Hotspot volcanoes

Volcanoes and lakes on a road trip in Chile’s Lake District

Chile’s Araucaria region takes its name from the monkey-puzzle forests that historically criss-crossed the countryside, along the sides of volcanoes and to the very shores of the dozens of lakes that dot this extraordinary part of the world’s longest country. . These days the numbers are dwindling, but not so much that there are still dark green bands of the unusual trees found across the countryside.

“For us they are sacred,” says Rosario Colipi in her ruka (a traditional Mapuche house) in the de facto capital of the Araucaria region, Pucon. The Mapuche have been here almost as long as the trees, knowing their rhythms, their spirits and their generosity. The 68-year-old grandmother of 14 gently toasts monkey puzzle nuts over an open fire, a satisfying, almost pine-like aroma mingling with the smoke.

Rosario opened his home as part of a cultural program to improve understanding of the indigenous Mapuche culture, which has been under threat since the Spaniards swept through this area during the Conquistador era. She speaks eloquently and at length about everything from solar eclipses to local politics to climate change. “People should pay more attention to nature,” she says succinctly. “For us, all the answers are there if you know how to look.”

Although home to Rosario and hundreds of other Mapuche, Pucon has become the commercial and tourist hub of Chile’s lavish Lake District. Here you can buy the novelty keychains and reckless t-shirts and two-for-one cocktails, then sign up for an excursion to hike volcanoes or jet-ski on Lake Villarrica.

After enjoying a few hikes in the area, including to the beautiful Cerro Espejo through an araucaria forest, I decide instead to hop in a car and head south towards Puerto Montt, a trip I spread over several days. The road is never straight, but it’s never ugly either. The volcanoes around Pucon are perhaps the most visited in the region, but they are far from the only ones – during the 500 kilometers of my route, I feel as if I have never been entirely without a lake or a volcano to proximity.

The picturesque Lago Ranco is in one of the wettest areas in Chile. As the crow flies from the Andes condor, the Argentinian border is not far from its eastern shore, but I came to stay at Parque Futangue instead. Unlike most land here, this is a private concession rather than a national park, but the Chilean owners have similar rules and standards in place, with an emphasis on hiking and zero-impact conservation.

There is a small population of highly endangered Darwin frogs here, while further into the undergrowth guide Tomas Rodriguez tells me there is a remote chance of seeing a tiny wildcat known as a kodkod. “And no, I’ve never seen one,” he says, before I even ask.

Visiting in the austral autumn, it rains harder. Tomas and I take shelter in a hut on top of a hill, guessing what the view might be below. He assures me it’s spectacular, and as I begin to lose faith, the cloud breaks for a few moments, revealing waterfalls tumbling down to Lago Ranco below.

Back on the road the next day, the weather improves considerably. Away from the big cities, the driving is remarkably quiet and the roads mostly free of potholes – keep your eyes ahead and don’t be distracted by flocks of black-faced ibises or the sight of even more volcanoes is as difficult as possible.

A few hours later, I reached Lago Llanquihue and the pretty town of Puerto Varas. This city does not lack travel agencies either, but it is more discreet than Pucon and has resisted mass tourism better. Days could be spent here doing little more than floating on the lake, but with no time to relax and the encouragement of a new guide, I find myself signed up for a white-water rafting experience instead.

The heavy rains of the previous days gave the rivers a particular urgency. This delights Alvaro, the captain of the raft, but, from the bank, a puff of apprehension crosses my stomach. The rest of my boat is made up of Chileans who are younger and more enthusiastic (read: braver) than me. Giving up would unbalance the boat, however, and so before I’ve had a chance to really protest, I’m on the water, swept downstream. Seconds later, waves of cold wash over the bow and across my face, and I hear myself screaming, out of fear or joy.

THE DETAILS

AFTER

traveller.com.au/chile

ROUND

Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.com) offers a 10-day driving vacation in Chile’s Lake District following the itinerary Jamie did from A$6,363 per person. The price includes two nights in Santiago, two at Hotel Awa in Puerto Varas, two at Futangue Hotel and Spa and three at &Beyond Vira Vira in Pucon and round-trip domestic flights from Santiago, transfers in Santiago, a car from rental in the Lake District, most meals and outings.

The writer traveled as a guest of Journey Latin America.