Journeys of a Lifetime: South America

A mom goes rogue in Chile’s land of lakes and volcanoes.  
All mist and froth, Puma Waterfall makes for splashy entertainment in Chile’s Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega
All mist and froth, Puma Waterfall makes for splashy entertainment in Chile’s Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

I am a mom …  on the lam. I guess I should explain.

Recently, my husband and son announced, out of the blue, “We’re going on a road trip, just us men.” So it’s come to this, I thought. The guys go one way, leaving mom on the sideline. Fine. I can play this game.

“I’ll hit the road too, then,” I bantered back, “trolling for adventure.” We all chuckled—until my eyes fell on the mess in the kitchen. Suddenly I knew hitting the road was exactly what I’d do. Head out, go rogue, take that walk on the wild side. All I needed was a destination that had, oh, everything: nature, culture, history, good food, and an adventure or two. A land that would fire up my routine-rusted mom synapses.

But how to get from here to wherever that is? I needed ideas, so I called my friend Uli. “You know, I’m living in an amazing place. It’s like Tuscany, Bavaria, and Lake Como rolled into one, but with calderas. Look it up: Chile’s volcanoes and lakes region, south of the capital, Santiago, which lies in the centre of the country.” He moved there to follow dreams—and it’s where he now urges me to follow some of mine.

So here I am, on fuming Villarrica Volcano, making my way through a very dark lava tube. “We’re in one of Earth’s more interesting formations,” says my guide as he steers me along with his headlamp, “a volcanic cave created when a blazing stream of lava cooled on contact with surface air, hardening the outer layer into a shell.” Drops of condensation ping my head as we snake through the cylinder, its walls now coated with moss, and emerge into a witches’ brew of mist swirling around Villarrica’s top half. Expanses of black cinder spread out everywhere I look, evidence of this volcano’s explosive might as one of Chile’s most active craters; somewhere far below lie Lake Villarrica and the town of Pucón. Bet my boys aren’t turning up anything like this on their road trip.

***

“We’ve had guests carry on about how this view of Lake Villarrica reminds them of the Italian lakes,” says Rony Pollak that afternoon when she finds me gazing out from a terrace at Hotel Antumalal, the jewel of a lodge her parents created in the 1950s and my home for the next few nights. Villarrica Volcano lurks behind us, letting off steam. Below, bees weave among the violet hydrangeas in the hotel’s gardens. A breeze ruffles a nearby chestnut tree before swooping down to rustle up whitecaps on the lake. To our right, sailboat masts spear the air in Pucón’s harbour. Just as eye-catching is this lodge, a modernist poem in stone and wood suggestive of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Clean lines and wide window views distinguish the refined Hotel Antumalal in Pucón. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

Clean lines and wide window views distinguish the refined Hotel Antumalal in Pucón. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

“It couldn’t get any better than this for my parents, who moved here from Prague in the 1930s,” Pollak says, then pauses. “Except for the volcano.” Antumalal wasn’t the Pollaks’ first hotel. Avid skiers, they’d built a lodge on the glacier-blanketed slope of Villarrica Volcano in the 1940s. All was good until 1949, when a mudflow destroyed the lodge. “They’d already bought this land, thankfully at a safer distance from the volcano.”

“And Pucón?” I ask. The town crouches at the volcano’s base.

“It’s in the danger zone for lava flows.”

Within the hour I’m walking to town to see how people live with such an explosive neighbour. Soon I spot signs marking evacuation routes. So it’s almost a shock to find a thriving town, its restaurants—Volcamburguer, Mamas y Tapas—and brand-name shops like North Face swarming with adventure-sports types. Any sense of living on borrowed time seems absent. Or is the heightened sense of danger a sort of catnip? When I’d asked a local why he was here, he’d answered, “To be around this,” pointing to the volcanic terrain, “where the planet is most alive.”

One of South America’s most active volcanoes, Villarrica lights up a star-splashed night sky. Its most recent eruption was in July 2015. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

One of South America’s most active volcanoes, Villarrica lights up a star-splashed night sky. Its most recent eruption was in July 2015. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

***

Looking out on Lake Villarrica that evening, I process all I’ve seen in one day—and wonder what lies ahead on the route south to my endpoint, Chile’s largest lake, Llanquihue. First, though, Pollak has more to show me in her beloved backyard.

“We’re off to Curarrehue,” she announces the next morning, packing two bag lunches into her car. “It’s a Mapuche town whose inhabitants are reviving the indigenous Mapuche culture.”

A half-hour’s drive through mountain valleys dappled with sheep brings us to the tidy roadside settlement. Pollak pulls up in front of Cocina de Elisa—Elisa’s Kitchen.

Entra, entra,” says a smiling Elisa Cea Epuin as she arranges breads hot from the oven. The cottage steeps in the aroma of honey and baked berries. Jars of marinating fruits line wood shelves, but I’m drawn to a bowl of what look like supersize almonds. “Que son estos?” I ask. “Piñones de la araucaria,” Elisa says. Nuts of the Araucaria araucana, Chile’s national tree, native only to this part of the country and western Argentina, eight kilometres to the east. The starchy seeds are a staple Mapuche ingredient.

Pollak hands me a roll. “It’s made with piñon flour.” The taste perfectly balances sweet and doughy. On our way out I ask Elisa for a souvenir to buy. She opens a jar of purple jam. “Maqui”—Chilean wineberry. I swipe up a spoonful of the spread. “Muy rico in antioxidantes,” she says.

Maqui also is muy rico in colour, I learn 20 minutes later, up a dirt road at Textileria Mapuche, where 30-something Juanita Becerra continues the Mapuche weaving tradition. Trailed by a meowing kitten (“she thinks I’m her mother”), Becerra ushers Pollak and me into her cottage showroom, arrayed with woollen wares—vests, ponchos, belts. “Feel this,” she prompts, holding a ball of yarn she’s just carded. I finger the wool, thick and soft. Outside, sheep bleat. Becerra’s operation is soup to nuts: She shears the sheep, spins and dyes the wool, devises designs, then gets busy weaving. I gravitate to a purple scarf for my teenaged son, who always underdresses in winter. “The maqui berry gives that wonderful colour,” she says. I’m tempted to buy it but, no longer clear on what clothing he’ll like, pass, a decision I’ll regret.

“I have one more spot to show you,” Pollak says as we get back in her car. “It’s a special place of mine. Huinfuica Lagoon.”

The scenery transforms before my eyes as we climb south. The vegetation—leafy, mixed with fir trees—is abruptly overtaken by araucarias, their slender trunks sheathed in gnarly bark and sprouting tiered branches. Dinosaur trees. Dubbed “living fossils” for their thousand-year life span, araucarias (also called monkey-puzzle trees) are sacred to the Mapuche. As is Lanín Volcano, rearing up like a snow-robed god on the near horizon.

“This may be my favourite hike on Earth,” Pollak says, parking. A flurry of emerald-winged parakeets swirls into view above us.

As we step onto a trail winding through bamboo, araucaria, and beech trees, a gold-winged beetle teeters in and settles on my arm. Suddenly, a green lizard, neon in the shade, darts onto the path—and I think of my son. I helped him with homework on the brown lizards back home. This showy one would transport him. Why in the world, my mom brain hisses, am I here without him?

Unnerved, I sprint ahead of Pollak to Huinfuica Lagoon, and find the answer. The pool, flanked on three sides by mountains, like a Roman amphitheatre, lies still as glass. Behind me rises Lanín Volcano, silent but very present. The only footprints on the volcanic sand are mine; I have the place utterly to myself. For a long moment I feel removed from the scrolling of time—a feeling that the presence of my teenage son, no matter how much I wish he were here, would have altered.

***

Glittering lakes and bluffs threaded with the slenderest of waterfalls mark my drive south the following day.

Bienvenida a la Montaña Mágica!” I barely register the receptionist’s greeting; I’m sizing up the sight before me, a conical, hobbit-like wood lodge. Or is it a volcano? “A bit of both,” the receptionist explains. “Our Magic Mountain represents our forest as well as Mocho-Choshuenco Volcano. See it over there?”

She points out a window. Hulking Mocho-Choshuenco is the heart of the 600-square-kilometre Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve, a sustainable-tourism playground with a museum, trails, and multiple lodges, including the adjacent Nothofagus Hotel & Spa. Which is where I now find myself corkscrewing down a log ramp to meet Chilean writer, Manuel Pino Toro. Nothofagus is an inversion of Magic Mountain’s cone; guest rooms radiate off the spiralling central ramp into surrounding trees. “What do you think?” Toro asks as he orders us pisco sours, a Chilean favourite. Men in kayaking gear tramp past. I scan banisters made of branches and windows looking out on trees. “Whoever designed this place had fun,” I say.

The log-built Nothofagus blends in with its woodsy setting in the Huilo Huilo Reserve. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

The log-built Nothofagus blends in with its woodsy setting in the Huilo Huilo Reserve. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

He suggests I visit the Huilo Huilo Foundation, in the nearby village of Neltume. When I get there, I hear laughter rippling out of the side-street cottage. Entering, I find women making cloth dolls accessorized with acorns and other forest-sourced trappings during a foundation workshop.

Fabricamos muñecos mágicas,” says one woman. “We are making magical fairies depicting our natural world.” Another woman is stitching lichen onto a fairy: a straight-from-the-forest jacket. Then I spot a flute-toting sprite, the perfect talisman for my musical son. As the ladies wrap it up for me, they urge me to visit the beekeeping workshop, to try its organic honey.

Adventure—hiking, kayaking, mountain biking—is Huilo Huilo’s other focus, so soon I’m manoeuvring crampon-fanged boots on a glacier on Mocho-Choshuenco. Roped up, I’m following the tracks of Leandro, the guide leading me and Toro, whom I’ve coaxed into joining me, toward the summit.

“This volcano is part of the Pacific ‘ring of fire,’ ” Leandro calls out as we tramp along. He stops at a crevasse: Its ice walls glisten with blue meltwater, a beautiful but disquieting sight. Glaciers here, as elsewhere, are retreating. Leandro sweeps his arm around. “You can see eight of the nine major volcanoes that formed this part of Chile.” He points out Osorno, near my last stop, Puerto Varas. Maybe it’s the lofty view, but I’m feeling light as a feather.

Feathers sure would come in handy within the hour. “Didn’t you want to zip line?” Leandro asks when we’re back in the SUV. “We have one of the best in South America, the Condor.”

So here Toro and I stand, harnessed and helmeted, on the lip of a gorge called El Abismo. Across the abyss—a 300-foot-deep slash in the mountain—snakes a zip line. “Really, Leandro? We’re first-timers.” My voice sounds pale.

“Ladies first,” Toro declares. Well, fine. Then it hits me: I’ll do this for bragging rights with my son. I toe the edge—and launch myself across the chasm, over treetops and under what suddenly feels like an infinite sky. Rocketing in, I pull off a solid landing. Toro follows. Exultant, we high-five and begin shedding our harnesses. “Not so fast,” Leandro says, grinning. “The Condor has five zip lines. Venga!

Backdropped by Osorno Volcano, a visitor feeds llamas along Lake Llanquihue. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

Backdropped by Osorno Volcano, a visitor feeds llamas along Lake Llanquihue. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

Huilo Huilo’s spell will vaporize the next day as the scenery reverts to fields and towns on my drive to Lake Llanquihue. Soon I make out Osorno Volcano and within the hour reach Hotel Arrebol, a rock-meets-wood lodge near the resort town of Puerto Varas. Blue-eyed co-owner Harald Opitz Jurgens gives me the lay of the land. “Do you know any German? Puerto Varas and the town of Frutillar, across the lake, were largely settled by Germans in the 1800s. You’ll come across many German names and establishments—gasthäuser (guest houses), bierstuben (bars).”

“What would lure Germans halfway around the globe?” I ask.

“The same things that brought my family, lots of open land and natural beauty. We designed our lodge using the vernacular of Patagonia—simple shapes and materials from nature.” His words describe the transformation of things from one reality to another that I’d found in Pucón and Huilo Huilo. They also describe what I’ll find the following day, in Frutillar.

“It looks like a ship,” one visitor says to another as I approach the Teatro del Lago, a piece of architectural bravado on Frutillar’s quiet lakefront. “To me, it’s a modern palace,” says the friend. I see both, though I also see a lighthouse.

Lakeside musical performances are common in Puerto Varas, while the town of Frutillar nearby holds a legendary, annual classical music festival. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

Lakeside musical performances are common in Puerto Varas, while the town of Frutillar nearby holds a legendary, annual classical music festival. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

“We wanted it to suggest different things,” says Ulrich Bader, the theatre’s creative director, as he fetches us some coffee in the theatre’s slyly named Café CapPuccini. A playbill announces a performance by a Brazilian-jazz group—the type of music, I note with some pride, that my son has taken up.

“This has been called one of Chile’s most complex buildings,” Bader tells me. “We brought acoustical experts from Europe. Even the seat fabric had to pass acoustical muster.”

German-born Bader and his Chilean wife, Nicola Schiess, president of the Teatro Cultural Corporation, have big plans. “We want to make Frutillar the Salzburg of South America. Nearby is our music school, where local children learn performance arts.”

What he says confirms what I’ve sensed about this part of Chile: It inspires ambitious visions that honour what has been and look forward to what can be. Which, in a way, is the conversation I’ve been having with myself about motherhood and my shifting dance with it. As I stroll by Lake Llanquihue, I try to imagine how the place will look as Bader and his wife proceed on the journey of transformation they’re clearly passionate about. And I ponder my own journey in this land of volcanic change: Has any transformation taken place in me? Could I consider myself rebooted?

Yes, yes, and how. My walkabout through this lake-dimpled land of volcanoes has gratified my yen for spontaneity, novelty, the extraordinary—and dialled me down to a contented hum.

Gawking at Lake Llanquihue and mist-shawled Osorno Volcano, I invoke the words I saw in Elisa’s Mapuche bakery: “Gracias Madre Tierra.” Thank you Mother Earth. The ultimate mother of all. I’m ready to go home, and share this with my son.

The Best of Chile’s Lakes Region

A food truck wrapped in head shots of rock stars dishes up tacos and other specialties of chef Gustavo Sandoval Rivas along Lake Llanquihue. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

A food truck wrapped in head shots of rock stars dishes up tacos and other specialties of chef Gustavo Sandoval Rivas along Lake Llanquihue. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

Lakes and More Lakes

Shaped by glaciers, the Seven Lakes, south of the town of Pucón in the central Lake District in Chile, are worth a visit. They include serene Lake Calafquen and trident-shaped Lake Panguipulli. Also notable: Lake Puyehue, flanked by Puyehue Volcano and site of the Termas Puyehue Wellness & Spa Resort, with its array of thermal pools (www.puyehue.cl/en; doubles from $190/₹12,585).

Mapuche Ways

The modern Museo Mapuche Pucón, in central Pucón, and the homespun Intercultural Village Center Trawupeyüm, in Curarrehue, showcase the area’s indigenous Mapuche culture. At Curarrehue, visitors can also try traditional corn bread and sautéed piñones or pine nuts (Museo Mapuche Pucón, +56-45-2441963; Trawupeyüm, +56-45-1971574).

Huerquehue National Park

Known for its centuries-old araucaria trees, this national park outside Pucón ranges across mountains and forests. The scenic Los Lagos trail winds through ancient larch groves and along blue-water lakes (+56-2- 21960242; parque.huerquehue@conaf.cl; entry adults CLP4,000/₹396, children CLP2,000/₹198).

Isle of Rainbows

Southwest of the resort town of Puerto Varas, off Chile’s coast, sits Chiloé, an island of rainbow-haloed hills, fishing villages, and wild wetlands. Sixteen wooden churches here boast World Heritage status. Equally photogenic are Chiloé’s stilt palafito houses; you can stay in your own palafito at the Park Hotel Quilquico (www.hpq.cl/en; doubles from $155/₹10,356; includes breakfast and dinner).

Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “South America in Your Forties”.

For other stories in our collection of Journeys for a Lifetime, go here.

Check In

Nestled in five acres of private gardens, Hotel Antumalal overlooks the placid waters of Lake Villarrica (www.antumalal.com; doubles from $224/₹14,930). Montaña Mágica Lodge lies in Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve. Hikes through rainforests and treks to the Mocho-Choshuenco volcano, await guests at this lodge (huilohuilo.com; doubles from $440/₹29,340). The hilltop Arrebol Patagonia Hotel in Puerto Varas affords beautiful views of Lake Llanquihue (www.arrebolhotel.com; doubles from $247/₹16,500; minimum two nights booking).

  • Jayne Wise is senior editor at National Geographic Traveler (U.S.).

  • Pablo Corral Vega is based in Ecuador and trains his lens on the cultures of South America.

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