The snow-capped volcanoes, emerald forests and pristine lakes of southern Chile appeared on our port side as we sailed into the Gulf of Ancud and dropped anchor off the coast of Puerto Montt.
Located just north of Patagonia in the heart of Chile’s stunningly beautiful Lake District, Puerto Montt is a remote town where the Pan-American Highway from Alaska ends and the only way further south is by ferry, plane or cruise ship.
Nestled between the ocean and the majestic Andes Mountains, the town serves as a gateway to Chile’s “Pacific Ring of Fire,” which sits atop two major tectonic plates. The region has the second largest chain of volcanoes in the world after Indonesia (including 90 that are still active), and some of the most beautiful glacier lakes in the world.
Lago Llanquihue is the largest of these lakes and the mighty volcanoes of Osorno and Calbuco tower above its eastern shores. Calbuco, which is one of the three most dangerous volcanoes in the country, erupted for the first time in more than four decades in April of 2015. The eruption sent a thick plume of ash and smoke several kilometres into the sky, and forced the evacuation of 4,000 people from surrounding towns.
That was a mild eruption compared to the last one in 1960, when the ensuing earthquake was so powerful (9.5 on the Richter Scale) that it destroyed the nearby city of Valdivia and sent a tsunami racing 200 mph across the Pacific Ocean where a day later it slammed into Japan some 10,000 miles away.
The ancestral home of the Mapuche Indians, the “Land of Fire and Ice” was settled mainly by German immigrants from Bavaria who were invited to the region by the Chilean government in the early 1850s. They spent several generations clearing land and building towns like Puerto Montt, and several villages along Lago Llanquihue. As a result, there’s a strong Bavarian influence on the area’s architecture, culture and cuisine.
Since there isn’t much to see in Puerto Montt besides the salmon fisheries, the occasional seal frolicking in the Sound, and the large craft market by the entrance to the port, we signed up for the ship’s guided bus tour to several small towns along the shores of nearby Lago Llanquihue some 20 kilometres away.
Our first stop was Puerto Varas, a pretty little town with marvelous views across the water to the snow-capped volcanoes of Osorno and Calbuco in the nearby national park. The town features a number of traditional German family houses built between 1910 and 1941 and finished with wood-shingles made from the local Araguaria tree, which is now an endangered species. It’s also home to the iconic Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesus, a Bavarian-looking wooden church built in 1918 on one of the highest points in town.
There’s also a rose-encircled park in the centre of town called the Plaza de Armas, a local artisan craft market, and a statue to Vincent Perez Rosales in a small park next to Avenida Costanera not far from the pier. And during the South American summer (December to March), the area serves as a popular gateway to nearby parks, rivers and lakes for kayakers, fishermen and hikers.
Our next stop was the picturesque lakeside village of Frutillar, which is just a short bus ride from Puerto Varas and apparently boasts some of the highest property prices in the whole of Chile. It has a wonderful beach and is home to the Reserva Forestal Edmundo Winkler, and the Museo de la Colonizacion Alemana de Frutillar.
The museum features an eclectic collection of traditionally built wooden houses including an old mill and blacksmith’s shop, and is situated on three hectares with beautiful gardens that were already in bloom. The houses contain 19th-century clothing, artifacts and furniture, providing a flavor of what early life must have been like for the early German settlers. There are also several bakeries in town that serve traditional German “Kuchen” cakes made of local fruit, including a smaller version of the American strawberry.
It was now time to return to our ship for the voyage south through the Chilean fjords and the Strait of Magellan to Punta Arenas. The temperature was getting cooler, the skies wetter and the scenery greener, but that only meant we were getting closer to the end of the continent, where we would soon be walking amongst some of the most beautiful natural attractions in the world.