Chile – Lake District & Chiloe
Romantic images of Patagonian gauchos and vast, dry plains replete with sheep are distinctly Argentine (and well worth the effort), but the Chilean side of Patagonia is defined by ocean, lakes, forests and the spectacular Andes.
Chile’s south is wet. In fact, the archipelago of Chiloe can have rain fall from the sky 300 days a year. When the sun does shine, every view is breathtaking.
Patagonia is difficult to define. Roughly it is understood to be the southern third of South America’s Southern Cone (where Chile and Argentina narrow). Chilean Patagonia really begins where train once ended. From Puerto Montt south, Chile is a mighty network of islands, volcanoes, inlets and eventually glaciers.
The 10th region of Los Lagos (the lakes) is a lush world of resources. Its people are a mix of the broader Mapuche (and older Chono) cultures, Chilotes and Europeans – specifically Germans – who were invited to southern Chile in the late 1840’s. The Dutch were the most prominant pirates and maybe the origin of the oft-quoted Chilote legend of the Trauco – the ugly gnome-like man who could magically impregnate young women.
The modern economy has boomed due to salmon farming (and the environmental consequences are hotly debated). The Norwegians are the main investors and the salmon atlantic. Chile is now the second largest salmon exporter in the world.
Chile’s significant lumber industry is based further north around the city of Concepcion, but spreads south into the Lakes region. Farming and dairy was importantly developed by the German migrants and the island people have fished and lived from the sea for literally thousands of years.
The archaeological site of Monte Verde offers quantifiable proof of human settlements perhaps 18 thousand years ago … quite a long walk from Alaska in an impossibly short time (should one still buy into that story).
The Lake District is beautiful. The extremely productive soil is nourished by the many still-active volcanoes and high rainfall keeps the area vibrantly green.
As with other wet parts of our planet, there is always a certain weather risk when taking visitors to the area. When the clouds do clear, the views from the shores of Lake Llanquihue are among the world’s best. It is always worth coming here, but three consecutive days of rain is entirely possible.
We stay in charming Puerto Varas. This is a playground of South American elite and feels rather Bavarian. Our hotel – Cabaña del Lago – really is beautiful and perfectly situated. One would have to navigate the subtleties of the Chilean class structure to feel the tone, but sufice to say I was not permited to replace an alcoholic included drink with a cup of tea, because “it is not in the contract.” Workers are not to think outside the box!
Empowerment aside, Chile’s south is a nature playground. Long famous for fly-fishing, it is also popular for trekking, hiking, skiing, kayaking and biking. Seafood, German desserts and drinking craft beers is also a very popular activity.
Upon arrival we did a short tour of Puerto Montt. Anyone who cruises south stops here and early European settlers landed on this southern gateway to the continent.
Puerto Montt is the point at which Chile’s central valley drops below sea level. From that natural harbour the two thousand kilometres of Chilean Patagonia reveals a magnificent patchwork of islands, fjords, glaciers and volcanos.
Long before there was a Panama Canal, these were the only sheltered waters down the coast of South America. The indigenous people lived off the abundant ocean and productive land.
Settlers were sent to the Chiloe archipelago to establish Spanish sovereignty over this important shipping route.
Modern Puerto Montt is not a particularly beautiful city, but it is interesting and quite vibrant. The massive salmon industry has breathed life into the southern economy for nearly 30 years, but the city’s notable architecture strongly exhibits the German migrations that began in the 1840’s.
President Montt invited Germans to settle in the region in order to develop the dairy and beef industry and, more strategically, to assure sovereignty over the south of Chile. Chiloe had just been conquered in the 1820’s and other Europeans were eying the region.
I could go on and on (and on) about the interesting cultural mix in the area, but in the Lakes area, visitors come mostly for the views.
Across the border in Argentina, handsome Bariloche is often considered the capital of Patagonia. The Andes create a perfect natural border (Argentine border guards offer a less-perfect experience). Simply put, Chile is the wet, green side and Argentina is the dry windy side.
When the sun shines on the lakes and mountains, boat trips into the fresh water fiords of Chile’s oldest national park are reminiscent of Alaska’s coast. We were very lucky on this trip.
A short ferry ride off the coast, La Isla Grande de Chiloé, is the continent’s second largest island after Tierra del Fuego. Chile keeps planning to build a bridge and many Chilotes aggressively do not want it. They are islanders at heart would rather see money spent on a hospital or a university.
Chiloé is a deeply cultural place. Rain falls from the sky nearly 300 days a year – but not all day. Its low hills let the moisture keep the islands vibrantly green, before being trapped in the Andes further to the east.
Chiloé is also historically poor, yet deeply community minded. Chileans and Spanish speakers alike must work hard to understand the local accent.
Basically the island is famous for four main themes; churches, mingas, myths and palafitos (houses on stilts).
The UNESCO-designated churches were originally Jesuit. Building with wood, the Chilote people used the structure of inverted boats to create the roofs. They adapted a stone, Spanish style to Patagoinan hardwoods.
The Minga is akin to a ‘barn-raising’ on the prairies. Chilote society developed in a less structured – and certainly more isolated – manner than in other Spanish colonial regions. The slightly more egalitarian outlook and subsistance farming, contributed to communal works. Harvest (or apple picking) is traditionally communal and many photos circulate of houses be picked up off their stilts and moved to a new location. Chilean backpackers still flock every summer to Chiloé as they know locals will support them.
The traditional meal is Curanto – a mix of meat, fish and native potatoes, cooked in the ground over hot rocks. Wonderfully cultural if not necessarily delicious 😉 With its cool. damp environment, Chilotes spent generations huddled together telling stories. Their myths and legends are famous.
The palifitos developed as maritime homes. Fishers could dock at home before setting out to harvest from the sea. Chiloé is best viewed from the water – another reason the bridge may be unfortunate.
I have been meaning for some time to write about Chiloe. I had the honour of living there in 2002-2004 and even developed a tourism training manual about the region. It is such a pleasure to contribute to the tourism economy and to this day I will run into people I know when walking the street of Castro, Chiloé’s capital.
To that end, I always leave the lake district with a tear in my eye and may one day escape my harsh Canadian winters down here.