Desolation begins benignly enough. Under leaden skies streaked with shards of light and soaring condors we set out to ascend the mountain pass that cuts across the saddle of Osorno Volcano. Our heavy boots crunch over skittering basaltic scree jettisoned by ancient volcanic eruptions. Their effusive lava flow now provides fertile ground for the fierce mountain gorse- and lichen-encrusted evergreens enveloping the hillsides.
The trail steepens and a rasping wind buffets our ears, bearing the smell of damp earth. We stride by tumbling waterfalls and an abandoned mountain refuge hot on the trail of a prowling güiña wildcat. Rhythm is broken only intermittently to scrump wild chaura berries, tinted candy-pink and bursting with sweet juice — a small gift from a parched land.
My guide, Marcela, is conducting me deep into Chile’s first national park and offering a thrilling introduction to the Región de Los Lagos — the Chilean Lake District. Lying more than midway down the country’s southern spine, at the northern tip of Patagonia, it’s a pastoral backcountry where the gentle undulations of forest-fringed meadows give way to smouldering peaks and deep glacial waters. I’ve come in search of adventure but experience much more; there are colossal trees, diverse wildlife, a sense of unbound space and silence.
It becomes clear how Paso Desolación earned its sobriquet when we emerge onto a wind-whipped plateau. Here, even the hardiest plants retreat, exposing a vast, lifeless lunarscape. On one side, the crooked outline of La Picada curls like a witch’s nose against an icy blue sky; on the other soars the snow-fleeced cone of imperious Osorno, pricked by a prism of sunlight.
Historically, Osorno was one of the most active volcanoes of the southern Chilean Andes, erupting 11 times between 1575 and 1869. A young Charles Darwin witnessed one of these explosions, describing it as ‘the grandest volcanic spectacle I ever saw’ while visiting Chile in 1835. “It’s dormant — for now,” says Marcela pointedly. She has good reason to be cautious; it’s only a year since neighbouring Calbuco roared back to life after decades of slumber, drowning nearby villages in a billowing ash cloud that led to 2,500 evacuations. Now all that attests to this apocalyptic blowout is the soft brown silt carpeting the ground.
Against a backdrop of grey boulders and bedrock, Todos los Santos Lake shimmers on the distant horizon like a mirage. Its shock of emerald blue is exquisitely framed by verdant hills set before an impenetrable wall of Andean peaks marking the Argentine frontier. We find a rocky ledge to quietly commune with the mountains, relishing our picnic lunch and the soul-stirring views.
As we descend, dense temperate rainforest springs up — bamboo culms, shaggy ferns and flowering trees gripped by twisted vines and drooping moss. Marcela listens for the melancholy cry of the native chucao bird and points out centuries-old canelo trees, deemed sacred by the indigenous Mapuche people. From the thicket, we emerge onto black sand banks to follow the lake’s western rim to the Petrohué Waterfalls, where thousands of years of raging currents have licked the black rock smooth.
In pre-Columbian times this territory was ruled by the Mapuche (meaning ‘people of the land’ in their native tongue). True to their name, the Mapuche fiercely resisted the Incas who descended from the north in the 15th century. In 1541, the Spanish invaded from Peru but again encountered fierce Mapuche resistance. The conflict lasted centuries as the conquistadores tried and failed to colonise the Mapuche heartland, leaving the Lake District as one of the last indigenous strongholds.
The final blow to Mapuche autonomy came after Chilean Independence, in the 1850s, when the government launched an aggressive programme of mass immigration to the area. Wave after wave of European settlers, mostly German, arrived by the boatload. These new families were granted their own patch of appropriated Mapuche land as the government sought to ‘tame’ the wild south and its unyielding, indigenous people.
The legacy of colonisation lives on in Puerto Varas, where I rest up before the following day’s exertions. It’s a picturesque town located on the southern shores of Llanquihue Lake, characterised by gabled roofs that are, bizarrely, reminiscent of old-time Bavaria. Streets bear names of both Hispanic and Germanic origin, while bars and cafes offer craft beer and flaky kuchen (pastries).
Along the waterfront, I dangle my feet over the boardwalk and watch the dipping sun dance across the sea-like expanse of blue. Across the waters rise the snow-capped slopes of Osorno and Calbuco, their subliminal presence a prompt to reflect on the day’s feats. When a gleaming crescent moon rises between the peaks, the scene is subsumed into an ethereal indigo, blurring where the water ends and the sky begins.
When both lake and mountain dissolve into darkness, I gravitate to a candlelit table at Mercado 605. It’s an inviting bistro set back from the lake where local flavours are enhanced with nouvelle cuisine finesse. A heady pisco de campo, sweetened with local Ulmo honey, precedes a feast of lake-fished ceviche, melt-in-the-mouth Patagonian lamb and a feather-light mousse of crimson murta berries foraged from the surrounding woods.
The following morning, we take kayaks to explore the Reloncaví Estuary fjord. The Petrohué River flows into Ralún Bay, where we launch into mirror-smooth waters dwarfed by steep slopes snagged with cotton-wool clouds. Further out, inquisitive seals bob their silken heads to say hello but, sadly, we see nothing of the shy tonina — Chile’s small indigenous dolphin.
An ominous gathering of clouds speeds the dip-dip of our paddles as we head for lunch at a nearby homestead. By the time we haul our kayaks to shore, fat raindrops batter our foreheads. We squelch past fruit-drooping orchards up a hillside field to a clapboard farmhouse, its peeling blue paint etched out against dark skies.
Señora Yolanda’s face creases into a toothless smile when she spies us from the porch. She’s a tiny, ebullient septuagenarian who’s lived all her life in this house built by her antecedents four generations before. With an indomitable spirit and help from her son Juan-Carlos, she labours to ensure subsistence from her smallholding — raising livestock, planting legumes and using a wooden press to make chicha — a potent, apple-based grog.
We’re hustled into the kitchen, where sopping garments are pegged onto clothes lines to dry over a blazing iron stove, on which a stew bubbles. We sit for a simple lunch surrounded by fading family portraits while Yolanda entertains with spirited yarns of daily life. She tells of monthly shopping trips involving an hour-long walk at dawn to reach the bus stop. “Sometimes, I miss it because I’m chatting to the neighbours,” she grins.
By the time mate (herbal tea) is served, she’s regaling us with tales of petrifying tempests and volcano-induced whirlwinds. “I was 14 when the great earthquake struck,” she recalls, referring to Chile’s notorious tremor of 1960 — the largest on record. “My ancestors used strong joints so the walls shook but didn’t fall.” Both house and its dwellers, it seems, are made of sturdy stuff.
The afternoon takes on a different pace as we pedal bikes around Llanquihue. Empty roads wind through broad pastures dappled with grazing herds, brightly-painted beehives and sleepy hamlets. We break at Chester’s, a local microbrewery, to refresh ourselves with golden ale, before joining the road again. Later, at a street market in the tranquil village of Puerto Octay, we dismount to browse stalls stacked with bricks of dried seaweed and strings of dark smoked mussels, known as cholga.
A night of heavy snowfall means the glacier hike scheduled for the following day has been cancelled. Instead I elect to go on a horseback ride around the Puerto Rosales peninsula. The stables are run by Cristian and Carolina, a young couple whose hacks are tailored to allow for a deep appreciation of nature. With soft whispers, I gently guide my mare, Guinda, through sun-speckled woodland as her ears prick to the drill of a Magellanic woodpecker. We trot out onto a pebble beach before halting at the tip of the cape to quietly observe the landscape. The lake shimmers, a breeze plays among the reeds, and I lean back on Guinda’s saddle in contentment.
Later, I leave for a three-hour journey south across the choppy Chacao Strait to reach Chiloé. It’s South America’s second largest island and part of an archipelago formed when a mountain range sank into the Pacific in the last Ice Age. Through the spume and spray of the ferry crossing, I perceive a patchwork of pastures picked out in myrtle-green and wheat-yellow. Tiny dots morph at closer range into squat houses sheltering on the lee of the hill. This is no breezy seaside resort, but a brooding, capricious land of heaving tides, tumultuous winds and remote, primordial splendour.
Chiloé has evolved an idiosyncratic way of life distinct from that of the Lake District mainland. Locals are quick to affirm, ‘We are not Chilenos, we are Chilotes.’ Regional solidarity manifests in the custom of minga, a labour system based on mutual exchange. “It began by neighbours helping one another sow seeds and harvest,” today’s guide, Maria-José, explains. Collaboration extends to more unusual services too. “Traditionally, when people moved, they took their house too.” On her phone she plays a video of teams of people transporting a wooden house on oxen-pulled tree trunks through streets towards the shoreline. “They float the house to its new island home then have a big party to celebrate,” she explains.
My stay is at Tierra Chiloé, a striking feat of wood and glass whose dramatic geometric lines are attuned to the rugged isolation of the bay over which it billows. Spacious interiors are softened with local hangings and rugs in natural materials, while wall-to-wall windows put the scenery on show. I spend my evening here in glorious seclusion, buried deep in hand-woven throws and plumped pillows beside a crackling wood fire. The views are mesmeric; my book remains unopened as I salute another sunset with no more distraction than a glass of soothing Carménère red.
Dawn breaks with a cacophony of squawking gulls, petrels and black-faced ibises. From my bedroom window, I watch the sun burn mist off the still waters, brushing the rugged landscape with golden tones, before I seek out a plentiful breakfast in preparation for the morning’s hike. We drive west past the small settlement of Cucao until the tarmac road peters out into a bumpy dirt track snaking along the thundering Pacific coastline.
On foot, we cross hilltop moorland strewn with free-roaming ewes who scurry at the sound of our approach. Cresting the clifftops are the skeletal frames of trees, their gnarled branches twisted into grotesque shapes by the Southern Pacific’s unrelenting blows. Far below, a colony of sea lions heave themselves out of the breakers to bask in the sun of a rocky cove.
We arrive in an open bay where a wooden structure projects out into oblivion. “It marks the myth of the Muelle de las Almas — Pier of the Souls,” Maria-José tells us. “According to local legend, the souls of the dead come here to be judged. They sail away to the next life on a ghost ship arriving from the headland.”
It’s not the only superstition that the Chilotes retain from their ancestors. Echoing around the island are lingering tales of black magic-wielding brujos and the wretched El Trauco forest troll who can kill with just one glare. Somehow, these superstitions coexist in harmony with the island’s stoic Catholic beliefs, deeply rooted by the Jesuit missionaries who travelled to Chiloé in the early 17th century.
Around 70 historic timber churches are scattered over the archipelago, carved by skilled Chilote craftsmen using special hinges that forwent the need for nails. “It was a technique borrowed by shipbuilders — look at the arched ceiling, it’s like an upturned boat,” says Maria-José in a hushed voice, when we visit the Iglesia de Achao, Chiloé’s oldest church and one of 16 with UNESCO World Heritage Site status on the island.
The church in Chiloé’s capital of Castro is a cheery beacon of canary yellow and lean, lilac-tipped steeples. We pass by the next day on the way to the sprawling local market, where vendors sit knitting thick ponchos and winter socks from the prized local wool. Along the waterfront are the brightly painted palafitos — shingled houses extending over the sea on long stilts, an architectural hangover from the days when roads were scarce and seafarers returned by boat directly to their dwellings.
Sandra Naiman, a jolly woman of mestizo origin, is the sole proprietor of a 25-acre organic farmstead. We’ve been lured in from the roadside on the way home by her offer of homemade jams and licor de mora (blackberry liquor). “My surname is Indio [relating to indigenous people] — until recently my family hid it. We were ashamed,” she tells us. “Now it’s different. We feel pride in our origins.” We step inside a dark larder groaning with giant garlic heads and various shapes and shades of potato. “Did you know Chiloé has 200 different types of papas nativas?”
As we explore the pastures, I hear how Chiloé is on the brink of great change. A project to build a new bridge connecting the island to the mainland is already underway, scheduled to be complete by 2019. While some islanders welcome the step towards modernity, others cherish their geographical isolation and fear an influx of industry bent on exploiting their fertile land and waters. “The charm of the island is its isolation,” Sandra states mournfully as she stares out to sea.
On the ferry back to the mainland, I wonder how long this place will retain its raw natural beauty. I remain hopeful. After all, in this extraordinary land where houses can move across water and a pier to nowhere can bring retribution, where sleeping volcanoes suddenly vent their wrath and wooden slats can withstand the worst of Earth’s tremors, what other wild possibilities might occur?
Getting there & around
British Airways starts a direct service from Heathrow to Santiago in January 2017. LAN operate from Santiago to Puerto Montt.
Daily buses from Santiago to Chiloé on Cruz del Sur and ETM pass through Puerto Montt.
How to do it
Swoop Patagonia offers a five-night package to the Lake District including daily excursions, private transfers, accommodation in Puerto Varas and a final night in Santiago from £1,000 per person (excluding flights).
Journey Latin America can arrange flights from the UK to Santiago then onwards to Puerto Montt. A three-night, all-inclusive package at Tierra Chiloé costs from £1,460 per person with return transfers, daily excursions, all meals and an open bar.
Published in the South America 2016 guide, distributed with the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)