South of the Río Biobío, popularly known as Chile’s “lake district” for the scenic finger lakes left by receding Pleistocene glaciers, the Sur Chico has long enticed Chilean and Argentine tourists to its matchless scenery of ice-capped volcanic cones soaring above dense native forests.
Only in the past decade-plus have significant numbers of them, plus adventurous foreigners, begun to venture beyond conventional lakeside resorts into the Andean backcountry for activities such as hiking, horseback riding, and white-water rafting. National parks and reserves cover large swaths of the cordillera.
Politically, the Sur Chico comprises Region IX (La Araucanía, the Mapuche homeland) and Region X (Los Lagos), which includes the Chiloé archipelago and, on the mainland across the Golfo de Ancud and the Golfo de Corcovado, what is colloquially known as continental Chiloé.
Economically diverse cities such as Temuco, Valdivia, Osorno, and Puerto Montt, which rely on forestry, agricultural services, and manufacturing in addition to tourism, are the gateways, but smaller lakeside towns such as Villarrica, Pucón, and Puerto Varas make better bases for excursions.
There are several routes across the Andes to Argentina, which has its own lake district centered on the city of Bariloche; Puerto Montt, the de facto terminus of the continental Panamericana, is the hub for air, land, and sea access to Chilean Patagonia and also a gateway to the Argentine side.
Southeast of Temuco, Lago Villarrica] is a beehive of activity for its access to national parks such as Villarrica and Huerquehue, but the lake district’s heart is farther south. Near picturesque Puerto Varas, Volcán Osorno, an almost perfectly symmetrical cone rising above Lago Llanquihue, offers some of the most breathtaking views anywhere, but there are dozens of other high volcanic summits, scenic lakes and rivers, and shores and estuaries to fill weeks or months of sightseeing and activities.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition