Cycling Chile's Lake District
By Dale Fehringer
If you could, would you be 28 years old again?
That question, among others, occupied our time while we cycled through Chile’s Lake District in November, 2007.
We were on a seven-day guided bicycle tour of southern Chile’s lakes and volcanoes, enjoying a spring-time glimpse of one of the most beautiful places on earth, accompanied by a 28-year-old guide.
So we cycled past blue mountain lakes and snow-capped volcanoes and debated the pros and cons of being 28 again.
The merits were easy: more energy, fewer aches and pains, and a chance to avoid the mistakes we had made in our growing-up years.
There would be drawbacks, too; like having to repeat all those years of tedious jobs, tight finances, and temperaental kids.
Then we introduced a condition: we could go back to being 28, knowing what we know now. Well, that made it easy; that meant we could re-do those wonderful years without repeating the blunders we had made along the way.
A Beautiful Part of the World
Chile may not be at the top of your travel list. It wasn’t high on mine, but my wife was there a couple of years ago and she found it a wonderful place to explore. So we booked a guided bike tour of the Lake District in November of 2007.
Chile is a narrow strip of land that runs a very long way along the western edge of South America, from the Pacific Ocean to the summit of the Andes Mountains.
The Lake District is two-thirds of the way down Chile’s coast, about 400 miles south of Santiago. This picturesque segment of Chile includes coastal cities, ancient forests, mountain lakes, and magnificent snow-capped volcanoes. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and a great place to explore on bicycles. The scenery reminded us of Switzerland, New Zealand, and the Oregon coast.
It was springtime in Chile, so we were treated to green pastures, blooming flowers, and new life. At one point we rode past newborn twin calves, and we sat on our bikes and watched them get on their legs for the first time.
There are many reasons to consider a bicycle tour cycle in the lake District of Chile:
* Chile has its act together. It is safe, has a stable, democratic government, a strong, growing economy and a well-developed tourism industry.
* Because Chile is in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed from the U.S., which means you can have a second spring, or summer. Weather is typically mild in Chile’s Lake District.
* Chile is relatively easy to get to and reasonably priced, especially compared with Western Europe.
* Because it’s pretty much due south, you cross few time zones, which means little or no jet lag. There are numerous flights to Chile from a variety of U.S airports; including Miami, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
* Chile’s Lake District has incredibly beautiful snow-capped volcanoes and picturesque lakes.
* Chile is unspoiled and un-crowded, especially outside the major cities. North America’s fall and winter are great times to go, as the weather is good and Chile’s tourist season has yet to begin.
* There are clean, reasonably-priced hotels, an abundance of good food, and great wine, at prices that are a bargain compared to the U.S. and Europe.
* The people of Chile are warm and friendly and seem to like North Americans.
For more information on Chile, see the Chilean government website.
Cycling in Chile’s Lake District
Our seven-day cycling tour was organized by Amity Tours, a small family-owned tour company in Temuco, Chile. It included a week in two of Chile's 11 regions (similar to U.S. states) and ranged from Temuco to Puerto Montt. Our tour guides accompanied us, arranging our meals and lodging, and helping with the luggage and lingo.
Allejandro, the tour company owner, drove the van and arranged our daily routes so we saw the best views of Chile’s stunning lakes, waterfalls, and snow-capped volcanoes. Each day seemed more gorgeous than the day before.
Ernesto, our cycling guide, rode with us and served as escort, naturalist, and motivator. He is a competitive (former country champion) mountain bike racer, who is now studying to be an adventure tour guide.
He’s 28, handsome, and built like a Tour De France rider. I admit that I was intimidated by him at first; after all he’s young and talented, has legs of steel, and unlimited energy.
Ernesto literally rode circles around us for a week; rotating among us, checking to see how we were doing and offering encouragement.
After we finished our daily 4-5 hour cycling tour, Ernesto would ride his mountain bike around a lake, or up a mountain, while we soaked in a hot tub or relaxed in our rooms.
Lakes, Volcanoes, and New Life
We started our tour in Temuco, a mid-sized city an hour’s flight south of Santiago. After a night of orientation, we drove toward the Andes and through Las Raíces, the longest tunnel in Chile.
At the end of the tunnel, we could see three spectacular volcanoes – Lliama, Lonquimay, and Tolhuaca – which we kept in sight as we cycled along the Lonquimay River.
That afternoon we stood high in the Andes, at the Chile/Argentina border, and ate warm pine nuts from ancient Araucana trees.
The next day we drove on the Pan American Highway to the lakeside town of Pucón, and then cycled to Curarrehue, a small village near the Argentina border, where we visited a museum and learned about the Mapuches, the area’s indigenous people.
In the afternoon, we cycled along beautiful Lake Villarrica, and our guides pointed out native birds and trees while we enjoyed views of the stunning Villarrica and Lanin volcanoes.
Villarrica is an active volcano, and we could see smoke rising from its peak. That night our cozy hotel had lovely gardens and sweeping views of the lake and volcanoes.
“People of the Earth”
The Mapuches – “people of the earth” - whom the Spaniards called “Araucanos”, were intimidating warriors and the most numerous indigenous group. They made the conquest of Chile long and difficult.
The Mapuches demonstrated a surprising ability to copy the Spaniards’ battle tactics and appropriate their weapons. They also obtained Spanish horses and used them to create a new breed, sturdy and strong, of short stride and lively disposition.
Each day brought new beauty, and on the third day we rode along the shores of two spectacular lakes then cycled around Villarrica volcano, past beach towns and green rolling hills, and through protected native forests. At one point we could see five magnificent volcanoes in the distance.
We spent that night in the Natural Reserve of Huilo Huilo, in a very special inn, the Magic Mountain Lodge.
Our day of “rest” turned out to be very active, with hiking, a canopy tour of the forest, and a long soak in a wooden-log hot tub.
The next day we cycled over rolling hills with the beautiful beaches of Lake Puyehue on one side, green pastures on the other, and the snow-capped Andes looming in the distance.
Near the end of the day we garnered up a burst of energy to ride up the final hill to the fantastic Termas de Puyehue Hotel where we enjoyed thermal baths, a wonderful local buffet dinner, and dreamed of the sights we had seen.
Our last day of cycling took us to the shores of beautiful Lake Llanquihue and the perfect cone of Osorno Volcano. The snow-capped volcano appeared to rise directly out of the lake, and offered wonderful views most of the day.
We passed through the charming village of Ensenada, and then rode on to the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park and the dramatic Petrohué Falls. We spent the night in the charming German-style city of Puerto Varas, where we had an emotional farewell dinner.
Petrohue Falls are not well known outside Chile, but they are very awe-inspiring. Formed by snow runoff from nearby mountains and volcanoes, the river divides into a half-dozen smaller streams, and rushes between the rocks, forming powerful falls that crash onto the lava beds below, then rush off in an aquamarine stream below.
High Praise from Ernesto
I mentioned earlier that our bike guide, Ernesto, was a 28-year-old mountain bike champion, and that we were somewhat intimidated by his cycling ability. But the more we got to know him, the more comfortable we became.
Ernesto absorbed everything we told him about U.S. culture and what other tour groups might like, and taught us about Chile’s flora and fauna.
He showed us a grove of ancient Araucana trees, which are revered by the Mapuches, and told about colihue, bamboo that flowers once every nine years in such profusion that it's accompanied by an outbreak of rodents, who feast on the blossoms.
So we grew fond of Ernesto and welcomed his cycling hints and encouragement. We learned to accept his youth and energy, and pushed to cycle harder.
And we realized that being 28 was good; as was being our age.
There are a lot of wonderful moments to savor from our week in Chile. One of my favorites came after Ernesto talked me up a long, steep hill to our hotel for the night then rode with me to the entrance and quietly told me he thought I was a "good rider." Coming from Ernesto, that was very high praise.
Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer and editor. His articles on people, places, and contemporary culture have been published in a variety of magazines and newspapers. He lives in San Francisco, where he can be reached at 415.602.6116 or by email.
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