes draws an adventurous crowd.