During the second half of July, I headed to Chile’s beautiful southern lake region, about halfway between Santiago and Punta Arenas. An inspiring landscape of volcanoes covered in snow, rushing turquoise rivers, green coastal cliffs, and deep blue lakes, it was my first taste of a very different Chilean landscape. I’ve been learning and talking a lot about how many different ecosystems Chile has along its 4,000-km length, but it was amazing to experience it first hand. In my two weeks south, I explored the outdoors, learned about the history of the region, discovered more about my family heritage, and got a taste of the culture of the south.

My first stop, after an overnight bus ride from Santiago, was Pucon, the adventure capital of Chile. Nestled in between a volcano and a lake, both named Villarica, Pucón is a cute, touristy town that reminded me of a ski resort, especially at night when the cold air filled with the smell of smoke from wood-fired stoves. I noticed a cultural difference almost immediately – everyone said hello to each other in the street, hitchhiking was very safe and commonplace, and people’s schedules were a bit more relaxed – a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Santiago.

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View of Volcán Villarica with houses of Pucon and the lake in the foreground

While I discovered that I have an aunt in Pucón, and I had so much fun meeting her for the first time, my stay in Pucón was mostly about exploring the outdoors and interacting with the beautiful terrain of the region. Pucón attracts tourists year-round, but is especially crowded during the summer, so being there in the winter was a bit more relaxing and offered a different set of outdoor experiences. While whitewater rafting is popular in the summer, a day trip to the nearby hot springs, the Termas Geométricas, felt more appropriate to warm up from the cold. A gorge-ous (pun intended) set of 17 pools of different temperatures stretching back into a canyon and linked by elevated red walkways, the hot springs were a perfect setting for the most relaxing day of my entire trip. While there was snow on the ground, the water was very warm and I enjoyed gazing up at the moss-covered canyon walls. At the end of the canyon, a cascade provided the water that was filtered into the pools.

One activity that was accessible year-round in Pucón was hiking – and it made for a snow-filled, day-long adventure in winter. I had a fabulous time in Huerquehue National Park about an hour outside of Pucón. Although it turned into a 7-hour round trip hike because the bus couldn’t make it all the way up the icy road to the park entrance, it was totally worth it. Once we walked into the park, the hike was a beautiful but icy ascent up a mountain with various lookout points where we could see Lago Tinquilca with the volcano rising up behind it. Once we finally reached the top, we were greeted by a winter wonderland – a set of three frozen lakes, with the sun shining through the snow-dusted Araucaria trees.

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There are actually two kinds of Araucarias in South America, and one of them, Araucaria araucana, is a Chilean native and its national tree. Araucarias are also known as “monkey puzzle” trees because their spiky trunks would make it very difficult for monkeys to climb them. These trees are special for many reasons – they are slow-growing and long-lasting (the oldest in Chile is more than 1,000 years old), and they are ancient – scientists think they existed in this genetic form when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. This means that Araucarias are very vulnerable to environmental change, and are currently very threatened in Chile due to a wide variety of factors, including insects and climate change.

My favorite day in Pucón was definitely the day I summitted Volcán Villarica – with a tour group, of course – and got a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape. This volcano is one of the easiest to climb in the region because its slopes are not too steep, and in summer, it only takes 2-3 hours to summit, but in winter, it’s a bit trickier. We had to wait for a perfectly clear day, and even then, we only had a 50% chance of summitting because of a persistent cloud at the very top. Our ascent took 5 hours as we zigzagged up the slope with the support of our ice axes, seeing huge ice sculptures of frozen lava near the top. We got lucky and the sky cleared, so we were able to summit and see the spectacular view. We were only allowed to spend 5 minutes on the summit because it is an active volcano and it erupted just two years ago, but it was so amazing to see the giant plume of smoke coming from inside the crater. In fact, the smoke was so thick that we weren’t able to see the lava bubbling below, which is possible on some days. The descent (or rather, sled down the mountain) only took an hour and a half. It was so spectacular to get to interact with the terrain in this way – it was my first time climbing a volcano, much less an active one, and I got a great sense of the landscape of the region.

My next stop was Valdivia – a small town near the coast that is home to the Universidad Austral de Chile, which is one of the leading scientificresearch institutions in the country. In the center of town, there was a huge pendulum and an outdoor exhibit about the glaciers of Chile, which are further south in the Patagonia region. Right next door was the fluvial market, where vendors sold fresh fruit and fish and tried to steer clear of the local sea lions that would come up onto shore from the river. These sea lions were absolutely huge – much bigger than the ones I’m used to in California!

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Valdivia was the fourth Spanish city in Chile, founded in 1552 by conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. Nestled in a inlet of rivers, the city was naturally protected from ocean invaders and was the site of many battles in the early colonial history of Chile. During my time there, I took a day trip to the coast, where the confluence of rivers meets the sea, to explore two old forts that are still relatively intact and were used in many battles. The first one was in a sleepy fishing town called Niebla, and the second was in Corral, another town that was a short ferry ride across the river.

My next stop was Chiloé, the huge mystical island just off the coast of Chile. Essentially, Chile splits south of Puerto Montt – in the west is Chiloé, and in the east Patagonia begins and stretches much further south all the way to the Strait of Magellan. Chiloé is famous for its foggy coastal landscape, Mapuche-influenced mythology, and proud fishing culture. It is also known for its architecture – the stilted “palafito” houses that overlook the tidal flats, and the striking Jesuit churches that dot the countryside around the largest city of Castro. Both were built from wood from the dense, native Chilotan forest – a great example of how the natural environment heavily influenced the culture and history here.

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Palafitos in Castro, Chiloé

The churches were built by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries in and around Castro, the largest city that is nestled in an archipelago of smaller islands that stretch far into the strait between Chiloé and the mainland. These Jesuit churches combine local and European styles, and are considered some of the most important architectural works in South America. There used to be over 150 churches, but now there are only about 60 in Chiloé, and 16 are now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – which means they are frequently restored to combat the Chilotan climate, which is very rainy all year round. I was able to visit eight of the churches on a road trip with my aunt and cousin around Castro and to the neighboring island of Quinchao.

Something that struck me about Chiloé was its isolation and wild aura. Only about 150,000 people live on the entire island (about the population of Fort Collins, Colorado), and one-third of them live in the small cities of Castro and Ancud. That means that most of the people in Chiloé live in low-density rural areas. I was able to feel the isolation when we visited the small islands near Castro, even though we were less than an hour’s drive from the city, and when I visited the interior of the island and the barely populated western coast. I went over there one afternoon with my cousin to hike in Chiloé National Park, a beautiful area of forest, lakes, and windswept sand dunes on the Pacific coast. My grandmother’s family, the Andrade’s, originally came to Chiloé when they relocated from Spain 500 years ago, and it was very cool to think about what the island might have looked like back then, and how it was the place where it all started. Since my family has been in Chile for several centuries, the Andrade clan is now humongous – I was running into distant cousins everywhere on Chiloé. This mystical island definitely enchanted me, and made me feel very much at home, knowing that I had much deeper roots there than in the United States.

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My last stop on my southern excursion was Puerto Varas, a cute touristy town on Lago Llanquihue, with a spectacular view of Volcán Osorno and Volcán Calbuco. Puerto Varas was founded in 1853 and was mainly populated by German immigrants that arrived in boat to Valdivia and made their way to the settlement by the lake, coming to Chile to escape after the Revolutions of 1848. You can see traces of German culture throughout the south of Chile, where the delicious German dessert “kuchen” is extremely popular, but Puerto Varas and the surrounding towns also featured prominent German architecture. As I drove around the lake with my cousins, we passed scenery that transported us to the Bavarian countryside. That afternoon, as we visited the towns of Llanquihue, Frutillar, and Puerto Octay, I enjoyed seeing the lake and four nearby volcanoes from different angles.

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That afternoon, I went with my aunt and cousins to the Saltos del Petrohue, a beautiful set of cascades in front of Volcán Osorno. I loved watching the turquoise glacial water rush over the rocks in the late afternoon light. We drove back to the lake to watch the gorgeous sunset over the water.

On my last day in the south, I accompanied my aunt to work and got a very different taste of Chilean culture. She works for the Fundación Artesanias de Chile, a nonprofit that sells artisanal crafts from all over the country, connecting consumers to high-quality products and ultimately aiming to increase the market value of artisanry and improve the lives of Chilean artisans. My aunt works with communities in Chiloé and the Puerto Montt region on wool goods. A common problem that wool artisans face in this region, I learned, is accessing high-quality wool at the right time and the right price. To tackle these problems, the foundation has set up a “banco de lana”, or wool bank, where artisans can different types of wool at convenient times.

On the day that I came to work with my aunt, she led a workshop with 10 artesanas in a community outside of Puerto Montt, along the Austral Highway that leads to Patagonia. The purpose of the three-hour workshop, held over tea and pastries in an expert artesana’s house, was to introduce the community artisans to the foundation and its mission and to set up the exchange between these particular artisans and the foundation. This essentially meant that the foundation needed to ensure quality control (that they would receive the same product every time from every artisan). To do this, my aunt facilitated a discussion to determine from the artisans what the common types of yarn were in that region, and to come to agreement on how to standardize each type. Purchasing yarn, which is wool that has already been spun, is very expensive, so learning how to spin allows artisans to take more control of their business. The foundation’s wool bank also helps facilitate spinners to knitters by buying back spinned wool from the artisans they work with.

At the end of the workshop, the artisans discussed the cost per unit of wool spun – taking into account material costs, hours of labor, and how much they valued their time. It was so cool to observe the whole process, listen to the back-and-forth discussion between the artisans and my aunt, and see the wool bank, where the artesanas bought huge bundles of wool at the end of the workshop. Like my aunt told me, if the process doesn’t convenience the artesanas, they won’t do it. While it’s a challenging exchange at times, and it’s constant work to line up the actual cost of doing the work with what consumers are willing to pay for artisanry, I believe that Fundación Artesanias de Chile is doing excellent work to connect local artisans to functional and fair markets.

It was a perfect way to end my two weeks in the south of Chile – life is distinctly different here than in Santiago, and the landscape is astoundingly unique. And it’s not just this region – Chile is filled with different ecosystems along its length. I had the opportunity to visit one other area in Chile – the Antofagasta region, home to the Atacama Desert and some arid northern coastline. Look out for a blog post about my trip there, as well as another post about climate policy in Chile, over the next month. And be sure to check out my first post about Santiago or my second post about energy in Chile if you missed them!