Traveling Los Lagos

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Editors Note: The following is from our special Los Lagos tourism section in Issue 5.
 
By Wayne Bernhardson
 
 
In 1979, the first time I visited the Los Lagos region, I crossed the cordillera from Argentina to find landscapes that looked like the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. Over the ensuing decades working on travel guidebooks about Chile and Patagonia, I’ve explored almost every corner of the region, also known to English speakers as Chile’s Lake District. My trips have constantly reaffirmed for me that the densely forested slopes, snowy volcanic cones and azure lakes in Los Lagos are almost a mirror image of Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia.
 
The Los Lagos region has long welcomed foreign visitors. In 1913, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the earliest recorded celebrities to enjoy the Cruce de Lagos route over the stunning Andean lakes that’s now a bus-boat shuttle from Puerto Varas to the Argentine city of San Carlos de Bariloche.
 
The journey Roosevelt helped pioneer is today one of the region’s classics, easily done in a day though it’s tempting to spend at least an overnight at Peulla, the lakeport at the east end of Lagos Todos los Santos, to appreciate the peaks and forests of Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, Chile’s first national park. Pérez Rosales, for whom the park is named, was responsible for the large-scale German colonization of southern Chile in the 1850s. Thousands of Germans settled in Los Lagos towns like Frutillar, Puerto Octay, Puerto Varas, Osorno, and Puerto Montt, leaving a lasting imprint on the local culture, seen most visibly in the architecture of many old homes and churches in the area.
 
Throughout the region, the roads are often excellent and almost all of them are improving rapidly. Unlike in the United States, there is frequent and affordable public transportation even to some relatively remote areas – unless time is critically important, renting a car is rarely necessary. For instance, to get to the backcountry of Cochamó – with granite faces that can match Yosemite’s finest – from the picturesque town of Puerto Varas, several buses daily drop passengers directly at Campo Aventura Eco-Lodge, the starting point for hikes and horseback rides into a lush temperate rainforest.
 
One underrated aspect of the region is its food. Chile in general, and Los Lagos in particular, has some of the world’s most diverse seafood – one U.S. food writer wrote that he felt as if he were looking at “the marine life of another planet,” what with shoe-sized mussels, succulent scallops, razor clams, locos (“false abalone”) and fresh fish including the so-called “Chilean sea bass,” more accurately called the Patagonian toothfish. The simple restaurants at Angelmó, a fish and crafts market at the western end of Puerto Montt’s waterfront, offer hearty versions of almost everything that comes from the sea, but there are also more sophisticated options at resort towns like Puerto Varas. For dessert, Germanic pastries known collectively as Kuchen are widespread here.
 
Puerto Montt, meanwhile, is the starting point for several adventures deeper south into Patagonia, such as a personal favorite, a three day Navimag ferry trip that passes through a landscape resembling Alaska’s Inside Passage or the Norwegian fjords before arriving in Puerto Natales, gateway to the famous Torres del Paine park.
 
One part of the region that I was slower to appreciate was the Isla Grande de Chiloé, a verdant offshore landmass that, roughly speaking, would be the counterpart of Canada’s Vancouver Island. It’s a cradle of Chilean folklore and has an extraordinary vernacular architecture in its palafitos (houses built on pilings over the sea), but it’s also home to Parque Tantauco, outgoing President Sebastián Piñera’s audacious conservation project near the city of Quellón.
 
One of my favorite offbeat sights, though, is the ferry port of Chaitén, a semi-ghost town evacuated just a few years ago when a nearby volcano erupted, but many of its inhabitants have returned. It’s the first stop for some intrepid tourists bound for a spectacular journey along the Carretera Austral, the southern highway, which extends some 770 miles (1,240 km) through unmatched natural scenery in Chilean Patagonia. In the Palena province, the road winds its way through a lush, mountainous zone, and crosses the Futaleufú River, a wild whitewater river that draws paddlers from around the world.
 
 
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