Southern South America - Chile: Lakes & Chiloë

They have some great drivers in Chile. The trip from Concepción to Temuco provided us with an excellent view of some of the worst driving we'd seen for some time, including one intrepid family who decided to pass our bus going flat out up a hill, with no view ahead. Luckily there was a wide shoulder on the opposite side of the road, since they ended up driving off the road on the wrong side when faced with a truck thundering over the crest.

Temuco proved to be a place where we hunted in vain for things mentioned in our guide book. There was no sign that the hotel we selected had ever existed at the address shown; the indigenous women's co-op was nowhere to be seen; and to cap it off we couldn't even find the bus station we needed to leave! One thing we could find in Temuco was the craft market. We were tempted to buy one of the gross 'Mapuche indian' dolls. They have amazing faces, with teeth more like beavers than people, and when you lift them up their shirts lift up and their little pricks rise to the occasion. We resisted the temptation.

View from Villarica
Our first real lakes town was Villarica, a more low-key resort town. We stayed with a Swiss couple recommended by good old Scott, and were happy to make it a base to explore the area. We had an excellent view of the volcano Villarica from the lodge, and its beautifully symmetrical snow-capped cone dominated the landscape. The architecture in all of the Lakes District towns is strongly influenced by Switzerland and Austria, very alpine, and Villarica is no exception. The home we were in was clad in wooden shingles, with a steep roof and 'dormer' windows. There were two little kittens and a mother cat, all fussed over by the various travelers who had left their own pets behind. The lake, just a few blocks away, was sparkling blue in the sun, and provided a great venue for water sports of all kinds.

We decided on a day trip to Pucón, rather than a stopover, and were very happy with that decision. Pucón is closer to the foot of the volcano, and is a base for adventure tours to the summit and for fly-fishing tours, but it is also very up-market (downright expensive!) and attracts lots of rich Chileans and Argentineans, complete with maids and nannies for the children. It also had one major drawback that didn't seem to infest Villarica - it teemed with huge, blood-sucking flies. Luckily they were slow-flying, but they resembled large horseflies, and were very difficult to discourage, making it impossible to stretch out on the beach in peace. These flies were to be found at every lakeside stop we made from then on, and are a seasonal pest. We were unable to find out anything about them, despite asking many people about how they breed and how come they were so closely associated with the lakes.

We should have just made a day trip to Licán Ray instead of staying there overnight, but decided to continue our southern journey and left Villarica. Licán Ray is a crowded lakeside resort favoured by young Chileans. We were lucky to find anywhere to stay that was even vaguely in our budget, and there was a choice of fast food or fast food for dinner, eaten out on the sidewalk cafe tables, breathing in the exhaust of the many buses bring more tourists to this mecca. The lake was, of course, beautiful, with more views of snowy mountains casting shimmering reflections on the breeze-stirred surface.

Coñaripe was on our route, but we timed our trip to give us a few hours there and continue on to Panguipulli on the same day. The village was very small, very quiet, and particularly plagued with horseflies. We walked along the deserted black sand lake beach, swatting left, right and centre to stop the bites. In desperation we left the lake and walked back out the road into the countryside, but the flies formed an entourage and followed us all the way. A switch of vegetation applied to the body like a penitent from the middle-ages was fairly effective, but we soon worked out that the flies used smell to locate us. They flew past anyone trailing in a group until they reached the leader, and concentrated all their venom on him/her. For the rest of the walk Geoff and I got slower and slower, each endeavouring to be the one trailing behind!

Panguipulli is decked with roses, growing on the road verges and median strips and planted in profusion in the many gardens; at that time of year they were in full flower, and made a great impression. The lake is quite a walk away from the centre of town, and provided a peaceful shady spot to relax and watch life go by.

With lots of time before we were due to sail to the far south, we could deviate from our southern journey and go out to the coast to Valdivia. The rainy weather didn't entirely discourage us, and we wandered around the botanic gardens at the University and back to the riverfront market. Like all fish markets, the place was crowded with hungry pelicans waiting for a handout. Valdivia has a strong military history in the settlement of Chile, and there are the remnants of forts throughout the city. We spent some time exploring the area, and found the many fine corrugated iron buildings really fantastic, reminiscent of old buildings from the Western Australian goldfields.

Further west, at the river mouth, is a series of 17th-century forts. We went to Niebla and Corral, across the river from each other. The forts are in quite good condition, with lots of canons facing out to sea to ward off invaders. Niebla (mist, fog) lived up to its name, and the clouds swirled in, shrouding the countryside in soft grey folds. We also went further up the coast to the fishing village of Los Molinos, where we watched the fishermen bring in catches of sea squirts, eating the choice bits raw, just rinsed off in the polluted harbour water.

We decided to have one last look at the lakes, and went out to Ensenada, on the far end of Lago Llanquihue. The bus was old and slow, and we drove along the lakeside past the occasional guest house or restaurant. Just as we were about to turn away from the lake I realized that this was Ensenada; no town, just a scattering of widely-spaced buildings. We hastily got off, and walked back towards the lake. The Lonely Planet had a recommendation, but we had no idea where it might be. A minor bit of roadworks merited two policmen as guards; they'd obviously been there some time, judging from the pile of dead flies at their feet. We stopped to ask directions. They looked at the name, laughed, and just said that it didn't exist anymore. The first alternative place we inquired at did have room, but the price was out of all proportion, so we kept walking back along the road and found the recommended hostel. The policemen were right; it had burnt down. However, there were a few chalets scattered around the property, and we were shown to one of them. Ensenada is about as down-beat a resort as you could get. There was no-one there. We ate alone in an expensive restaurant with pretensions, and the lack of people extended to our hosts. In the morning we couldn't find anyone at all, and eventually put the money for the chalet into an envelope, pushed it under the door, and left.

Puerto Montt was dismal and sodden under a grey downpour when we arrived. With no relief in sight, we stoically trudged up the hill to the Uribe family home, a wonderful place to stay. Perla welcomed us in and we were soon drying off in the warm kitchen. We spent a couple of days exploring the town and the port of Angelmó. There were penguins in the bay, endlessly fascinating for those of us unused to them. The opportunist pelicans flocked in the wake of the penguins, picking up the scraps and taking advantage of the turmoil they caused amongst the fish. Angelmó throngs with craft stalls and loads of little cafes offering seafood dishes. In between the town and the port huge mounds of wood chips await export to Japan.

Chonchi - Esmeralda is towards the end
of the beach, with the blue roof
With a week still to go before our ship left port, we took the ferry to the island of Chiloë, and made our way down to the small fishing village of Chonchi. We had intended to move from town to town on the island, but a combination of the charm of Chonchi, the lodge 'Esmeralda', and the good company there, seduced us into staying the full seven days. Charlie, the owner of the lodge, allowed travelers to use his leaky rowing boat, but none of us could catch a single fish. There were penguins, seals and dolphins in the water, and fresh Atlantic salmon from the nearby farms for dinner every night. Not to mention the great cake shop up in the town. The really memorable meal at Esmeralda wasn't salmon, but the night that Charlie offered us sea urchin, the gonads eaten raw. Most of us declined, but intrepid John munched dutifully through spoonfuls of dripping innards. His entrée finished, we all watched appalled as a small translucent crab, looking more like an oversized louse, struggled to the top of what had been John's meal. Yuk! Apparently they commonly live inside the urchins, but John hadn't counted on his meal still moving after he had eaten it.

We used Chonchi as a base, making a number of side trips. One day was spent at Cucao and the National Park, where we walked along the beach and through the forest. This part of Chile is the home of fuchsias, and they grow wild all over the place, alongside giant rhubarb-like plants with leaves up to a metres across. On another day we caught a taxi to the village of Castro, where we had stopped briefly on our way to Chonchi. We wanted to re-visit the church, which is an amazing salmon and violet gothic creation with the interior in wood and the exterior in wood and corrugated iron.

Graveyard on Lemuy
Chiloë has some wonderful buildings: palafitos are built over the water on stilts, with no land entitlement at all; many of the villages have wonderful old wooden churches; and there are many fantastic shingle-clad houses, the shingles cut into different patterns, all having their own particular significance. There is a tradition of taking the house with you when you move house in Chiloë. We didn't see it, but we did watch a documentary showing a two-story house being cross-braced and taken off its stumps, pulled down to the sea by bullocks, then towed by a boat to its new location, where yet more bullocks hauled it out of the water and up the beach, then villagers re-stumped it into its new position. Apparently it takes about three months for the house to dry out, then the owners move back in.

Some five kilometres from Chonchi a small ferry runs across to the island of Lemuy. There are few cars on the island, but a road weaves a path to the far end. We figured on walking about half way and turning around; a round trip of about 16 kilometres. The countryside was pleasant, without being very exciting, and there were lots of birds along the way. We stopped to look at the distinctive wooden church and to visit the flower and ribbon bedecked graveyard, as festive as a fairground. After a meager lunch at our chosen turning spot, we walked back over the same ground, and caught the ferry back to Chiloë. As I walked down the ramp I slipped and totally stuffed up my knee, doing in the ligaments. With no choice, I walked the five kilometres back to Esmeralda, but couldn't walk at all for the next three days, a sad end to what had been a great part of our trip.

Bung knee or not, the time had come to return to Puerto Montt. Waving a sad goodbye to fellow travelers who had become friends, we caught the bus back to the mainland.

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