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.
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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.
Once a Mapuche stronghold, TEMUCO, 677km south of Santiago, is the largest city in southern Chile. 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, which are among the best places in the country to hear Mapudungun (the Mapuche language) spoken, and there are still occasional clashes between the Mapuche and the police, particularly over land rights.
Temuco was founded in 1881, and it was only when the railway from Santiago arrived in 1893 that the city began to prosper. An influx of seven thousand European immigrants from seven different countries formed the farming and commercial nucleus that soon transformed the forested valleys and plains.
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. Temuco’s centre is 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, while a few blocks north lies the Monumento Natural Cerro Ñielol, a densely forested hill with some enjoyable walking trails and home to the copihue (Lapageria rosea), Chile’s national flower.
Parque Nacional Conguillío
The grey peak of Volcán Llaima (3125m) looms over the horizon about 80km east of Temuco. Wrapped around its neck is PARQUE NACIONAL CONGUILLÍO, a park the volcano has been doing its best to destroy with belch after belch of black lava. The northern sector is lush, high forest, with steep cliffs covered in spindly armed araucaría trees often draped in furry lime-green moss. In the south, however, the volcano has wreaked havoc. The road from Temuco passes over a wide lava flow, consisting of either rolling plains of thin dust or walls of spiked, recently congealed rock.
Volcán Llaima is actually one of the three most active volcanoes on the continent; its last serious eruption was in 1957, though as recently as 1994 a lake, Laguna Arco Iris, was formed by a fresh lava flow that blocked a river.
The northern route into the park is through the village of Curacautín (97km from Temuco), entering the park at sector Laguna Captrén, while the southern road from Melipeuco enters at sector Truful-Truful, and from the west, a little-used dirt road runs from the village of Cherquenco past the Centro de Esquí Las Araucarías.
Skiing and hiking in Parque Nacional Conguillío
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, boasting a small ski centre, the Centro de Esquí Las Araucarias (45 239999), with breathtaking views, two drag lifts, three runs and a refuge near the tree line. In summer the focus shifts to the eastern slopes, which form the bulk of the park.
Those with sufficient experience, an ice axe and crampons can make the difficult seven-hour ascent of Volcán Llaima, but you need permission from Conaf. Be prepared to deal with crevasses and fumaroles, and beware of sulphur fumes at the summit. The park also offers a good selection of hikes for all abilities. For incredible views of the Sierra Nevada range through araucaría forest, take the 7km (2.5hr) trail from Playa Linda, at the east end of Lago Conguillío, to the base of the Sierra Nevada. The challenging Travesía Río Blanco (5km; 5hr), which crosses a small glacier before continuing into the Sierra Nevada proper, is recommended for very experienced trekkers only.
From the western shores of Laguna Verde, the 11km (5hr) Sendero Pastos Blancos runs to the Laguna Captrén, traversing spectacular scenery and rewarding you with panoramic views of Sierra Nevada, Lago Conguillío and the Truful-Truful valley. From the Truful-Truful Conaf ranger station, you can take the Sendero Subtramo Arpehue, part of the Sendero de Chile, to Laguna Captrén, passing the Andrés Huenupi Mapuche community along the way.
The Truful-Truful ranger station is also the starting point for two short nature trails: the Cañadón Truful-Truful (900m; 30min) passes by colourful strata, exposed by the Río Truful-Truful’s flow, while the Las Vertientes trail (800m; 45min) is characterized by the subterranean springs that rush out of the ground. The Laguna Captrén ranger station is the starting point for the Sendero Los Carpinteros, also part of the Sendero de Chile, a fairly easy 8km, five-hour round-trip that starts from Lago Captrén, and loops around the lagoon before continuing to the administration centre and joining the El Contrabandista trail. This trail which was formerly used by the Pehuenche hunters and cattle rustlers going to and from Argentina. The highlight is an araucaría that’s estimated to be 1500 years old.
Lago Villarrica and around
LAGO VILLARRICA, tucked in the mountains some 86km to the southeast of Temuco, is Chile’s most visited lake. The reason for its popularity is Pucón, a prime outdoor adventure centre. At the other end of the lake from Pucón is Villarrica, its more sedate counterpart.
The area around Lago Villarrica was first settled by the Spanish in the late sixteenth century, but they didn’t have much time to enjoy their new territory: their towns were sacked by the Mapuche in 1602. Recolonization didn’t take place until the Mapuche were subjugated 250 years later. With the arrival of the railroad from Santiago in 1933, the area became one of Chile’s prime holiday destinations.
Sitting on the southwestern edge of the lake with a beautiful view of the volcano, VILLARRICA is one of Chile’s oldest towns, although it may not feel like it – it has been destroyed several times by volcanic eruptions and skirmishes with the Mapuche. Now that Villarica’s waterfront has been transformed with an attractive promenade, replacing the rather dirty beaches, the place has once again been attracting its fair share of visitors, who find it to be a more low-key, authentic destination than the ultra-touristy Pucón. Plans are afoot to beautify Villarica even more with brand new sand beaches, a yacht harbour and an urban park with theatre.
Musher for a day
No longer must you travel to Siberia or endure minus 35 degree temperatures in the frozen Arctic wastes to take part in dog sledding expeditions. Aurora Austral Patagonia Husky (www.novena-region.com), based near Villarica, is home to a mix of Siberian and Alaskan huskies. While there are some husky sledding opportunities near Ushuaia, Argentina (see Winter sports around Ushuaia), Konrad is the only operator in the whole of South America who leads multi-day husky sledding expeditions that allow you to drive your own sled. You can choose either a day trip in the vicinity of Volcán Villarica or one of the multi-day expeditions – either to the Termas Geométricas hot springs or across the mountains into Argentina.
The sledding season runs from May to October, September being an excellent time to visit. Summer visitors (Dec–March) can test the half-tricycle, half-chariot contraptions. Konrad and his family also rent out three beautiful 2–6 person cottages with skylights on their peaceful piece of property, complete with wandering pet sheep, cats and dogs.
Climbing Volcán Villarrica
Pretty much as soon as you arrive in Pucón, you’ll realize that that town’s main attraction is the Volcán Villarrica, just begging to be climbed. 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.
Guides and prices
Conaf keeps a list of companies authorized to guide climbers up the volcano. A maximum of nine climbers are allowed with one guide. Though the tour agencies may tell you otherwise, there is nothing to stop you from tackling the mountain without a guide, as long as you have proper equipment, but unless you’re an experienced mountaineer, it’s not advisable. Competition keeps prices down to a reasonable CH$45,000 or so, which includes transport and all necessary equipment. Most agencies start off at around 6.30am, though a couple leave at 4.30am to beat the crowds. Do not be tempted to go for the cheapest trip – cost is commensurate with safety, and companies offering much cheaper deals can sometimes do so by using inferior equipment and hiring inexperienced guides.
The Siete Lagos
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, nestling deep in the pre-cordillera and surrounded by 2000m peaks, 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.
Despite being founded in one of the best defensive positions of all the Spaniards’ frontier forts, Osorno was regularly sacked by Mapuche Indians from 1553 until 1796, at which point Chile’s governor, Ambrosio O’Higgins, ordered it to be resettled. 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 of wooden houses along Calle Mackenna, built between 1876 and 1923, and declared national monuments.
As the transport hub for the southern Lake District and starting point for the region’s main road into Argentina, Osorno has an abundance of public buses, making surrounding attractions such as Parque Nacional Puyehue, one of Chile’s most-visited national parks, much easier to visit.
Parque Nacional Puyehue
PARQUE NACIONAL PUYEHUE, 81km east of Osorno, 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, bordering the Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales to the south, and some Argentine parks that stretch all the way to Pucón’s Parque Nacional Villarrica in the north. 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 are, Antillanca and Anticura, straddling the international road near the Argentine border.
The 47km road that shoots east from Osorno to LAGO PUYEHUE passes through the nondescript village of Entre Lagos. Around 30km after Entre Lagos, the road forks: the left-hand road heads on to the Anticura section of the Parque Nacional Puyehue and the Argentine border, while the right-hand one leads to the Aguas Calientes section and the Antillanca skiing resort.
Hot springs in Puyehue
Just as the Siete Lagos area is known for its abundance of hot springs, the Puyehue area also has its share of healing waters. While many of the hot springs lie in remote areas, 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. Here both the indoor pools and outdoor pools are open to non-guests; a day pass gives access to the pools, saunas and restaurants.
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; use of the latter is included in the price of a cabaña in summer.
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 Lake District, the Mount Fuji-like Volcán Osorno (2661m), in all its stunning, symmetrical perfection, surrounded by gently rolling pastures. 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, 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. This forest extends to the border, and is protected by the Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. The national park is a favourite scenic route into Argentina via the magical green waters of Lago Todos Los Santos.
South of Ensenada the road winds its way down through isolated country to the placid calm of Chile’s northernmost fjord, a branch of the Estuario de Reloncaví. Here you can horse-trek into South America’s oldest rainforest – the famous alerce groves found in the valleys above the village of Cochamó.
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.
The town’s German colonial architecture gives it a European feel, and notable early twentieth century private residences include Casa Kuschel, on Klenner 299 (1910), Casona Alemana (1914) at Nuestra Señora del Carmen 788 and Casa Angulo (1910) at Miraflores 96.
Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales
PARQUE NACIONAL VICENTE PÉREZ ROSALES, Chile’s first national park, was established in 1926, and covers an area of 2510 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 Petrohué, and 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. If you are planning to do any extensive hiking here, you will find it useful to have a copy of the water-resistant Llanquihue map published by Trekking Chile (trekkingchile.com).
Estuario de Reloncaví
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 the 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 Lake District – PUERTO MONTT, founded by the same influx of German colonizers that settled Lago Llanquihue to the north. 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. It’s also a busy port, with a billion-dollar-a-year salmon farming industry, fishing and the embarkation point for long-distance ferry trips (see Ferries from Puerto Montt). 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.