By Joan Larsen
On a map of South America, the country of Chile looks like a gnarled finger – or perhaps a shoestring – rippling down the Pacific side of the continent for 2600 miles. A window seat is a “must” on this country’s world-class airline, LanChile. But even if you are not so lucky to get a view of the magnificent scenery below, you will be delighted. In Chile, attention to detail – to service – is still number one, and plastic airline food is yet to be invented.
Attractive, attentive flight attendants seemed to have no trouble serving a three-course meal with complimentary wines in 55 minutes. What an eye-opening surprise from our own airline mediocrity that we have come to accept.
Frankly, the first impression any traveler must get in Chile is of the really high-class nature of everyone around. Each time I’ve returned, there has been a feeling of safety there no longer felt in my own American city. Registered girl-watchers in Chile, whose population is 80% European or part European, can go crazy I am sure, but I thought the older men beat out anything I had ever seen.
Run your finger down on that string bean until it hits the beautiful Puerto Montt, considered the crown jewel of Chile. Little did we know that we were to have an adventure in this Lake Region that I am guessing would be a first for any of us.
This glorious Andean lake area is unexploited, with the exception of some of the finest ice-blue lakes fringed with snow capped Fuji-style volcanoes, their lower slopes heavy with fir and southern beech. The scenery – delightfully Swiss and Bavarian – as were their alpine hotels.
Improbable as it seems, it is here that you can cross the Andes mountain range by boat, all the way from Puerto Montt on the Pacific to the ski resort of Bariloche, Argentina. I would not kid you: it has to be in the top ten of the world’s most picturesque voyages. How could we resist? And how could we know that we were in for yet another bit of high adventure?
The world seemed to be off to Argentina that day. As the numbers of people piled on to this low-slung excursion boat, a Chilean Coast Guard office carefully watched the loading of luggage into its hold. Though it seemed to this neophyte that we were riding rather low on the water, we were given the Good Housekeeping seal of approval . . . and waved off.
Gliding past the world-renowned Osorno volcano, glistening with snow, made us gasp from the sheer beauty of the sight, with the incredibly blue-green waters below. Portages between lakes, made by bus, are served by thoroughly comfortable Swiss and Bavarian inns set amidst spectacular scenery and offering memorable meals.
Only two boats plied these lakes – our filled-to-bursting morning boat and and now a smaller version for the smaller numbers returning, making this a day trip only.
My broken arm and assorted aches – from being blown off a mountain by the wind earlier in the month-long trip – were a bit of a pain. Now I noticed that the very heavy old fashioned plaster cast I was encumbered with, looking like one blow from my arm could kill you, made even navigating the narrow boat stairs rather risky. But I wouldn’t have missed the day for the world. I was outside, enjoying the sun and scenery on the tiny after end – when the motor stopped. Dead. Forever.
The adventure was about to begin. Silently, the boat began to drift toward shore – a wild, rocky uninhabited shore as these lake shores were kept as a preserve, gorgeous to see, devoid of people or homes. I should mention the lake temperature – in the 30 to 40 degree average – was not swimmable for more than a very few minutes.
After what seemed too long, men came rushing to the stern to uncover a 25-horsepower outboard motor. Over the loudspeaker, the captain reported in many languages that “we were adrift”. At this point there suddenly was an added complication. (I mean a complication beside the fact that the outboard motor looked only fit for a rowboat!) There was bigger problem. Bicycle chains encircled the motor, padlocked tightly together. But it seemed that no crew member had the key. In a scene out of a Marx Brothers comedy, a hacksaw was produced. The outboard was started. But – as you might expect with an excursion boat – little headway was made. . . but so far we avoided running aground in nowhere.
No further messages were transmitted to the passengers as we seem to drift closer to shore. But the boat’s radio had been functioning. The larger Chile-Argentina craft appeared quite a while later — to the cheers of the passengers. Can you guess what I am going to tell you?
A docking of the two boats was now going to be attempted in the middle of the large glacial lake! You had to be there!! The passengers hanging over one side gave an odd, uncomfortable slope to the boat. The ships lined up, jockeying for correct position in a sort of dance, and ropes were tossed. And retossed. And finally we were made secure.
Orders were given in at least 6 languages on how we were to transfer (JUMP!) to the larger boat. Normally, I would consider this very very exciting, but I had to admit to a very uneasy feeling at the thought of jumping between two boats with a weighty cast on my arm from shoulder to wrist that – in the best of times in hiking with it – had kept me off balance!
Luckily, there were two sailors to catch those passengers who were old or infirm – as well as the one (me) who was “newly casted”! Our small group – including me – acted as if transferring boats by jumping across in the middle of the largest lake in Chile was an everyday occurrence. And the following is the truth: no one in our small tour group ever brought it up again – ever!! After our past adventures in the wilds of Patagonia in winds with 100mph gusts, this would have rated about a 2 on a scale of 10!
I think we all agree that it is the unlikely experiences on our journeys that we are bound to remember forever after. But Chile’s Lake Region is picture perfect, famous for its spectacular panorama of bright emerald and turquoise lakes whose surfaces mirror snowcapped volcanoes and sprawling forests. A week spent there, in German town settings that remind you of German Bavaria, while you raft, fish, hike. Or as a starting point for the most must-do cruise imaginable through the fjords and hanging valleys of glacial Chilean coastlines to see the famous “San Rafael Glacier” that runs down from the mountains to meet the sea where it breaks off into gigantic icebergs of incredible blue.
Chile? Trip after trip, it remains by far the most beautiful country in South America and should be considered if you are looking for a once-in-a-lifetime journey to a world already perfected with well-structured tourism infrastructure, guaranteeing a variety of activities seldom put together as well as Chile can. You come home pleasure-filled, and so well cared for that, like me, you will find yourself drawn there once again.
With Chile in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. . . and if you decide on November, you will find us there – loving every moment in a country that welcomes the visitor and makes them feel renewed, alive once again, and leaving them with the forever memories.
A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye. Looking down into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.
-Henry David Thoreau
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”