Forget Wordsworth, daffodils and wandering lonely as a cloud – we’ve been exploring the Lake District of Chile, half a world away but with some similarities as well as striking differences. It’s got a lot of lakes and green hills, and stunning views; but there are also volcanoes and hot springs that dot the landscape.
For a change on this trip we hired a car to explore the area. It was the first time that Ian had driven since breaking his arm in December, but luckily it functioned fine and changing gear did not pose a problem! His experience of driving on unsealed roads in New Zealand also proved very useful. We’d decided on car hire for this particular part of our travels, thinking it would give us more flexibility and the option to explore out-of-the-way places. However, our early attempts to escape from the beaten track were disappointing. The roads were often in a bad state of repair, there was a lack of facilities, and the lakeside viewpoints identified on our maps did not always seem to exist.
One thing that surprised us was how quiet the Lake District was. Even the most popular tourist towns had few visitors; many hotels and restaurants had closed for the season, while others were almost empty. The summer was over, it is true, but the weather was still good (ideal for walking) and the autumn colours were beautiful.
There were not many people, but there were plenty of dogs! It seems that in Chile they are allowed to roam free, and there are always plenty running around in the streets. Often in the mornings we were awoken by a ‘dawn chorus’ of dogs barking.
It is a short distance from Puerto Montt, where we collected the car on April 1, to Puerto Varas, on the shores of Lago Llanquihue, where we had great views of Orsono Volcano from our hotel room. We explored along the south shore of the lake as far as Petrohue and Lago Todos Los Santos, with the Petrohue Falls being the highlight of that day.
Next day we visited the little town of Frutillar, which has a pleasant lakefront position and a lot of German influences.
From there we headed north-west to the city of Valdivia, close to the Pacific coast. There was a city-wide power cut the evening we were there, but we luckily found a restaurant with its own generator where we were able to get something to eat. The following morning we explored the riverfront and saw lots of sea lions slobbed out on the jetty waiting for a hand-out from the fish market.
We also drove down to Niebla, on the coast, to see the remains of the Spanish forts there. We took a little boat across the picturesque rivermouth to Corral, to visit the well-preserved fort there, and then visited the fort at Niebla itself, which has the most splendid views along the coast.
From Valdivia we drove back to the main lakes area, centred around Lago Villarica and the Villarica Volcano which dominates it.
We did an excursion from Villarica town, including 17 kilometres of gravel road, to reach the Termas Geometricas, a hot springs complex. This was truly amazing, as the pools are set within a narrow valley with a waterfall at the head and a (cold) stream running through it. There are 17 different hot pools, with boardwalks between them, and changing rooms and other facilities at regular intervals. It is all extremely well designed, and the steam rising and floating around adds a surreal effect. We had a very relaxing time there, and as there were only six other people, we never had to share a pool.
At the other end of the lake is the town of Pucón, where we spent two nights. In between we did an excursion (up another gravel road) to the Huerquehue National Park, where we did a strenuous 17 kilometre hike round a series of lakes. This involved a great deal of uphill climbing, but provided stunning views of the lakes themselves as well as back towards the Villarica Volcano. It also involved walking through some interesting woods, which included lots of bamboo, and the native araucana (monkey puzzle) trees. We were blessed with extremely good weather that day, so that the views we got were worth the effort expended in reaching the viewpoints.
North of the main Lake District is the Tolhuaca National Park, which is rarely visited because of the 46 kilometres of gravel road to get there, and the lack of public transport. When we arrived, the ranger on duty greeted us most warmly because (at 2pm) we were only the second couple to reach the park that day. The main attraction is Lago Malleco, which you can walk round on an easy path and get amazing views across the lake to the hills around. At the end of the path is a spectacular waterfall, where the waters of the lake chuck themselves over a 49-metre drop into a deep pool surrounded by tall cliffs. Again, the weather was excellent and the whole experience was well worth the difficult drive to get there.
We returned the car in the town of Temuco, just north of the Lake District, on April 7. As the southern hemisphere moves towards winter, we are heading north to warmer climes. We have come a long way already since leaving Ushuaia, but we have much further still to go!