Guide to the Spectacular Scenery of Chile's Lake District

The "Switzerland of Chile" is a must-visit.

Villarica Volcano in Villarica, Chile
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Chile's Lake District is famous for its spectacular scenery—deep blue mountain lakes, snow-capped volcanoes, and forests. It's also known as a spot for popular resorts, year-round recreation, and traditional folklore, handicrafts, and legends.

The Lake District covers two of Chile's regions: the Ninth Region, more evocatively known as La Araucanía, and the Tenth Region, Los Lagos. It is anchored at the northern end by the inland city of Temuco, in the middle by Valdivia on the Pacific, and Osorno inland. Puerto Montt on the Bay of Reloncavi is at the southern end. From north to south, the Lake District stretches from the Pacific eastward to the Andes.

Villarrica Volcano at Sunset, Chile
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The Terrain and Scenery of Chile's Lake District

Chile's Lake District is aptly named. There are twelve major lakes in the district, with dozens more dotting the landscape. Between the lakes, there are rivers, waterfalls, forests, thermal hot springs, and the Andes, including six volcanos with Villarica being the highest at 9,341 feet (2,847 meters) and one of the most active volcanoes in Latin America.

The Lake District is a major highlight of many tours to and within Chile. The scenery has been likened to Switzerland, and with the early emigrations from Germany and the resultant German feel to farms, towns, and traditions, it is cosmopolitan, yet entirely Chilean.

Here are some specifics regarding the area:

  • Temuco is the capital of La Araucanía and the gateway to the Parque Nacional Conguilio, home of the monkey puzzle tree, or Araucaria (an evergreen which takes centuries to mature), and to the resorts of Villarica and Pucon. The park is known for the snow-covered Sierra Nevada peak and the active Llaima Volcano
  • Puerto Montt, the capital of Los Lagos, is the gateway to Chiloé, Aisén and Chilean Patagonia where the islands and fjords of Patagonia begin. It is a large city known for seafood and stunning Pacific Ocean views
  • Nearest to Puerto Montt is the Chiloé Archipelago, consisting of hundreds of islands, the largest one being Isla Grande. Chiloé for many years was all but isolated from the rest of Chile, thus retaining its rich ethnic and folkloric traditions and mythology. The ever-present fog lends to the mystique of the area. The northern and southern regions are very rich in flora and fauna, particularly so in birds and marine animals.
Lago Todos los Santos
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Transportation Options in Chile's Lake District

Getting to Chile's Lake District can be done through various modes of transportation, such as by air, bus, sea, lake, or land. By air, there are domestic flights from the Santiago de Chile airport (SCL) to the Puerto Montt el Tepual Airport (PMC) at Puerto Mott.

Bus services to and from Santiago and other cities are available. Puerto Montt is both the gateway to Chile's Lake District and the departure point for cruises to Antarctica and the Chilean Fjords Cruise/Tour by sea. Similarly, Lago Todos Los Santos, surrounded by Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, is one of South America's most popular water crossings. Visitors and residents can make the crossing to and from Argentina via boats, catamarans, and bus portaging through the spectacular scenery of the Chilean/Argentine border through this lake option.

Those driving or taking a taxi by land (about $1 per kilometer) can do so via the Panamerican Highway (ending or beginning at Chiloé) from Chilean cities, or from Argentina via Paso Puyehue, which is about 4,000 feet (1,212 meters) during the summer months. More information on modes of travel can be found through this website showing varied forms of transportation throughout Chile.

When to Visit the Lake District

The Lake District is an all-season destination, with an overall temperate, if rainy, climate. Spring and summer, from November to April, are drier months than the winter months but travelers can expect rain at any time. Rain is particularly heavier from May to October and can be very cold. Visitors should be aware that flooding can alter travel plans, and it is always recommended that travelers check the weather in Temuco, Valdivia, and Puerto Montt depending on their destination.

Shopping and Restaurant Tips

The Lake District is the home of the Mapuche indigenous people, and their colorful handicrafts are sold in craft fairs, shops, and boutiques. With so much water, it's no wonder that the seafood is so good. Travelers can visit the fish market of Angelmó to see the wide variety of seafood. They will also see the large handicraft market representing the area's traditions.

Chilean seafood is superlative. Local seafood favorites can be found by browsing the menu at Salvia's Local 20. Travelers can try the following local specialties which are recommended to pair with Chilean wine:

  • Parillada de Mariscos: Grilled mixed seafood
  • Cancato: Grilled fish stuffed with a variety of vegetables, cheese or sausage
  • Curanto: Various meats and sausages, fishes, mollusks and crustaceans, potatoes, and corn on the cob cooked in an earthen pit overlaid with leaves. This meal is also prepared in a kitchen in a large earthenware pot. It is eaten in layers and usually reserved for major fiestas and holidays.

The Culture and History of the Araucanía

The Araucanía portion of Chile's Lake District, from the Río Renaico south to the northern shores of Lago Calafquén, is where you will find the main destinations of Villarica and Pucón. There are additional places to visit and things to do in smaller towns and resort areas, including lakes, national parks, hot springs called termas, rivers, and seaports.

The name La Araucanía comes from the Araucanian Indians, also known as Mapuche, who first resisted Inca encroachment on their territory, and later colonization by the Spaniards. There is a large Mapuche population in this region, and their culture, traditions, and handicrafts are a major draw for visitors. There is also a group of Mapuche people in the Netherlands, who maintain the Rehue Foundation to support the Mapuche way of life.

Travelers can find a base for exploring the area at the well-known resorts of Villarica on the western end and in Pucón, at the eastern end of Lago Villarrica, located at the base of the volcano with the same name. Travelers may also choose one of the smaller communities around the lake. From any location, activities and day excursions to the region are easy.

Parque Nacional Huerquehue
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Places to Stay in the Lake District and Things to Do

Travelers like to stay in Pucón, Villarrica, Osorno, Puerto Varas, or Puerto Montt, and each area offers a range of activities. For example, Pucón offers sailing and other water sports, skiing in season, and horseback riding, while the Villarrica volcanoes offer skiing, fishing, and rafting.

Travelers may also be interested in checking out the action at the Hotel Del Lago Resort and Casino or doing something more adventurous, such as skydiving, taking on whitewater rafting on the Trancura River, visiting the termas at Huife or Palquín, or browsing through the Feria Artesanales in Villarica for Mapuche handicrafts and food.

There are plenty of specific activities to engage in depending on the type of travel and interests in mind. Here are 10 recommended activities for travelers to consider:

  1. Visit the Huerquehue National Park on Lago Caburga's eastern shore to see the wildlife reserve. The park is located between the Villarrica National Reserve to the west and the Hualalafquén National Reserve to the east.
  2. Climb the Lago Verde Trail through forests and past waterfalls for a great view of Villarica lake and volcano.
  3. See the slideshow at CONAF Visitor Center (El Consejo de Política Forestal) at Lago Conguillío and then take a hike or a boat trip. You'll learn about forestry preservation.
  4. Tour Conguillio National Park to walk through old growth araucaria forests.
  5. Take a tour at Licán Rey, on Lago Calafquen, for the nightly craft fairs and to enjoy the beaches and fashionable restaurants and cafes.
  6. Enjoy the black sand beaches at Coñaripe on Calafquen's east shore and take a trip up to the hot springs.
  7. Visit Panquipulli on the lake of the same name, near Mocho-Choshuenco volcano, closer to Valdivia.
  8. Spend some time in Valdivia, called the city of rivers, to absorb the German heritage in cuisine, customs, and architecture.
  9. Take a boat to Isla Teja and tour the Museo Histórico y Arquelógico to see Mapuche cultural artifacts and effects from the early German settlers.
  10. Travel to the remaining Spanish forts at Corral, Niebla, and Isla Mancera.
Osorno Volcano, Chile
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Los Lagos Region

The Los Lagos region of Chile's Lake District has numerous lakes and volcanoes. The most famous is Osorno, called the "Fujiyama of South America," for its perfect cone. Travelers can tour Osorno to see the Museo Municipal de Osorno or Casa de la Cultura José Guadalupe Posada, the museum housing artifacts from pre-Colombian times to the present. They may also take a look at the Auto Museum Moncopulli for a tour of classic cars.

Travelers are also recommended to spend time touring the area around Osorno, being the gateway to lakes Puyehue, Rupanco and Puyehue National Park. Skiing is also a fun activity for travelers. Skiiers may use Puerto Varas as a comfortable and convenient base to ski at La Burbuja. Travelers who prefer a hike can climb Osorno in Villarrica National Park. There is a spectacular view from the mountain and also has volcanic activity. Travelers can hike around the base to see lava flows and debris and a look at the caves.

Puerto Varas
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Lake Tours and Activities

From Puerto Varas on Lago Llanquihue, travelers can take a circle tour around the lake, stopping to see the volcanos at Calbuco. With its jagged crater on the southern edge of the lake and Osorno on the eastern side, the rich dairy farmland has historic settlements and traditional European architecture that creates a "Little Bavaria." Travelers should note that the road may be rough in places as a result of rain and weather.

Another great place to visit is La Ensenada for black sand beaches, and the gateway to Vicente Perez Rosales National Park is recommended for various adventures such as rafting, cycling, horseback riding, walking, and trekking.

There are many additional activities in the region to engage in, from Las Cascadas where river rafters congregate, to the popular resort town of Puerto Octay. Here are some recommended activities for visitors traveling in the area:

  • Tour the open-air museum with restored colonial homes and furnishings from the early German settlement period and the operating blacksmith shop. Check the schedule for the summer classical music concerts.
  • Take a horseback tour from Ensenada through native rainforests to some of the scenic areas not seen from the road or the lake.
  • Visit the Parque Alerce Andino to see dense larch forests and other native vegetation, such as ferns, climbing vines, wild grasses and more. Travelers might see a puma, a gray fox called chilla, the endangered dwarf deer called pudu, wild cats called güiñas, and skunks called chingues.
  • Visit Pelluco and Chinquihue on the Tenglo Channel.
  • Climb Calbuco if you have mountain climbing skills and equipment.
  • Trek or backpack the numerous trails around Petrohue and the lake.
  • Swim, sunbathe, picnic, fish, and enjoy the beaches of Playa La Baja, Playa Cascadas, Playa Maitén, and Playa Puerto Fonck.
  • Take a dip in the Termas de Puyuhuapi, one of the better known hot springs resorts in the lake district.
  • Visit east of Llanquihue where Petrohue on Lago Todo Los Santos is located.
  • Climb from Lake Todos Los Santos to the magma canyon on the Desolation Path from where Jesuit priests discovered the lake in the 17th century.
  • Depart at the point of Petrohue on the lake crossing to Peulla. Then, disembark for a bus ride over the pass to Puerto Frias in Argentina. Finally, board another boat for the trip along Lago Frias to Llao Llao and on to other Argentine destinations. Trekking between Peulla and Puerto Frias is also an option.
  • Tour the attractions of Puerto Montt to see the German Colonization Monument and the Cathedral on the Plaza Central, the first to include a garden on the square.
  • Go white water rafting on the Petrohué River on rapids of Level III and IV difficulty.
  • Hike to the Cascada Velo de la Novia or Bridal Veil Waterfall, surrounded by the "Valdivian Rainforest," in the National Park Vicente Pérez Rosales.