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.
Day 2: Pucón to Puerto Varas 172 miles
One of the best things about waking up on a lake is that you can swim in it if you're hardy enough to brave the chilly water. Or you can fill up on zucchini bread and fresh watermelon juice at Antumalal, as I did, and plot out the day's eating schedule.
In 1848, some 7,000 German immigrants arrived in the Lake District, part of a campaign by the Chilean government to diminish the influence of the Mapuche. Valdivia, perhaps the area's prettiest town, remains the epicenter of Chile's Teutonic culture. Before lunch, I stopped in at Café Haussmann, a luncheonette with a counter and four small booths, where the house specialty, beef tartare, reminded me of toro sashimi. Then I crossed the Rio Cruces to Kunstmann Cervecería, a working brewery with kitschy souvenirs and genuine German food. After a flight of seven miniature beers, which ranged from soda-pop light to gloriously dense and yeasty, I ate a fillet of red deer with raspberry sauce and ethereal spaetzle. It was rich but not heavy (and, I have to say, a far better lunch than I ever had in Munich). By the time I reached Frutillar, in the late afternoon, I could actually contemplate eating again.
A vacation town with a view of three—on the clearest days, I'm told, even five—volcanoes hovering over Llanquihue Lake, it's filled with Northern European architecture, including a picture-perfect Swedish Lutheran church, but the sunbathers on the dusky beach seemed an international lot. At 697 Avenida Bernardo Philippi, fronting the water, I came across a nameless cottage that stocked 10 varieties of freshly baked cakes, and jars of sticky marmalade made from murta, a native berry that grows wild at the base of the volcanoes. Down the street, off a boardwalk that extends into the lake, is Cappuccini, part art gallery and part coffeehouse, with an impressive collection of Chilean wines. I had apple strudel, a cup of tea, and a glass of Casa Tamaya Reserva 2002, thereby covering all the bases.
Fifteen minutes south, in Puerto Varas, is the Hotel Licarayen. Cheery and clean and perfectly positioned, lakeside in the center of town, it has a Nordic air—exemplified by a Finnish sauna, low-slung Swedish furnishings, and Abba playing in the breakfast room. Most important, it is a short walk from cozy, skylit Merlin, one of Chile's best restaurants. Proprietor Richard Knobloch is German-born, but his food transcends patriotism and ethnicity, and his produce is delivered by bicycle from nearby farms. I ate pig's tongue with bitter greens and grouper with raspberries wrapped in Swiss chard, followed by a taste of exceptional abalone. From the side table covered with bottles that serves as the wine list, I chose Tabali's Chardonnay Reserva Especial 2005 from the Limari Valley. I hadn't tasted the wine before—or anything from that producer, for that matter—but I'm fascinated by Limari. Located in the far north of the country, up near the equator, it somehow manages to turn out reasonable facsimiles of cool-weather whites. This one crackled with flavor, far more lemon and lime than the usual vanilla and butter of a New World Chardonnay. It's as close as Chile will ever get to Chablis.
Day 3: Puerto Varas to Puerto Montt 12 miles
Walking the sleepy streets of Puerto Varas on a Sunday morning, I came across a typical local breakfast at the front counter of Dane's Café-Restaurant. Humitas are cornmeal patties, flecked with peppers and bound in a husk, with the form of a tamale and the taste and consistency of grits. Reemerging into the sunshine, I was tempted to stay in town and enjoy a warm Sunday morning by the lake, but I had another meal to eat. So I drove to Puerto Montt and headed straight for the Angelmó neighborhood, where I knew I'd find a remarkable seafood market. Above the fishmongers' stalls, tiny restaurants (each has four or five tables at most) fill a U-shaped, two-story structure. All sell different versions of the same thing: a traditional surf-and-turf peasant dish called curanto that includes clams, mussels the size of two fists, boiled potatoes, several varieties of chewy dumplings, ham hocks, sausage, and chicken, all ladled from a pot of steaming fish broth.
As a means of comparison—and because so many of the places looked so compelling—I ate two of them. The better version, at Don Raul, was richer, with dumplings as chewy as taffy and boiled chicken my Jewish grandmother would have been proud to serve. I even managed to finagle a taste of the conger eel in margherita (tomato) sauce, under the guise of perhaps ordering it as a starter on my next visit. I drank a half-bottle of Chardonnay, the Casillero del Diablo Reserva 2005 from Concha y Toro. At the end of the meal, for the first time in my life, I actually burped with satisfaction, like Fred Flintstone used to do. I'd covered about six hours of driving from Temuco, and described a culinary arc that astonished me with its breadth. I had to get to the airport for the flight back to Santiago, but first I bought a bag of incandescent fruit jellies at one of the market stalls. Just to, you know, nibble on the plane.
Bruce Schoenfeld is T+L's wine and spirits editor.
When to Go Chile's Lake District is accessible any month of the year, but the weather and scenery in the spring (November and December) are particularly spectacular.
Getting there Temuco is a 75-minute flight from Santiago, the Chilean capital. Because claiming bags and renting a car at the pocket-size airport can be accomplished in about five minutes, a midmorning departure on LAN Airlines, Chile's national carrier, will get you to downtown Temuco in plenty of time for lunch. Most car-rental companies service Temuco and Puerto Montt, so one-way rentals are not a problem and will involve no extra charge. You can choose between the Chilean-based Econorent (chile-travel.com/econorent), Avis, and Budget, among others. Return flights to Santiago from Puerto Montt are available throughout the day; although they are listed as almost two hours in length, they run shorter.
Where to Stay Hotel Antumalal Km. 2, Camino Villarrica Pucón, Villarrica; 56-45/441-011; antumalal.com; doubles from $224.
Great ValueHotel Licarayen 114 San José, Puerto Varas; 56-65/232-305; doubles from $95.
Where to EatCafé Haussmann 394 Calle O'Higgins, Valdivia; 56-63/213-878; lunch for two $12.
Cappuccini Teatro del Lago, 1000 Avda. Philippi, Frutillar; 56-65/ 422-900; wine and cheese for two $16.
Dane's Cafe-Restaurant 441 Del Salvador, Puerto Varas; 56-65/232-371.
Don Raul Palafitos de Angelmó, 2nd fl., stand No. 7, Puerto Varas; no phone; lunch for two $12.
Huerto Azul 341 Camilo Henriquez, Villarrica; 56-994/441-606; snack for two $4.
Kunstmann Cervecería 950 Rte. T-350, Valdivia; 56-63/292-969; lunch for two $40.
La Maga 125 Calle Freisa, Pucón; 56-45/444-277; dinner for two $60.
La Pampa 0155 Avda. Caupolican, Temuco; 56-45/329-999; lunch for two $35.
Merlin 0605 Imperial, Puerto Varas; 56-65/233-105; dinner for two $70.
Telefónica Chile publishes the most complete guide to the region, TurisTel 2007: Sur (Ediciones guías & rutas); find it at Chilean airports and bookstores. Even if you can't read Spanish, the detailed maps and star ratings for attractions make it well worth its $13 price tag.