Chile's Alps: Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

 @ibtimes on May 11 2009 3:55 PM

I’d seen waterfalls

before, but never like this. I was sliding down a wire some 50 feet (15 m) in

the air, sailing through the treetops at 30 miles an hour (48 km/h). Somewhere

off to the left of me was a blur of white and the roar of thundering falls. But

the waterfall would have to wait. All my attention was focused on the rapidly

approaching tree and trying to remember how to brake.

Welcome to canopying, an increasingly popular (if slightly

insane) sports activity in Chile’s Lake District. Located 650 miles (1,046 km)

south of the capital Santiago, the Lake District is an area of lush green

valleys, towering cone-shaped volcanoes and emerald lakes — all at the base of

the snowcapped Andes Mountains. Much of the district looks like the German and

Swiss Alps. It can sound that way too, since many of the original settlers were

from Germany and still speak the language.

Riding

I was in the middle of Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales,

Chile’s first national park, established in 1926. And I was terrified. Canopying

involves wearing an alpine mountaineering harness attached to two little pulleys

that are placed on wires strung between trees, 40 to 50 feet (12-15 m) in the

air. The term “canopying” comes from the fact that you are in the “canopy” of

the trees — high in the highest branches.

You sit down in your harness, dangle from the wire, and gravity

takes it course, sliding you down the wire for about a quarter mile (400 m),

over streams and through treetops to the next “station,” a wood platform built

high on a tree. To break your speed, you squeeze on a piece of leather cupped in

your hand around the wire. It’s primitive, but effective.

Canopying between eight stations takes one to two hours and

requires, as one British participant put it, “more bloody courage than anyone

has ever exhibited without getting a medal.” As the brochures say, it offers “a

good quota of adrenaline.” But it’s also an exhilarating way to see the

countryside. And what countryside southern Chile has to offer.

A string bean of a nation, Chile stretches about 2,880 miles

(4,635 km) from north to south, but is no more than 277 miles (445 km) wide at

any point. It’s like taking a land mass just slightly larger than Texas and

rolling it into a thin pencil that is nearly four times as long as California.

Running down the entire eastern side of Chile and separating it from Bolivia and

Argentina are the great Andes Mountains.

Four-wheel-drive

We had arrived in the national park as a stop on the famous

Cruce de Lagos, the “cruise of the lakes,” a spectacular lake passage through

the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina. The full-day tour requires

taking four buses and three ferries as you alternate between drives up jagged,

snowcapped mountain passes and cruises across the chain of three fiord-like

lakes, each ringed with volcanoes and tumbling waterfalls.

This is the mountain route that Che Guevara takes in the 2003

movie Motorcycle Diaries. For hundreds of years it was used as a way

across the Andes by the Huilliches, the native people of Southern Chile. Later,

the Jesuits of Chiloe used this lake-crossing route when they founded missions

in the area.

In the early 1900s, a young Swiss explorer named Ricardo Roth

Schütz recognized the scenic beauty of the lakes passage and began operating

tourist excursions. At that time, it was necessary to row across one of the

lakes, and a one-way journey could take days. Today, descendents of the Roth

family run a modern operation that uses sleek catamaran ferries and a fleet of

colorful buses to complete the 117-mile (188 km) journey between Puerto Montt,

Chile, and the ski resort of Bariloche, Argentina, in a leisurely eight hours.

While this is one of the most scenic routes in South America,

most people taking it see the views only through a bus window or from the deck

of a ferry. We decided to slow down and spend three days in the middle of the

trip, in the village of Peulla (population 120). Peulla has an end-of-the-world feel to it, and with good

reason. It’s not the easiest place to get to. From the west, there is only one

way there — a 20-mile (32 km) boat trip across Lago Todos Los Santos (All Saints

Lake), regarded as the prettiest of the lakes in the region. It takes two hours

to sail across the lake, and the scenery never stops. In one direction, there

are sweeping views of the volcano Osorno, which Charles Darwin watched erupt

from the decks of the Beagle in 1835. Looking the other way, you get a

glimpse of towering volcano Tronador, at 11,450 feet (3,490 m), the highest peak

in the area.

From the Peulla ferry dock, it’s about a half-mile (400 m) walk

to the town’s two lodges. Because the town is located at the center of

970-square-mile (2,512 km²) Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, development is

limited. The historic 76-room Hotel Peulla, built in 1896, has a Swiss Alps feel

to it. Hallways and some of the public rooms can be a bit bleak, but there are

pretty gardens surrounding the hotel and a lovely view from the bar’s outdoor

deck, where you can sit, look at mountains and hear the ever-present roar of a

nearby waterfall. It rains 260 days a year here, and because of the steepness of

the mountains and the quietness of this remote region, you are always within

hearing distance of a cascading waterfall.

Next door to the Hotel Peulla, Hotel Natura Patagonia, a

45-room Swiss-inspired hotel, opened in 2006. The rooms feature native woods and

have cable television and Internet connections, while the lobby has a roaring

wood-stoked fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Andes. The

dining room offers Chilean steaks and seafood with a good local wine selection.

After a morning of canopying, we went horseback riding. Dressed

in knee-length half chaps that gave everyone a dashing gaucho-like appearance,

we splashed our horses across the shallow Rio Negro to the foot of the Andes.

Overhead, condors and kingfishers circled in the sky, while the distant roar of

a waterfall drifted down on a breeze from the high, snowcapped crags above.

A

If You Go

The Lake District is a popular recreation destination for both

international tourists and the Chilean people, and it offers a milder Andes

Mountain experience than Patagonia. The climate is similar to the American

Northwest, and you should be prepared for rainfall. The best months to visit are

October through March.

The airport in Puerto Montt has daily connections to the

capital Santiago. Puerto Montt is a rugged fishing town located at the southern

end of the 16,000-mile-long (25,750 km) Pan American Highway, a system of

international highways extending from Alaska to Chile. Puerto Montt is best

known for its fish market and seafood restaurants.

Puerto Varas, 12 miles (19 km) north, on the shores of Lago

Llanquihue, is a comfortable tourist base. Puerto Varas has nice shops and

restaurants, colorfully painted homes and a surprisingly modern casino for such

a remote location. The casino is an attempt by the Chilean government to

increase tourism to the region. The Cruce de Lagos excursion leaves from either

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