THE CHILENO LAKE DISTRICT is one of the world’s most spectacular and magnificent locales with regard to its scenic qualities. It is the pride and joy of Chile, regarded by Chilenos as the number one tourist destination within the country. This is a land of glacial lakes that are deep blue and crystal clear, backed up by a chain of perfectly formed, snow-capped volcanic cones. To the west are the coastal hills and the South Pacific Ocean where the coastline is relatively smooth, but rugged. To the south, the Golfo Corcovado indents itself into the coast and this is the start of the fjord country that extends south for the next 1,450 kilometer or 900 miles to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. Fast flowing rivers rush from melting glaciers and snowfields to empty into the ocean less than 160 kilometers or 100 miles away, most writhing in white water as they crash over the rugged, rocky landscape.
The entire region is within a maritime climatic regime, one that has sufficient rainfall throughout the year, but in particular during the winter months. The forests are thick and in many locations they are classed as temperate rainforests. Stands of magnificent Araucaria, Southern Beech, Coihue and Cipres mirror the beauty found in British Columbia and Alaska, only with a totally different array of plant life. Most of the species found in the Lake District are not very tolerant of extreme cold, thus the timberline is relatively low, leaving the upper slopes of the mountains to stand bare and bold against the sky. The Lake District was once home to the Mapuche Indians, fierce warriors who inhibited settlement of the country. Today there are few Mapuche left, but those who have survived have reservations within the Lake District, which is their traditional home. But the Chilenos who settled here came from northern and eastern Europe. When immigrants began to come into Chile from other than Spain, many sought out country that was similar to their homeland. The Germans and Scandinavians felt at home amid the thick forests and under a chill climate. Thus the Chilean Lake District to this day is more Germanic than it is Romanic. Spanish may still be the official language, but it is not the tongue spoken in thousands of homes across the region. Most of the Lake District towns and farms are located in the shadow of beautiful, but potentially dangerous volcanoes such as Osorno, Calbuco and Puyehue, but like in the American Pacific Northwest, the threat is generally in the back of people’s minds. The danger was brought home in April 2015, when Calbuco Volcano put on quite a show with three violent eruptions.
The entire Lake District thrives today upon tourism, especially during the summer. This is the playground of South America with its cool weather, crystal clear lakes and towering mountains. Add to this the Germanic flavor, and it offers people from all over the continent a taste of Europe without the overseas trip. The only analogy to this would be when Americans and Canadians visit Canada’s distinctly French province of Quebéc. Not only does the Lake District have great appeal to South Americans who can afford to make the trip, but it is also the most favored venue on the continent for foreign visitors. The raw natural beauty can be enjoyed from the deck of a cruise ship sailing through its crystal waters or within the comfort of elegant hotels and lodges, and accompanied by delicious food that offers a blend of Chilean and European tastes. PUERTO MONTT is the major port of call for cruise ships visiting the Lake District. It is located at the southern edge of the Lake District, where the mainland curves east to where it meets the Andes and the fjord country begins. Puerto Montt marks land’s end as far as road travel is concerned on the west coast of South America. Beyond this point the mountains meet the sea with sheer slopes and the deep-water fjords have drown all the remaining coastal lowlands. The city is located on the Reloncavi estuary, which is a large bay extending inland from the Gulf of Ancud. The city only dates to 1853, named for Presidente Manuel Montt. Puerto Montt has a mixed population that reflects the strong influx of German and Scandinavian immigrants. Puerto Montt is crowded with visitors during the summer months, both as a destination itself and as the starting point for more ambitious journeys farther south. Most cruise ships dock adjacent to the city center, but some of the larger ships will anchor and tender guests ashore. There are so many things to see and do in the short few hours you have in Puerto Montt that it is hard to decide to stay in town or get out into the surrounding countryside. I offer you the major sights within town and then those that require either taking a group tour or hiring a taxi and getting out on your own. Taxi drivers often speak sufficient English to serve as good guides, so it is less expensive than arranging a car and driver/guide through your cruise line.
Here are the major sights to see in Puerto Montt:
- Plaza de Armas is the actual heart of town and from here you can easily walk a few blocks in any direction and survey the entire downtown area.
- Catedral de Puerto Montt is relatively small by big city standards, but it is worth a quick peak. It faces onto the Plaza de Armas.
- Mercado Presidente Ibanez is a colorful public market that is a short distance north of the Plaza de Armas. It offers a variety of fresh Chileno produce, fish and meats and also has a good selection of local handicraft.
- Mall Paseo Costanera is a multi level shopping mall with two high-rise office towers located just to southeast of the Plaza de Armas.
- Sentados Frente al Mar is a collection of rather gaudy statues that front along the Costanera Puerto Montt, the beautiful waterfront park.
- Public Fish Market along the waterfront displays the bounty of the sea that has made Puerto Montt well known for its fresh seafood.
The major sights that make the Lake District so scenic include:
- Volcan Osorno is the majestic2,652 meter or 8,701 foot snow capped volcanic cone that is located just east of the city on the shores of Lago de Llanquihue. Many geologists say it is a perfect cone with the same shape as Mt. Fuji in Japan. It is a breathtaking sight seen from the west shore of the lake or by driving up to the base of the mountain. It is potentially active, but has not erupted since 1869.
- Volcan Calbuco is the sister peak to Osorno located adjacent to it on the southeastern flank. Calbuco is 2,015 meters or 6,610 feet but much more explosive and active than Osorno. Because of its many eruptions, it is not a perfectly symmetrical cone. The last violent eruptions occurred in 2015 without any advanced warning.
- Park Nacional Alerce Andino is located along the gulf about 50 kilometers or 30 miles southeast of Puerto Montt. There generally are no group tours to the park, but you can arrange for it with a private taxi. This is a place where you can hike along gentle paths and enjoy the beauty of the southern forest landscape.
- Lago de Llanquihue is the largest of the glacial lakes and it is just minutes over the hill from Puerto Montt. The lake sparkles in a deep blue against the summer sky and both Osorno and Calbuco rise majestically along its eastern shores.
- Puerto Varas is the major resort town along the western shore of the lake. It is a delightful spot where Chilenos and Argentinos come to relax and enjoy the out of doors. There are many great restaurants with views of the lake and twin volcanoes that offer traditional Chileno cuisine.
- Frutillar is a predominantly German community located along the western shore of Lago de Llanquihue just about 30 minutes drive north of Puerto Varas. Its Germanic architecture and quaint Bavarian style restaurants make it a cultural gem. And the views of the volcanoes from across the lake are spectacular.
FINAL WORDS: For most people who come to Chile, the country pretty much ends at Puerto Montt, but there is still nearly 1,000 miles of rugged fjord, mountain and glacial landscape south to the southern tip of the Western Hemisphere, Cabo de Hornos, better known as Cape Horn, located on the island of Tierra del Fuego. For those who cruise between Valparaiso and Buenos Aires, this hidden treasure makes up the core of the journey and the scenery is memorable. The journey will either start or end with the visit to Puerto Montt depending upon the direction of travel, but either way you will appreciate this port because of its vibrant mix of cultures and its spectacular scenery. And who knows, Volcan Calbuco may even put on a special performance for you.
Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com