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.
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
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.
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.
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