Italy’s magnificent lakes are synonymous with moneyed elegance, yet when it comes to natural splendor, they are no match for Chile’s spectacular volcanic wonders
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION The Chilean lakes are in the south of the country, 421 miles (677 km) from the capital, Santiago
NUMBER OF LAKES 20
Jan: 63°F (17°C); Apr: 55°F (13°C); Jul: 46°F (8°C); Oct: 54°F (12°C)
Beautiful though the lakes of northern Italy are, ringed by tall mountains and overlooked by luxurious villas and medieval castles, their allure pales when compared to the dramatic lakes of southern Chile. Travel to the world’s end and you’ll discover a fairy-tale region of shimmering blue water, emerald forest, Andean peaks, and steaming hot springs that bubble beneath smoldering volcanoes. Italy’s lakes may have inspired the Romantic poets, but Chile’s beautiful land of fire and sapphire water has been a source of legend for millennia.
Journey through Chile’s Lake District, anchored in its north by Temuco and in its south by Puerto Montt, and you’ll encounter rare primordial beauty.
The region takes its name from the magical lakes that spread across its entirety, their expansive, deep-blue waters lying serenely at the feet of soaring volcanoes. Picturesque towns, dotted with plazas and the spires of churches built by the German communities that settled here in the 19th century, overlook the lakeshores and make for romantic stopovers. Trails run from these towns to lakeside beaches of black volcanic and fine white sand, skirting around lush forest along the way. A barefoot walk across the sand, beneath green forest and dramatic smoking peaks, inspires a childlike delight; a sensation of closeness to nature that intensifies on sinking into the warm, mineral-rich lake water.
This sense of being in an untamed, elemental place is accentuated on the volcanic slopes that overlook the lakes. Roads lead to mountain spas, where you can laze in hot springs that bubble up from beneath the earth’s crust. Horse-rides on these slopes reveal virgin forest with hidden waterfalls, gushing streams, and ancient woods of monkey- puzzle trees. Hiking trails lead to the summits of the great Villarrica and Osorno volcanoes, sacred to the Mapuche, the proud native people of the Lake District. Peering into their bubbling craters at spitting gases and glowing magma, the sensation is one of gazing into the very heart of the earth.
FORGET THE ITALIAN LAKES?
THE BUILD-UP Loved by everyone from Roman emperors and the Romantic poets to Hollywood actor George Clooney, who owns a villa on Lake Como, Italy’s lakes have seduced visitors for centuries. Classical villas and turreted castles dot the perimeters of the lakes here and picture-perfect towns spill down to their shorelines. Close to Milan and Verona, they are easily accessed.
THE LETDOWN The region’s easy access means that it swarms with tourists come high season, when restaurant prices soar higher than the surrounding peaks, driving tours of the lakes turn into grueling ordeals, and cafés have standing room only.
Wordsworth described Italy’s lakes as “a treasure the earth keeps to itself.” Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
GOING ANYWAY? The best time to visit the lakes is outside the high season, which runs from early June to September. If you’re booking a stay at one of the bigger lakes, choose a small town with authentic Italian appeal rather than a resort – Maclesine on Lake Garda or Varenna on Lake Como are recommended. Consider too a smaller lake destination, such as picturesque Lake Iseo.
Getting There and Around
International flights land at Chile’s capital city, Santiago, from where flights depart daily for Temuco.
Maquehue Airport is a 4-mile (7-km) taxi ride from Temuco’s city center. Buses are a good way of traveling around the region, but a car is essential if you want to explore more freely. Bikes are great for exploring towns and lakeshores and horse-riding through forests can be breathtaking.
Where to Eat
Delicious regional specialties include freshwater trout and salmon, game and, in coastal cities, seafood. Have a quality Chilean wine or a local bock beer with your meal, followed by a German dessert and a glass of Pisco Sour, Chile’s national drink. In Pucón, La Maga serves some of the region’s best cuisine.
Where to Stay
Overlooking Lake Villarrica in Pucón, Hotel Antumalal, built in the Bauhaus style, boasts a luxury spa and suites with stunning lake views.
When to Go
Visit between December and February, the southern hemisphere’s summer, when days are long and warm and the lakes look magnificent.
Budget per Day for Two
US$330 per day, to cover luxury hotel and spa accommodations, food, car rental, and excursions.