Notes on Chiloé and Los Lagos
We had wished to do this trip for a long time, having read and heard many times about the treasures in landscapes, food, wine and culture that the South-American extreme held. And, as the time to depart was getting closer we also had found dear friends for company. “We will try out a different Chilean wine every night” had said one of our friends, and the prospect had filled us with expectation. No need to review Chilean wines here, mind you —well known world wide. Yet, the wine producing landscape in Chile has developed enormously in the last twenty years, with many vineyards coming up with award class products. And what an experience it was to sample some of these wines. Should you come across a “Montes Alpha”, “Tabalí” or “Don Melchor” don't skip the chance to try them —all grapes are great but do try Carmenere. And, the good wine would not remain the sole highlight of the trip.
But, first things first. It all started in the island of Chiloé, that battered piece of land once described by Charles Darwin in sober terms:
“I should think there are few parts of the world, within the temperate regions, where so much rain falls. The winds are very boisterous, and the sky almost always clouded: to have a week of fine weather is something wonderful.”
This is indeed quite relevant as Darwin wrote it during the voyage of the Beagle in 1845. It was only a few years later and this was also the first experience that waves of German and Austrian colonists would have on Chilean soil. Chiloé was ind fact used in the 1850s as a pivot of logistical support for the colonisation of the valley of Llanquihue, as thousands of people would seek new luck in settlements like Osorno, Puerto Montt and Frutillar. The immigration would turn out to be what is called today a “win-win” situation: the settlers would get a chance for a new start with cheap land, and with population on the spot the young Chilean Republic would be able to claim sovereignty on this side of the yet uncertain border with Argentina.
And, wind and rain they found, as did we when finally arrived to Chiloé in the early summer of 2012. But we also found the very charming culture of the island, from the picturesque houses on stilts (palafitos), to the ubiquitous wooden churches and to the special curanto (a rich meal consisting of shellfish, meat, potatoes and vegetables which is cooked for hours in a hole in the ground). So, don't get yourself turned down by a bit of wind, for Chiloé is definitely worth a visit.
The region called “Los Lagos” bears its reputation from the beautiful contrast between the impressive, always snowed volcano peaks and the deep blue waters of the mountain lakes, many of which make for crowded summer vacation destinations. In fact, the image of lake Llanquihue in front of the Osorno volcano is one of Chile's most popular views on postcards, books, facebook, etc. Less known is a boat tour from Petrohué, by the feet of the Osorno volcano, through the lake of All Saints (Todos Los Santos) to the island of Margarita where the lake waters become intense green and where you can take a (guided) stroll through wonderful forests. The boat is operated by father and daughter, one preparing to succeed the other, and in doing so bringing an entire change to the business —she takes two roles: the captain and the guide in English.
Up north, the lake of Villarrica and the volcano of the same name offer similar views of landscape and vegetation. The attentive observer, however, will realise to have crossed a subtle barrier. Llanquihue and Osorno are very much German settlement land, with their ever present “Club Alemán” (German Club), with its traditions for Kuchen (cakes, which they sell everywhere, and under the German term) and wooden houses that could have been transplanted directly from Bavaria's 19th century. Did I mention the manicured front gardens?
In Villarrica however, we enter Araucanía or mapuche land, where you find more signs of the original inhabitants of a large region that once extended some 500Km in longitude and covered settlements also on the Argentinian side of the Andes. The Mapuches provided for a most fierce resistance to colonisation and engaged the Spanish in a war that lasted almost 300 years, in the course of which the city of Valdivia is said to have been founded and destroyed three times. But the Spanish conquistadores, with their impassive culture, religion and —last, but not least— germs kept the last word –the rest is history. Unfortunately, you have to actively look for signs of mapuche culture as it is not so potently put on show.