PUERTO MONTT, Chile — For scenery, the high point of a trip to the lake country of southern Chile and Argentina is probably the boat ride across Chile's Lago Todos los Santos.
Long, thin waterfalls cascade down densely wooded mountainsides into the lake's startling emerald waters. Snowcapped peaks rise jagged in the distance, and the massive white cone of the Osorno, a dormant volcano that English naturalist Charles Darwin saw erupting in the 1830s, dominates the spectacular panorama.
Crossing Todos los Santos is one essential segment in an itinerary that can be custom-designed for varied interests and timetables.
But there can be other kinds of high points, too--starting with an overnight train ride south from Santiago in a mahogany-paneled sleeping car, and ending with a stay in Bariloche, a beautiful and bustling resort city on the Argentine side of the border.
Or the trip could start in Argentina and end up on the Chilean side. Either way, the lake country between Puerto Montt and Bariloche can be a magnificent southern leg on a South American tour.
Daily airline flights are available from Santiago to Puerto Montt, with great views of southern Chile from above.
Railroad buffs, however, will want to take the train--even though some Chileans advise against it, warning of a certain shabbiness.
Yes, the carpets are worn and some of the windows are cracked. Nevertheless, the heavy old sleeper cars remain comfortable and admirable in their run-down elegance.
Made in Poland
Brass plaques on the cars say they were made in 1929 and 1930 by Link-Hofmann-Busch in Breslau, the German name for Wroclaw, a city in what is now southwestern Poland.
A compartment for two with an upper and lower bed, plush upholstery, brass wash basin and finely inlaid mahogany paneling costs the equivalent of about $45, or $22.50 per person. Pullman-like berths are available for less.
(Bring your own soap. When I asked for some, the porter apologized and said, "May I loan you mine?")
The train left on time at 7:30 p.m. from Santiago's Central Station, a cavernous steel structure imported piece by piece from France in 1885. While video movies were screened in the bar car, the dining car served dinner in two shifts.
Breakfast was being served in the morning as the train pulled out of Temuco into a radiant countryside of forested hills, glistening rivers, peaceful pastures and yellow fields of rapeseed.
Milk cans waited at country crossroads, and an occasional ox cart with wooden wheels. In the background, like a preview of scenic splendor to come, loomed the white cone of Villarrica volcano.
The train arrived in Osorno at 1 p.m. and the passengers were transferred to buses for the last 60 miles to Puerto Montt. From Dec. 15 to March 15, during the Southern Hemisphere summer and southern Chile's main tourist season, the train continues all the way to Puerto Montt. And it is best to go in that period to avoid the worst of southern Chile's heavy rains.
Full of German-style houses with wood-shingle siding, Puerto Montt is green, clean and cool. Summer temperatures dip into the low 50s at night. On the outskirts is Angelmo, a colorful fishing terminal where food stands sell plates of fresh clams, crabmeat and other sea fare.
A traditional meal in this part of Chile is curanto, an assortment of shellfish, pork, chicken and potatoes all steamed together and served with their broth. Curanto is a specialty of the Restaurante Pazos, a pastel-green house in the seaside neighborhood of Pelluco, where window tables offer an excellent view of the harbor at sunset.
Delicious but Ugly
In the curanto, and also available as an appetizer, is an ugly shellfish called the picoroco that is well worth trying. Its barnacle-like shell hides a stringy but tender white meat that is delicious when steamed.
The main hotel in Puerto Montt, the Vicente Perez Rosales, costs $40 a night for a single and $44 double. In the center of town, it is clean and comfortable.
Next door are the offices of Andina del Sud, the company that conducts most tours of the Chilean lake country. Andina del Sud will make all travel and lodging arrangements for specially tailored itineraries starting in Santiago or Puerto Montt and ending in Bariloche.
For example, a two-day trip from Santiago to Bariloche, including a train compartment and two single rooms in the Perez Rosales, costs about $260 for two persons.
The bus for the lakes left from the Andina del Sud office at 8 a.m., stopping in nearby Puerto Varas to pick up more passengers. Puerto Varas, settled by Germans in 1854, is a tourist center on Chile's largest lake, Llanquihue.
As the bus skirted the lake, the 8,700-foot peak of Osorno volcano came in and out of view far across the blue waters. On the other side of the bus was another volcano, 6,600-foot Calbuco.