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A Guide to Chile’s Lake District and Island of Chiloé

Helen Howard

The Lake District & Puerto Varas

Located in central Chile, the country's Lake District of Chile is famous for its snow-capped volcanoes, forests, lakes and national parks. Some towns and villages in the region show their German heritage in the architecture and cuisine, whilst others are more in line with traditional Chile. With a multitude of lakes, cycle paths and hiking trails all manner of outdoor pursuits can be enjoyed. It's possible to enter the Chilean Lake District from Argentina, by taking the spectacular Trans Andean Lake crossing from Bariloche to Puerto Varas. This day-long journey crosses three lakes and passes through a variety of scenic landscapes, which on clear days give views of Cerro Tromodor volcano and the Andes mountains. Alternatively, you can take a short flight to Puerto Varas from Santiago.

The largest of the pretty towns and villages, Puerto Varas sits on the edge of Lake Llanquihue, overlooked by two volcanoes, Osorno and Calbuco. This stunning backdrop combines well with the German colonial architecture making Puerto Varas a good place to stay. Visit the smaller charming villages of Frutillar and Puerto Octay, also located on the edge of Lake Llanquihue, by hiring a car for the day to leisurely drive the perimeter of the lake. There are also plenty of cycle paths to explore sections of the lake.

Puerto Varas in Chile's Lake District
Puerto Varas
Osorno Volcano in Chile's Lake District
Osorno Volcano / Image credit: Michael Howard

Highlights of the Lake District

Birdwatching and Alerce Andino National Park

There is an abundance of birdlife in the Lake District and with an excellent local naturalist guide it’s possible to spend a day exploring the different eco-systems including the coast and Alerce Andino National Park. Located southeast of Puerto Varas, Alerce Andino National Park is a wonderful place to hike as well as to stop and look for a variety of birds including ochre flanked and Magellanic tapaculo and Des Mur’s Wiretail. Alerce is the Chilean name for Patagonian Cypress, a towering tree species native to the Andes mountains. Alerce grow to be one of the tallest and oldest trees in the world and is also known as a false larch. Over the course of a day you could see around 60 species of birds, from the very small characterful thorn-tailed rayadito to larger birds including Magellanic woodpecker, black-faced ibis and southern crested caracara.

Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park

To the east of Puerto Varas lies Chile’s first national park, Vicente Pérez Rosales, reached by following the southern edge of Lake Llanquihue. The park contains part of an ancient trans-Andean route, used by the indigenous Mapuche before the Spanish arrived. It’s worth stopping on the way at viewpoints to take in the changing scenery. Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park is dominated by the Andes Mountains, including the snow-capped conical peak of Osorno volcano, and Lake Todos Los Santos. There are also some small waterfalls, Saltos del Petrohué, where part of the Petrohué river branches off and is forced through a narrow volcanic canyon.

Black faced ibis in Chile
Black-faced ibis / Image credit: Michael Howard
Lake Llanquihue in Chile's Lake District
Lake Llanquihue / Image credit: Helen Howard
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The Island of Chiloé

Situated just south of the Lake District is the Isla Grande de Chiloé, the island of Chiloé. It is part of the Chiloé archipelago and is famous for its independent seafaring people. The windswept landscape varies with rolling hills and farmland, rugged coast, empty beaches and lush, dense Valdivian temperate rainforest. As part of his five year journey on The Beagle in the 1830’s, Darwin spent time exploring the archipelago, and some of the animals he encountered bear his name, including the small endemic fox. Chiloé was one of the last Spanish strongholds in South America, joining the Chilean republic eight years after independence. It remains separate from the mainland culturally and physically, accessed by a short ferry ride. Although possible to visit Chiloé in one day from Puerto Varas, we would recommend staying on the island to fully appreciate the gentle Chilote culture and landscape. The island has a distinctive character, with a laid-back, almost sleepy feel to it, which is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Chilotes, the islanders, are warm, welcoming and keen to share their unique way of life.

Chiloe Beach in Chile
Beach in Chiloé / Image credit: Helen Howard
Palafitos in Castro in Chile
Palafitos in Castro / Image credit: Michael Howard

Highlights of Chiloé

Chiloé’s Churches

There are over 150 churches and chapels across the island, with some being UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Dating back to the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, wooden churches were built blending Spanish building techniques with the indigenous islanders’ traditional wooden boat construction methods. Sixteen original churches remain and these have UNESCO status. Built using local wood, larch and cypress, and covered with wooden shingles, these structures were designed to resist the wet, humid oceanic climate. The orientation and location of the churches were determined by the sea and were often built on hills, to assist navigators and avoid flooding. Some churches have colourful facades, some have intricately decorated interiors. The UNESCO churches are all located in the eastern part of the island.

Penguins at Puñihuil

Three small islands just off the coast of Chiloé are famous for being the only place in the world where Magellanic penguins and Humboldt penguins breed, although it’s thought there are probably other places where mixed colonies of penguins are found. By taking a short boat ride, you can get up close to these birds and other wildlife that live on the rocks, including elegant red-legged cormorants, flightless steamer ducks, kelp geese and the occasional South American sealion. The breeding season is from September through to the end of March. On their arrival to the islands, penguins clamber up the rocks to the highest points and burrow into the earth to nest. Large kelp gulls predate on penguin chicks hence the deep burrows. October/November is hatching time and by mid-February the adult penguins begin the moulting process, re-growing their feathers over approximately 20 days, during which time they can’t swim and therefore can’t eat. By the end of March, the breeding season is over. Designated a Natural Monument in 1999, boat trips at Puñihuil are strictly regulated to limit the number of departures and are run by local families. Understandably you can’t step foot on the islands but if the weather conditions are right you can get quite close to the rocks.

South American sea lion in Chile
South American sea lion / Image credit: Michael Howard
Magellanic penguin in Chile
Magellanic penguin / Image credit: Michael Howard
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The Stilted Houses of Chiloé

The eastern side of Chiloé, facing the mainland, has calmer seas and many inlets. The fishing town of Castro, the capital of Chiloé, sits on a bluff overlooking a sheltered estuary and is renowned for its palafitos, stilted houses. These were once found all along the east coast, but now are only seen on the shores at Castro. Often made using the famous Chilote wooden shingles, these colourful buildings were originally where the poorest families lived, as they were in the less desirable parts of the island. Built directly over the water and now protected as a national historic monument, from the land side they appear to be no different as other houses. Therefore, they’re best viewed from the water either by taking a small boat trip, or by kayaking the calm waters. Many palafitos have been restored and converted into boutique hotels and cafes and it’s lovely to linger over a drink watching a little fishing boat or tourist boat, sea birds, including elegant terns, cormorants, and perhaps a sealion or two, dancing through the water. Castro also has another side, its busier centre with central plaza and a UNESCO church.

Cuisine and Agro-tourism of Chiloé

For an island with a history of subsistence farming it is no surprise that local ingredients and traditionally made products remains popular today. Chiloé’s traditional dish, curanto, is a hearty meal made with shellfish, meat, and potatoes. The dish is prepared by heating stones in a hole, placing the food on top then covering with nalca leaves (Chilean rhubarb), damp cloths, earth and grass and leaving it to cook for a couple of hours. Pulmay contains the same ingredients but is cooked over a bonfire or hob. Potatoes have a long history on Chiloé, with indigenous communities and farmers growing around 800-100 native varieties. Nowadays there are considerably less varieties but you can still sample some of them during your visit. It is worth seeking out family-run agro-tourism restaurants, and as well as lingering over a meal, take a walk through their fruit and vegetable gardens. They work to preserve the heritage of farming diversity on the island, through sustainable means and provide an interesting insight into the long history of Chiloé.

Naturally, being an island, seafood features heavily, with mussels, clams and oysters. Steer clear of loco though, a regional mollusc, as it’s fished ruthlessly and irresponsibly. Another controversial food is salmon, which is farmed off the coast of Chiloé in a major way. There are plenty of alternative fish to enjoy, perhaps sampling chupe, a fish casserole. There are a few small markets on the island, at Ancud, Dalcahue and Castro, where you can wander amongst the stalls and see local produce, depending on the time of year this could include artisan cheese, maqui berries, cochayuyo and luchi (seaweed), nalca and locally produced ulmo honey. This honey is delicately fragrant and delicious. The Ulmo tree flowers in February and March and has large, white flowers. You may see colourful hives, stacked on top of each other on farms and in orchards across the island.

Walking and Trekking

Savour the natural beauty of Chiloé by walking in a variety of landscapes. At picturesque bays you may encounter a local man collecting and drying luga (seaweed) which is sent around the world, or spot Hudsonian whimbrels and Chilean dolphins. In the mossy forests at Chiloé National Park listen for the black-throated huet-huet (heard far more than it is seen!) and the chucao tapaculo. With a local guide you can learn about the flora and fauna as well as some of the island’s myths and folklore. On the west side of the island, Punta Pirulil is known for its ocean views and native forests and it’s here you can walk to the mythical Muelle de las Almas, Bridge of Souls, a simple wooden art installation which taps into the island’s ancient beliefs.

Bee hives of Chiloe
Bee hives of Chiloé / Image credit: Helen Howard
Ulmo tree in flower Chile
Ulmo tree in flower / Image credit: Helen Howard
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