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Bob in South America. Part 3 – The Chilean Lake District
Two hours or so south by air from Santiago lies the Chilean Lake District. While you may immediately think of Kendal Mint Cake, Beatrix Potter and the Edinburgh Wool Shop, the lakes Chilean style are a little more impressive in the geographic stakes, far less commercialised and with more outdoor activities than you can shake a stick at.
The scale is vast with the landscape dotted by lakes, volcanoes and waterfalls coupled up to the south by fjords and islands as Chile’s backbone breaks up into hundreds of separate pieces. And to the east across the lakes and mountains is Argentina and a number of interesting ways to cross the border. The lakes have strong historic links to the Germanic immigrants who settled here well over one hundred years ago. And today those links are alive with many houses and churches having a Bavarian look to them, dairy cattle graze the fields and most important of all there are cafes everywhere selling kuchen or cake. Heaven.
Unfortunately I had arrived when Mr. Weather had decided to get a little stroppy and so with low cloud cover, high winds and on and off rain, I had to make do with the elements against me. Two days to explore the area. And what a beautiful place to get to know.
I had based myself at Puerto Varas, staying at the Arrebol Patagonia hotel, a small boutique style property run by a family who had designed and built the hotel using local materials such as reclaimed wood from the old German settler homes and fallen tree trunks carved into furniture and even the front reception desk! Michael, the friendly manager welcomed me in with hot coffee and homemade tart to this amazing hotel. I have never seen anything like it and words really do not do the place justice. So have a look at their website and check out the amazing photography of this modern architectural gem.
You won’t find this hotel without booking direct, so it really is a wonderful undiscovered gem and I am glad I stumbled across it when researching my trip. On the last night I took dinner in their informal restaurant, Alelli. Vanessa looked after me. I loved the fact there was no wine list and instead you walked to the wine cellar and chose a wine from the racks. The food was excellent and if you are in the area it is well worth booking a table and checking out the food.
Enough of the hotel, the great outdoors beckoned. Knowing that I could not see everything I headed north in a hire car to Puerto Octay for more cake along the shores of Lake Llanquihue, the largest in Chile at over 25kilometres across. From here I was hoping for an amazing view south to the Osorno volcano with its snow topped crater, but it was not to be as the clouds grew thicker by the hour and the rains began. Consolation lay in apple strudel and cream, enough to make me feel a little better about the rain. It really does feel very strange being in a Spanish speaking country yet everything looking so Bavarian. Quite different to the conceptions that you have of South America, rainforests, llamas and pan pipes to name just a few clichés. But I have to say I loved it.
South of Puerto Varas the road takes you to Ensenada and from there you can go a number of ways. One road takes you up the volcano to the snow line up in the clouds where there are ski slopes and chair lifts. With no visibility you have to be a little hardy to want to get your skis on. Another takes you further around the lake, although on my visit the road was closed. So instead I opted for the route east to Petruhue, entering the Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales. Along the road are some waterfalls with tourists stopping to ride the waters in jet boats and at the end a small village from where you can take a boat across the gorgeous lake, Lago Todos Los Santos to Peulla and then on into Argentina. The scenery is stunning and very reminiscent of the Alpine areas of Europe and the Norwegian fjords. And so quiet as well. Perfect for a short hike along the shore side tracks for an hour or so.
Heading south over the pass and the long road down to the fjord at Ralun where there are intensive salmon farms. The highlight of the area though is the Cochamo Valley, where I walked for a couple of hours along the river, seeing no-one the entire time. This is the beginning of one of the oldest forests in Chile, home to immense and ancient alerce trees and a real feeling of wilderness. Driving back through the rain there was time for one last café stop close to Puerto Varas with apple flan cake and hot chocolate
The entire area really is activity central. There are signs everywhere for rafting, hiking, horse riding, kayaking and walking trails. And skiing of course in the winter months. For anyone wanting a real outdoors experience, the lake and its surroundings offer an impressive range of top quality activities. There are hotels and hostels dotted around and lots of campsites and cabins to hire. In summer time it gets very busy (February), but on my stay here it really was so peaceful and quiet. And despite the weather being against me, I still enjoyed it.
I am just going to have to come back to see Osorno in all its glory and the lakes at their best in the sunlight. And of course it would be rude not to indulge in a few bakery products while I’m here.