PUERTO MONTT, Chile — You're fine in these parts as long as you stay on the Pan-American Highway, a humble but paved two-lane thoroughfare that runs through this nation like the seam on a string bean, then continues north through Central America, stretches up the Western states and Canada, finally dead-ending at Alaska.
But turn off the highway and it's like wandering through Alice's looking glass. The asphalt road suddenly becomes gravel, even rock. The low vegetation, punctuated by occasional foothills, melds into dense forests that open to post card-like vistas of meadows leading down to azure blue lakes, backdropped by snow-tipped volcanoes.
Signs of life are only occasional: a donkey and cart, a barn, a sprawling ranch house. After about 40 minutes of bouncing along the road, wondering if it's possible for a rock to shoot right through the bottom of the car, you might pass through a village . . . the kind with a restaurant, market, school, church, and maybe a hardware store.
Even Chileans from Santiago--a sophisticated city unexpectedly European in flavor, though its smog, sprawl and traffic congestion have been likened to the worst of Los Angeles--contend that the southern part of their country, particularly the Lake Region, is like nothing they know.
The pace is slower here. There's a train daily, but planes fly between Santiago and Puerto Montt only a few times a week.
The traditional Chilean hospitality, which in Santiago is akin to visiting the Deep South of the United States, goes even deeper in southern Chile. The hotel bars of soap are bath-size, bed turndown service is routine, and at holidays such as Easter a little gift--maybe a delicate straw basket with a marzipan bunny--is likely to be left in your room.
Rivers and Lakes
The Lake District is where Chileans send you to get great scenery. It's a large expanse of country. The Region de Los Lagos has nine lakes, six rivers, four volcanoes and covers 26,649 square miles. It backs into Region de la Arucania, which has six lakes, four volcanoes and two rivers with four tributaries, covering 12,534 square miles. The weather, even in the summer months of December to March, is about like California's Monterey Peninsula.
If it is geographically far from civilization, the Lake District is even more remote psychologically. It's the tranquillity that does it. At times--and it probably doesn't matter which lake you're visiting--the stillness is almost unearthly. But the area does offer a variety of activities: boating, fishing, tennis, horseback riding, hiking and swimming and, at night, discos for dancing.
Yet our first morning, awakening at Hotel Ralun--an elegant fishing lodge 90 minutes west of Puerto Montt on the Reloncavi Estuary--the prospect of a fun activity seemed less enticing than just sitting on the porch with a pisco sour and watching the shadows of the sun play on the low mountains across the bay.
There was more of the same several evenings later, as the sun set between two mountains seemingly as close as the southern edge of Lake Ronca. I was in a lawn chair, pisco sour in hand, on the beach on the northern shore. About 30 yards behind me was Calcurrupe, a converted farmhouse that operates as a pension. The setting there is more tropical than the mountainous Ralun, though both places have wonderful gardens and curious trees with flowers that are used to make jam.
Getting there, we'd had another jarring hour of rocky roads until we reached a tiny river that could only be crossed by a 10-minute ferry ride. Somehow, having that brief delay gets you in the mood for what's to come--a place with no phone and nothing to do except read, swim, hike, fish, stroll in the gardens and eat huge healthy meals.
The National Drink
A few words about pisco sours, Chile's national drink: It's a wine-based cocktail similar to a margarita, but without the salt or ice. Piscos are one-third lemon juice which, health-conscious Chileans point out, makes them a good source of Vitamin C. They are also so easy to consume that one member of our group started hers at 10:30 a.m. daily, claiming they relaxed her bad back.
Rita de Hadida is owner-proprietor of Calcurrupe and her story is almost typical of this country. Swiss-born, she immigrated to southern Chile more than 50 years ago with her mother, met and married a Chilean with whom she farmed and had six children. Chile is a nation of immigrants, many of them pursued by a government hoping to stock its underpopulated farmlands with hard-working people.
Of course the Spanish were first, conquering the country during the 16th Century and so displacing the Indian population that today the Araucanian Indians account for only 250,000 of this country's 12.5 million people.