The region south of the Río Biobío to Puerto Montt is collectively known as the Lake District, a fairy-tale land of emerald forests, snowcapped volcanoes, frothing waterfalls, and hundreds of lakes and lagoons that give the region its name. It is one of the most popular destinations in Chile, not only for its beauty but for the diverse outdoor activities available and a well-organized tourism infrastructure that allows travelers to pack in a lot of action and yet rest comfortably and well-fed in the evening. Summers are usually balmy, but the rest of the year this region is very wet and impermeable clothing is essential, especially if planning on being outdoors.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Temuco is the third-largest city in Chile, and its airport serves as the gateway to Pucón except for January and February when LAN Airlines offers direct service to Pucón. Temuco is home to a regional highlight, the Mercado Municipal, a vibrant, crafts-filled market.
Nationally and internationally known as the “Adventure Capital of Chile,” Pucón offers every outdoor activity imaginable: fly-fishing, rafting the Río Trancura, hiking Huerquehue, and Villarrica national parks, and skiing the slopes of Volcán Villarrica— or even climbing to its bubbling crater. Yet there’s also an abundance of low-key activities, such as hot-spring spas and scenic drives through landscapes that seem to have been the inspiration for every fairy tale written. You could just hang out on the beach and sun yourself, as hundreds do during the summer. Pucón is almost entirely dependent on tourism, and during the summer season, particularly December 15 to the end of February, as well as Easter week, the town teems with throngs of tourists. Hotel and business owners take advantage of this and jack up their prices, sometimes doubling their rates.
PARQUE NACIONAL HUERQUEHUE
Parque Nacional Huerquehue boasts the best short-haul hike in the area, the Sendero Los Lagos. This park opens as a steeply walled amphitheater draped in matted greenery and crowned by a forest of lanky araucaria trees. There are a handful of lakes here; the first you come upon is Lago Tinquilco, upon whose shore sits a tiny, ramshackle village built by German colonists in the early 1900s.
Valdivia is a university town on the edge of a river delta, about a 20-minute drive from the coast. It has more charm than Temuco or Puerto Montt, yet Valdivia receives mixed reviews from visitors. Many lovely old German immigrant homes line the waterfront, and there is a lively market where visitors can watch fishmongers peddle their catch of the day while pelicans, cormorants, and gigantic sea lions beg for scraps. There are also trips around the delta. If you are in Pucón for several days, consider a quick visit here or an overnight stay. Valdivia has suffered attacks, floods, fires, and the disastrous earthquake (the strongest ever recorded) and tsunami of 1960 that nearly drowned the city under 3m (10 ft.) of water. During World War II, Valdivia’s German colonists were blacklisted, ruining the economy. There are tours here to visit the tiny towns and ancient forts at the mouth of the bay that protected the city from seafaring intruders.
Frutillar offers a rich example of the architecture popular with German immigrants to the Lago Llanquihue area, and it is situated to take advantage of the dynamite view of the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes. The town is smaller and quieter than Puerto Varas and is farther away from the national park, but many tour operators plan excursions around the area from here. Visitors will find a good supply of attractive hotels and bed-and-breakfasts along the lakeshore.
Puerto Varas is one of Chile’s most charming villages, located on the shore of Lago Llanquihue. Like Pucón, it is an adventure travel hub, and it is also the gateway to the Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales (see “Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales & the Lake Crossing to Argentina,” below). Unlike its neighbor Puerto Montt, 20 minutes away, it is a spruce little town, with wood-shingled homes, a rose-encircled plaza, a handsomely designed casino, and an excellent tourism infrastructure that provides all the necessary services for visitors without seeming touristy. It can get crowded during the summer months, but not as busy as Pucón; seemingly because of its distance from Santiago. The city was built by the sweat and tenacity of German immigrants, and later it became a port for goods being shipped from the Lago Llanquihue area to Puerto Montt (mostly timber). Today most of the area’s middle- and upper-middle-class residents call Puerto Varas home and commute to Puerto Montt and other surrounding places for work.
PARQUE NACIONAL VICENTE PEREZ ROSALES & THE LAKE CROSSING TO ARGENTINA
Chile’s oldest national park, Vicente Pérez Rosales, was founded in 1926. The park’s centerpiece is Lake Todos los Santos, the Saltos de Petrohué cascades, and three volcanoes: Osorno, Tronador, and Puntiagudo. The park is open daily from December to February.
This port town of roughly 110,000 residents is the central hub for travelers headed to lagos Llanquihue and Todos los Santos, Chiloé, and the parks Alerce Andino and Pumalín. It is also a major docking zone for dozens of large cruise companies circumnavigating the southern cone of South America and several ferry companies with southern destinations to Laguna San Rafael National Park and Puerto Natales in Patagonia. The town presents a convenient stopover point for travelers, but it is an ugly place when compared to Puerto Varas or Frutillar, due to its mishmash of office buildings and its scrappy industrial port. There is an extensive outdoor market here that sells Chilean handicrafts, clothing, and other tourist souvenirs.
Villarrica is a major resort on the shore of Lago Villarrica. Its blue waters change hue as the sun falls low in the sky, reflecting the perfect cone of the Villarrica volcano. The lake is scarred by eruptions from the still-active volcano, which glows at night like the end of a giant cigar. The first European colony at Villarrica was besieged by the Mapuche in 1598 and collapsed without survivors in 1602. The colony was not re-established until 1882.