Osorno Volcano and Lake Llanquihue in Lake District, Chile Patagonia is etched in people’s minds as the ultimate wilderness escape
Patagonia is etched in people’s minds as the ultimate wilderness escape. But when Chileans want to get away, they head to the Lake District. It may not have an outdoor apparel brand bearing its name, but this 210-mile stretch of land just north of Patagonia holds as many, if not more, opportunities for adventure. In fact, Pucón is referred to as Chile’s adventure sports capital because of the wide array of both soft and hard adventure activities it offers, including kayaking, fly-fishing, hiking, mountain biking, volcano climbing, and sailing. Unlike the ice fields and glaciers of Patagonia, the diverse landscape here is a spectacular contrast of dense ancient forest, fertile farmland, sapphire-blue lakes, and snow-topped volcanoes. Home to pristine nature reserves, wild national parks, and charming lakeside villages, a trip to the Lake District is like a choose-your-own adventure story where every day ends with fine Chilean wine, farm-fresh food, and a soak in the region’s ubiquitous hot springs
Where to Stay
Most travelers fly from Santiago into the city of Temuco, once home to poet Pablo Nerudo, and base themselves in Pucón or Puerto Varas.
The grande dame of Pucón, Hotel Antumalal is set on the southern edge of Lake Villarrica. Built in the ’50s, its Bauhaus-inspired architecture (radical at the time) and mid-century furnishings feel fabulously trapped in time. Clean lines and floor-to-ceiling windows are found throughout the hotel, which has played host to Jimmy Stewart, Barry Goldwater, and a young Queen Elizabeth. Each of the 23 rooms is warmed by a fireplace and decorated with sheepskin rugs and bed throws woven by local Mapuche women. A spa was added in 2011 and the half-kidney-shaped pool is enclosed by glass so you can swim from indoors to out. At day’s end, sink into a seat on the terrace and watch the sunset reflect off the lake while you sip a glass of Chilean Malbec.
Adventurous travelers who appreciate great food and wine will be in heaven atHacienda Hotel Vira Vira. The passion project of Swiss-born businessman Michael Paravicini, Vira Vira is set on a 40-hectare working farm and dairy. An organic vegetable garden, a flour mill, beehives, Mapuche-bred hens, and a state-of-the-art cheese-making facility supply the majority of ingredients served at the restaurant. The hotel’s wine collection shows off Paravicini’s other passion. He’s personally visited many of the wineries (Viña von Siebenthal, Viu Manent, Lapostolle) to curate the exclusively Chilean cellar. The main lodge contains the restaurant, bar, library, as well as six suites. Twelve villa suites are set along the edge of the Liucura River and feature a fireplace, terrace, and outdoor hot tub. Paravicini’s wife, Claudia, sourced vintage fabrics and local artisan pieces, like the adorable sheep figurines sold in the hotel’s boutique. Don’t be fooled by the stylish digs and decadent meals; Vira Vira takes adventure seriously and employs some of Chile’s most experienced guides. After a day hiking or kayaking, come back to soak in one of the fire-heated wooden hot tubs that line the shore of the river, and if you’re lucky, you can watch the glow of the still-active Villarrica volcano in the distance.
Set within the heart of the rain forest in Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve, Nawelpi Lodge lets you feel completely off the grid without having to sacrifice any comforts. The lodge’s 12 large suites are scattered along the Fuy River and each has its own fireplace and private veranda for soaking in the surrounding nature. Guests have access to the lodge’s sauna, hot springs, and outdoor pool and a massage at the spa shouldn’t be missed. The lodge offers over 40 excursions, all led by knowledgeable, local guides.
With just four suites, Quincho Casa Hotel offers an intimate setting on the banks of Lake Llanquihue in Puerto Varas. Each suite is named after a local bird (request Chucao or Bandurria for volcano views) and has a Jacuzzi bathtub. Upon arrival, guests sit down with staff and plot out a bespoke itinerary. Almost all day trips are privately guided and activities range from a picnic lunch at a volcanic beach to mountain biking
What to Do
The Lake District is a hiker’s paradise with multiple national parks and nature reserves to explore. Huerquehue National Park and Villarrica National Park are two of the most popular, thanks to their ghostly lagoons, abundant birdlife (keep an eye out for the Magellanic woodpecker), and forests of araucaria or monkey puzzle trees, which were declared a natural monument. Los Lagos Trail in Huerquehue is a moderate hike that takes in five lakes. For more of a challenge, tackle the San Sebastián Trail. You need to be fit to climb the 6,000-foot vertical gain. Your reward for the effort: views of five lakes, four volcanoes, and on a clear day you can see across to Argentina. Skinning or snowshoeing up the smoking crater in Villarrica National Park will guarantee bragging rights back home. The strenuous trek takes the better part of a day and is best to do with a local guide.Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve offers canopy tours that allow you to wander high above the rain forest along 50- to 80-foot platforms linked together by hanging bridges and zip lines.
Channel your inner huaso or cowboy with Rodolfo Coombs. The former trainer of the Spanish Olympic equestrian team offers lessons and excursions at his ranch,Huepilmalal. The charismatic Coombs always has a twinkle in his eyes and sets even first-time riders at ease. He’ll teach you to ride Chilean-style, holding the reins in one hand and riding from the hips sitting deep into the canter. Half-day and full-day rides traverse his picturesque ranch and remote areas of the Cordilleras.
Many of the Pucón’s most picturesque sites can be taken in by bike, including the Ojos del Caburgua waterfall. Adrenaline junkies should book a downhill mountain-bike tour of Villarrica volcano with Bike Pucón.
All of the volcanic activity in the Lake District creates an abundance of natural hot springs. And a good steamy soak is exactly what your muscles will need after a few adventure-filled days. Termas Geométricas in Villarrica National Park is one of the best. Designed by Chilean architect Germán del Sol (mastermind of Explora’s striking hotels), the 17 pools are connected by a wooden bridge and amenities include a café, bathrooms, and locker rooms
Where to Eat
Food lovers enjoy the Lake District for its specialties such as smoked trout; wild boar; jams made with local superfruits like maqui and murta; and many, many cafés that specialize in onces, or “high tea,” served in the afternoon with a huge spread of cakes and sandwiches. In Pucón, Trawen is a local favorite for healthy, organic food like local trout, venison, and salads sourced from an on-site garden. The Mapuche (meaning: people of the land) are the largest indigenous community in Chile and their influence on its cuisine is very evident. Many local communities allow visitors into their traditional ruka houses for meals. In the town of Curarrehue, Mapuche chef Elisa Cea Epuin runs La Cocina de Elisa. Her rustic cooking showcases exotic local ingredients like piñones, the large pine nut–like fruit of the monkey puzzle tree. The other predominant culinary influence you’ll find in the Lake District comes from Germany. In the 1850s, German immigrants brought not just their food, but also their beer-brewing traditions to the region. Today, you can find artisan breweries like Cervecería Kunstmann near Valdivia, which serves pints of its unique lagers, pale ales, and bocks alongside spaetzle and other hearty German fare.