The first thing I have to tell you about Chile is that it’s long. Really, really long. One of the longest countries in the world, in fact.
Because of that, it’s much like the United States in that it’s difficult to find one defining culture, let alone geography, throughout. The dry, coastal cities in the north are different from the urban sprawl in the middle, and the southern third of the country is unlike anything else.
So last year, when my dad said we would be taking a family vacation to southern Chile, far from the capital of Santiago and even farther from where I grew up in the north, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Just how far south would we be going?
Turns out not too far, relatively speaking. We visited Lago Llanquihue, one of the largest lakes in the country and only a two-hour flight from Santiago. Chile’s tip is another two-hour plane ride from there.
The entire southern region, however, is where tourists have descended with increasing frequency over the past few years. They are drawn by the thrill of activities such as skiing, hiking, river rafting and rock climbing, to name a few. There is plenty of that to do around the lake, if you’re an adventurous type.
I am not, and I experienced much of my weeklong stay from the back seat of a rental car, acting as the self-assigned navigator while my dad drove our family along curved, scenic roads. Although I wasn’t there for outdoor recreation, I felt a strong connection to the land and water, one that locals have worked so hard throughout the years to preserve.
We arrived at Lago Llanquihue in the morning and rested in Puerto Varas, a small town with a growing culinary reputation settled at the southern foot of the lake. It was the day after Christmas and reasonably mild, as it tends to be in the Southern Hemisphere in December.
Our family — nuclear — decided to spend the days on various excursions by car, checking out the region’s natural attractions and making pit stops at its pueblitos, or towns. Two massive snow-covered volcanoes, Osorno and Calbuco, would become our reference points.
Our first road trip was to the Saltos del Petrohué, a collection of waterfalls. The water was a translucent, crystal blue that stood out against the black basalt rock shaped around it. This is the first of many times I felt like I was in the primitive worlds of “Jurassic Park” or “Avatar,” without the fictional creatures.
We then drove a little farther up to their source, the nearby Lago de Todos los Santos, where a local fisherman and guide named Marcelo Sanchez offered to take us on a tour boat into the lake. Like the waterfalls, the lake was a rich blue, Osorno standing tall in the background.
Most of Sanchez’s work is now centered around tourism, he said. January and February are the peak summer months and the busiest, with as many as 30 boats taking families out on the lake. Although fishing used to be the biggest attraction, most anglers have gravitated toward lakes with more species. “If somewhere else is better, they’re going to go there,” Sanchez said as he took us around the lake. “Now this is most of what I do.”
If our first day was about the water, the second day was all about the volcano.
Specifically, it was about Osorno, perhaps the most popular feature in the region and only a short drive from our cabin.
The zigzag route up to the volcano’s base was thick with vegetation, from healthy forest trees to spunky lavender plants. The greenery cut off as we reached the massive igneous rock structures that make up the volcano, similar to the rocks morphed around the waterfalls.
Starting from the base’s ski lodge at 1,000 meters in altitude, we hiked a short, steep distance up the (active!) volcano. (My mom, book in hand, stayed in the car.)
We looked up at the snowy cone-shaped peak and then down at the minuscule lake. I was overwhelmed by the saturation of the landscape’s natural colors, as waves of cold air rushed up my nose. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
The top of the volcano is easy to reach if you have a guide and the proper equipment, we were told. I’ll save that thrill for those who can handle it.
On the third day and the wettest, we decided to go off-roading.
That’s what much of the travel is like southeast of Llanquihue, an area with a reputation for attracting fly fishermen and mountain climbers. Muddied trails, closed crossings, imposing foliage and a nonstop stream of torrential rains made for some hair-rising, difficult driving. (Did I mention the “Jurassic Park” vibes?)
But that didn’t stop us from checking out some of the tiniest pueblitos in the area, including Cochamó, which rests on a fjord so isolated it looked as if we were nestled at the end of the Earth.
Admittedly, there wasn’t much to see in this region beyond nature’s own creations. When we finally found a restaurant in Puelo, hours away from our cabin, the cook/waitress made us the only dish available: merluza, or hake, with rice and potatoes. Like much of the rest of the trip, the meal was very casero: homemade, without flair. And it was delicious.
Before we left, I asked the waitress how often it rains in Puelo. “Every day,” she replied with a sigh. We reached the end of the fjord, boarded a ferry and made our way back toward the cabin.
The island of Chiloé is one of Chile’s cherished treasures, standing out from the rest of the country in nearly every way. It is not close to Llanquihue.
Bless my excited dad and sister, who approached our entire vacation with a “We’ve come this far, might as well see it all” mentality. On one of our last days, we rose with the sun, drove a couple of hours down to the coast and hopped on the ferry to the island.
Chiloé has a strong artisan craft tradition. Vendor stands offered wool dolls, beanies and sweaters, with the women who ran them knitting away while we browsed. The public market in the northern city of Ancud sold vibrant produce — garlic cloves as big as fists, giant wheels of homemade cheese and locally grown potatoes measured by the box. “Chiloé is just like Idaho,” my dad would tell us. “Potatoland.” Old, colorful homes supported on sticks stood over the water.
But there was a singular reason we were here: to eat curanto, a traditional food of the island. It is a giant feast of seafood, pork, chicken, sausage and yes, potatoes, all cooked and served together. It is typically made in a hole underground, the food cooked by steam from heated stones placed below it. Or you can have pulmay, the above-ground version cooked in a pot.
Once in Castro, the island’s capital, we asked some locals were we could find pulmay. They pointed us toward an empty one-room restaurant overlooking the ocean.
The plates were so big that the waitress had to bring them out one at a time. Heaps of clams, mussels and even larger mussels, along with a chicken breast, a cut of pork and a sausage were piled on top of each other. The broth in which everything was cooked was served in a bowl.
The flavors were bold and briny. I could taste the ocean water where the seafood was collected and the dirt where the potatoes were harvested. My dad almost shed a tear after finishing the whole thing, which is no easy feat.
Chilean cuisine is not often celebrated beyond empanadas and barbecue, varieties of which are found across South America. That said, I’m not sure foreigners would be interested in eating curanto, which dates back thousands of years and is prepared in what is essentially a natural pressure cooker. The reason I ate it was because it was maybe the only honest way I could recognize and connect to the land I was in.
That dish encapsulated our trip in a way that left me feeling quite emotional and exhausted. It was pure, a distillation of what makes Chile home for me no matter the 16 years I’ve been gone.