Pucón, about 800 kilometers south of Chile's capital of Santiago, is a center for adventure sports that include climbing, whitewater rafting and skiing. The area around it is also noted for hot springs and active volcanoes, such as the 2,840-meter-high Villarrica.
Chile Lake District – Long Read

Snow-capped Andean peaks reflected in placid lakes

Photo by Philip and Karen Smith

Chile Lake District – Long Read Snow-capped Andean peaks reflected in placid lakes

Hello Chile, where its Southern Zone is better known as the Lake District for the views of snow-capped Andean peaks and lush forest reflected in placid lakes. Long one of the most-visited part of the country, the region is home to the Mapuche people who resisted Spanish colonizers for more than 400 years and still fight to retain their indigenous way of life.

Neil Geraghty
Neil Geraghty Travel Writer

It is not every day that you come face to face with prehistoric monsters but in southern Chile’s Araucanía Region, they are everywhere. I am hiking across a lava field on the shallow slopes of Lonquimay Volcano and I regret wearing a pair of thin track shoes. When it last erupted in 1988, Lonquimay ejected millions of tons of ash and, with each step I take, I sink up to my ankles as uncomfortable grit pours into my unsuitable footwear. To add to my woes, Rodrigo, my guide, has just told me that the many holes dotting the black scree are the abodes of spiders, and I soon resemble a cat burglar tiptoeing carefully over the desolately beautiful landscape.

Along the edge of the lava flow lie the bleached skeletons of monkey puzzle trees that have been incinerated by the searing heat of the eruption. Amazingly, some have survived and are sprouting new branches. Rodrigo leads me over to one and pats its trunk.

“Feel the bark,” he says. “It’s as hard as stone and can withstand even the most extreme temperatures. This is the secret to their success and they’ve survived virtually unchanged since the Pleistocene era.”

Looking at the dramatic cone of Lonquimay, framed by the spiky branches of these ancient trees, I could easily imagine a herd of Brontosaurus plodding by, and it was no coincidence that the BBC chose to film the TV series Walking With Dinosaurs nearby in the Conguillío National Park.

With its magnificent volcanoes, lakes, thermal springs and monkey puzzle forests, Araucanía is Chile’s most popular adventure holiday destination, but this wildly rugged region is also home to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest community of indigenous people. Known colloquially in Chile as La Frontera (The Frontier), Araucanía was one of the last regions to be incorporated into modern Chile in the 1880s.

The Mapuche are fiercely independent and among only a handful of indigenous people in Latin America who successfully resisted European colonial rule. Their belief system is based on balancing benign and malevolent forces, and harmony with nature, remarkably in tune with modern New Age movements. A visit to their communities can be a real tonic for our stressed-out western lifestyles.

Dreams are conduits of divine wisdom

To learn more about Mapuche culture, I visit Llaguepulli village in the undulating hills around Lake Budi, Chile’s largest coastal salt lake. Elizabeth Culigiao is a Mapuche herbalist and, when I meet her, she is wearing a long black dress tied at the waist with a colorful belt in bold geometric shapes. The fierce late summer sun glints off an ornate silver pendant on her chest, a trapelacucha that, in the Mapuche’s cosmology, represents the stairway to heaven.

To escape from the blinding light, she invites me into a ruka – an oval-shaped hut covered in reed thatch. Traditionally, whole families lived in these rukas and although the Mapuche now have comfortable modern homes, rukas are still kept in the garden for meals, parties and entertaining guests. Inside, the smell of wood smoke emanates from a crackling fire. We sit down and Elizabeth starts by explaining how the Mapuche believe dreams to be conduits of divine wisdom.

“A typical morning begins with the family discussing their dreams over breakfast. Good or bad dreams have an important influence over the day’s activities and can affect anything from farming to business decisions. Special attention is paid to children’s dreams. If a child has especially vivid dreams, this may mean that he or she has been chosen by the gods to be a maci, a shaman. He will then be taken to an older maci and will spend the next few years learning spiritual and healing traditions from him.”

Outside, Elizabeth shows me around her herb garden, where familiar plants, including sage and lavender, grow side by side with traditional Mapuche herbs such as quillay, or soapbark, which is used as an infusion to combat chest infections. “Herbal medicine is still very popular among the Mapuche,” says Elizabeth. “So much so that, in the local hospital, people have the choice of both traditional and western treatments.”

A horn made out of bamboo and horse gut

In a neighboring ruka, I meet Lueis Painefil and his daughter Nadia, who own a collection of cozy, wooden guest cabins overlooking the lake. Nadia rakes the embers of a fire and pulls out a loaf of bread from the ashes before scraping off its charred crust. I am hungry but the bread looks distinctly unappetizing. However, it tastes wonderful, sweet and earthy, with not a trace of burnt flavor at all. Above me, a strange, coiled musical instrument is dangling from the eaves. It is a trutruca, a type of horn made out of bamboo and horse gut. Lueis asks if I would like to hear it and, putting it to his lips, plays an uplifting military reveille.

From the rolling pastures of Araucanía’s coastal region, I head to the lush forest-covered foothills of the Andes. Outside the town of Curarrehue, I stop at Mapu Llagi, a Mapuche restaurant and cookery school run by Anita Epulef, an acclaimed chef and spokeswoman for Mapuche culture.

As my car draws up outside her alpine-style restaurant, Anita rushes out of the door to greet me. Bursting with energy and exuberance, she ushers me inside and invites me to sit down on sheepskin-covered benches next to an old-fashioned woodburner stove. When I ask how she learned to cook, she recalls her childhood with a smile.

“I had seven brothers and so I learned quickly. I was born in the mountains and, when I was three years old, my grandmother started taking me out to the forest to collect herbs, fruits and vegetables.” This seasonal rhythm of cooking is a key element of Mapuche cuisine and Anita laments how the younger generation is abandoning this tradition. “I have university graduates coming here who haven’t even heard of certain products, let alone know how to cook them,” she says.

A much-loved seasonal treat in Araucanía

Her philosophy on food is very much hands-on and she leads me into her kitchen, where a cornucopia of fresh vegetables is already being washed and sliced by her staff. I am given the heart-warming task of peeling a basket of piñones, monkey puzzle nuts. They resemble giant pine nuts and are cased in a red, papery, triangular skin that easily slips off. Eaten fresh, roasted or boiled, they have a resinous, chestnut taste and are a much-loved seasonal treat in Araucanía.

Anita disappears into the garden and comes back with a tray of small, green lleuke fruit. Gathered from the Chilean plum yew tree, they have a wonderful sweet pine flavor and, once I try one, I cannot stop eating them. I notice a length of what looks like coiled, dark green rubber tubing being chopped and she explains that it is cochayuyo, a type of seaweed brought up from the coast. “When I was a girl, many farmers drove up to the mountains to barter cochayuyo for furniture and vegetables,” she says. “I still barter for mine in the traditional way.”

Having helped prepare it, my meal feels doubly satisfying when it arrives: earthy piñon soup, tangy cochayuyo and maize stew, fluffy pink potatoes fresh from Anita’s garden and humitas, delicately light dumplings steamed in maize leaves. “That’s the beauty of cooking,” says Anita. “It’s all about enjoyment, good conversation, connecting with others and sharing your culture.”

As I prepare to leave, a busload of teenagers draws up, part of Anita’s busy school education program. She leads them into the kitchen and before long, the iPods and smart phones disappear and they are engrossed in peeling vegetables and peering into bubbling pots. Meeting the Mapuche, I have been impressed at the resilience of their culture in the face of modernization and, with inspiring characters such as Anita, the preservation of their traditions appears to be in safe hands.

The adventure sports capital of Chile

From Curarrehue, I drive to Pucón, the adventure sports capital of Chile. On the way, I stop at Lake Quillelhue and walk down to a beach, where gentle waves are lapping against the black volcanic sand. Nearby, I see more monkey puzzle trees, a grove of towering giants with umbrella-shaped tops. “The trees grow incredibly slowly,” says Rodrigo. “These ones could well be over a thousand years old. All the monkey puzzle trees in Chile are national monuments and it’s illegal to cut them down.”

Chile takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously and, as if to illustrate the point, the road nearby splits in two to accommodate two of the trees that now stand marooned on a traffic island. Rising dramatically above the treetops is the perfectly symmetrical 2,800-meter, snow-capped cone of Villarrica Volcano. The sight of it sends my pulse racing with both excitement and trepidation, as I intend to climb it in the next few days.

Pucón is one of a string of towns in the Chilean Lake District, or Zona Sur (Southern Zone), where a series of magnificent lakes are fed by melting snow from the Andes. From Araucanía’s bustling capital of Temuco to Puerto Montt in the extreme south, gateway to Patagonia, many settlements show a strong German influence, which lingers in the orderliness, architecture and beer.

These last are still made to the German Reinheitsgebot purity standards of 1516, a fact that seems remarkable in a place that can seem far behind the rest of the world in the very best of ways. Immigrants from Germany first arrived here in the late 1800s, encouraged by the government who were looking for skilled workers to colonize this remote region. Towns such as Osorno, that shared a similar climate to Germany, prospered with the new arrivals – although the Mapuche paid a price in loss of prime agricultural land.

One of the greatest autumn foliage displays on the planet

As a prelude to our volcano ascent, I leave Pucón early the next morning on a horse trek through the lava fields on the lower slopes of Villarrica. The dew-sparkling meadows around the stables soon give way to a dappled wood. It is a crisp, early autumn morning and the first flushes of orange and crimson are appearing on the rauli and lenga trees, a foretaste of one of the greatest autumn foliage displays on the planet. Slowly the ground darkens, and the wood thins out into a dramatic landscape of undulating volcanic ash, strewn with jagged black boulders.

I trot to the edge of the lava flow before climbing up a winding path onto moorland covered in wild chauca berries. They resemble pink blueberries and are very sweet but otherwise utterly tasteless. At the top, we tether the horses at a lonely weather station and I sit down to enjoy the spectacular view of Villarrica. There is barely a whisper of wind in the air and it is the most silent place I have ever been to, so much so that I rub my ears and have the uncomfortable feeling that I have gone deaf.

Next morning, the scene is one of total contrast as I join a crowd of novice mountaineers for the climb. It normally takes more than four hours but an hour is saved if you take a rickety old ski lift up the lower slopes. As I jump on the tiny ski chair, I am shocked to discover that it has no safety bar and I clutch onto the hand rail in terror. Eduardo, sitting next to me, is travelling in South America for three months between IT jobs at home in Brazil.

“My mother thought I was crazy when I told her I was going to climb an active volcano,” he says. As the chair lift swings and judders past a rusting pylon that leans alarmingly to one side, I am inclined to agree with mum.

The real hike starts in a bleak terrain of jagged volcanic boulders and loose scree, passing the ruined shell of a futuristic-looking ski station, destroyed during Villarrica’s last major eruption in 1971. It reminds me of a set from a classic Star Trek episode. Just below the snow line, the first of my fellow trekkers gives up and turns back, accompanied by guides. The rest of us don crampons and, for the next two hours, snake our way in zigzags over the treacherously slippery ice fields. The altitude starts to hit me and I have to resort to mental games to distract myself from my gasping breath and aching leg muscles.

Snow-capped mountains stretch as far as the eye can see

At the crater, we collapse in collective exhaustion before taking in the spectacular surroundings. Villarrica is one of only five volcanoes in the world to contain an active lava lake. It lies simmering at the bottom of a deep circular crater but the view around me is no less dramatic. To the north and south, snow-capped mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. I take in conical silhouettes of other active volcanoes such as Llaima, near to the Argentinian border and believed by the Mapuche to be the abode of evil spirits.

Leaving behind the scrum of fellow climbers taking selfies, I take a stroll along the crater rim. A few other trekkers have the same idea and find isolated rocks on which to sit down and contemplate the landscape. They remind me of a 19th century Romantic painting of man versus nature, an appropriate image for such a savagely beautiful place, where the whiff of sulfur is a constant reminder of the danger so close at hand.

A few days later, I meet Enrique Ricardo, a ski instructor and artist, who lives in a triangular wooden hut built by himself next to the Cautín River. He offers me a sip of yerba mate tea, drunk piping hot from a traditional circular wooden cup through a metal pipe. I ask him why he likes living here in the wilds. “It’s good for the body and spirit,” he says. “In the summer I grow my vegetables, collect firewood from the forest and swim in the river. In the winter I sit round the fire, read my books and spend time with my friends.”

As I leave, he uproots some beetroots from his vegetable patch and offers them as a gift. It is a simple gesture but one that sums up the community spirit and connection with nature exuded by the people here on Chile’s magnificent wild frontier.

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