When people describe chile's lake district as the South American equivalent of Switzerland, they usually mean it in a topographic sense: jagged peaks, verdant valleys, shimmering cobalt waters, that kind of thing. But boarding the plane that would take me from Santiago to the small city of Temuco, some 420 miles further down Chile's spine, I had a different connection in mind.
The 210-mile stretch between Temuco and Puerto Montt offers almost as many disparate cultures as Switzerland (which is so polyethnic as to have four official languages). In some pockets of the Lake District, German surnames are as common as Spanish, and weirdly authentic examples of Scandinavian architecture line the sidewalks. Elsewhere, the native Mapuche culture, all but eradicated in the 1800's, still thrives. Argentines, Peruvians, and Uruguayans populate the tourist areas. And where there's culture, there's cuisine. I'd planned a long weekend of eating everything from chimichurri sauce to spaetzle, then driving through spectacular scenery—and then eating some more.
Day 1: Temuco to Pucón 68 miles
After landing at Temuco's tiny airport (a larger one is scheduled to be completed by 2010) and renting a car, I showed up at the octagon-shaped, wood-paneled La Pampa before the business-lunch crush. This was propitious, because several dozen conservatively dressed men descended more or less simultaneously at 12:30, filling every seat. (A lone woman sat at a corner table, attended by five men.) The lure is steak, grilled over coals in the Argentine fashion, then served charred, crusty, and blood-rare. Before it arrived, I sopped up the restaurant's proprietary pepper sauce with bread, then moved on to Chilean Serrano-style ham, firmer and smokier than the Spanish original. On the way out of this decidedly untouristy, old-meets-new city, I saw a cart-pulling donkey idling beneath a gleaming glass office building.
On the drive southeast that followed, I spotted the first of the half-dozen snow-topped volcanoes that would accompany me throughout my trip. I never quite became accustomed to their looming presence and was mesmerized by them while waiting at stoplights, driving down highways, and once—months later—even in a stirring dream. Near Villarrica, I passed cows and cheese factories and noticed that the palms of Temuco had turned to pines as I climbed in altitude up to 350 feet.
Villarrica is a backpacker's town with a Wild West feel and a surplus of Internet cafés: hardly a culinary mecca. But it was there—at a small storefront shop called Huerto Azul—that I encountered the finest frozen yogurt of my life, tangy and creamy, studded with fresh raspberries and, like the chocolates for sale throughout the store, made in the adjacent kitchen. Then I checked into the Bauhaus- influenced Hotel Antumalal, on the southern edge of Lake Villarrica. Built in 1950 as an ultramodern lakeside resort, it remains gloriously stuck in time. The lobby features tree-slab tables, shaggy fur rugs, and bossa nova on the sound system, as well as dramatic views of pocket-size ferries steaming across the lake. My room, a cottage where Queen Elizabeth once slept, has an exquisite garden within it and a wall of windows that overlooked the water.
Ten minutes away, the bustling tourist destination of Pucón has restaurants on every block. The best of them, La Maga, can be identified by the roaring fire threatening to consume the front door. Here steaks are roasted over wood in the Uruguayan style and accompanied by a fiery sauce. I drank a Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2003 from Casa Silva (not one of the new wave of ambitious producers that have lately enhanced Chile's wine reputation around the world, but dependably drinkable nonetheless), and lost myself in the ambient din.