I’d seen waterfalls before, but never like this. I was sliding down a wire some 50 feet (15 m) in the air, sailing through the treetops at 30 miles an hour (48 km/h). Somewhere off to the left of me was a blur of white and the roar of thundering falls. But the waterfall would have to wait. All my attention was focused on the rapidly approaching tree and trying to remember how to brake.
Welcome to canopying, an increasingly popular (if slightly insane) sports activity in Chile, specifically Chile’s Lake District. Located 650 miles (1,046 km) south of the capital Santiago, the Lake District is an area of lush green valleys, towering cone-shaped volcanoes and emerald lakes — all at the base of the snowcapped Andes Mountains. Much of the district looks like the German and Swiss Alps. It can sound that way too, since many of the original settlers were from Germany and still speak the language.
I was in the middle of Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales, Chile’s first national park, established in 1926. And I was terrified. Canopying involves wearing an alpine mountaineering harness attached to two little pulleys that are placed on wires strung between trees, 40 to 50 feet (12-15 m) in the air. The term “canopying” comes from the fact that you are in the “canopy” of the trees — high in the highest branches.
You sit down in your harness, dangle from the wire, and gravity takes it course, sliding you down the wire for about a quarter mile (400 m), over streams and through treetops to the next “station,” a wood platform built high on a tree. To break your speed, you squeeze on a piece of leather cupped in your hand around the wire. It’s primitive, but effective.
Canopying between eight stations takes one to two hours and requires, as one British participant put it, “more bloody courage than anyone has ever exhibited without getting a medal.” As the brochures say, it offers “a good quota of adrenaline.” But it’s also an exhilarating way to see the countryside.
And what countryside southern Chile has to offer.
A string bean of a nation, Chile stretches about 2,880 miles (4,635 km) from north to south, but is no more than 277 miles (445 km) wide at any point. It’s like taking a land mass just slightly larger than Texas and rolling it into a thin pencil that is nearly four times as long as California. Running down the entire eastern side of Chile and separating it from Bolivia and Argentina are the great Andes Mountains.
We had arrived in the national park as a stop on the famous Cruce de Lagos, the “cruise of the lakes,” a spectacular lake passage through the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina. The full-day tour requires taking four buses and three ferries as you alternate between drives up jagged, snowcapped mountain passes and cruises across the chain of three fiord-like lakes, each ringed with volcanoes and tumbling waterfalls.
This is the mountain route that Che Guevara takes in the 2003 movie Motorcycle Diaries. For hundreds of years it was used as a way across the Andes by the Huilliches, the native people of Southern Chile. Later, the Jesuits of Chiloe used this lake-crossing route when they founded missions in the area.
In the early 1900s, a young Swiss explorer named Ricardo Roth Schütz recognized the scenic beauty of the lakes passage and began operating tourist excursions. At that time, it was necessary to row across one of the lakes, and a one-way journey could take days. Today, descendents of the Roth family run a modern operation that uses sleek catamaran ferries and a fleet of colorful buses to complete the 117-mile (188 km) journey between Puerto Montt, Chile, and the ski resort of Bariloche, Argentina, in a leisurely eight hours.
While this is one of the most scenic routes in South America, most people taking it see the views only through a bus window or from the deck of a ferry. We decided to slow down and spend three days in the middle of the trip, in the village of Peulla (population 120).
Peulla has an end-of-the-world feel to it, and with good reason. It’s not the easiest place to get to. From the west, there is only one way there — a 20-mile (32 km) boat trip across Lago Todos Los Santos (All Saints Lake), regarded as the prettiest of the lakes in the region. It takes two hours to sail across the lake, and the scenery never stops. In one direction, there are sweeping views of the volcano Osorno, which Charles Darwin watched erupt from the decks of the Beagle in 1835. Looking the other way, you get a glimpse of towering volcano Tronador, at 11,450 feet (3,490 m), the highest peak in the area.
From the Peulla ferry dock, it’s about a half-mile (400 m) walk to the town’s two lodges. Because the town is located at the center of 970-square-mile (2,512 km²) Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, development is limited. The historic 76-room Hotel Peulla, built in 1896, has a Swiss Alps feel to it. Hallways and some of the public rooms can be a bit bleak, but there are pretty gardens surrounding the hotel and a lovely view from the bar’s outdoor deck, where you can sit, look at mountains and hear the ever-present roar of a nearby waterfall. It rains 260 days a year here, and because of the steepness of the mountains and the quietness of this remote region, you are always within hearing distance of a cascading waterfall.
Next door to the Hotel Peulla, Hotel Natura Patagonia, a 45-room Swiss-inspired hotel, opened in 2006. The rooms feature native woods and have cable television and Internet connections, while the lobby has a roaring wood-stoked fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Andes. The dining room offers Chilean steaks and seafood with a good local wine selection.
After a morning of canopying, we went horseback riding. Dressed in knee-length half chaps that gave everyone a dashing gaucho-like appearance, we splashed our horses across the shallow Rio Negro to the foot of the Andes. Overhead, condors and kingfishers circled in the sky, while the distant roar of a waterfall drifted down on a breeze from the high, snowcapped crags above.
If You Go
The Lake District is a popular recreation destination for both international tourists and the Chilean people, and it offers a milder Andes Mountain experience than Patagonia. The climate is similar to the American Northwest, and you should be prepared for rainfall. The best months to visit are October through March.
The airport in Puerto Montt has daily connections to the capital Santiago. Puerto Montt is a rugged fishing town located at the southern end of the 16,000-mile-long (25,750 km) Pan American Highway, a system of international highways extending from Alaska to Chile. Puerto Montt is best known for its fish market and seafood restaurants.
Puerto Varas, 12 miles (19 km) north, on the shores of Lago Llanquihue, is a comfortable tourist base. Puerto Varas has nice shops and restaurants, colorfully painted homes and a surprisingly modern casino for such a remote location. The casino is an attempt by the Chilean government to increase tourism to the region. The Cruce de Lagos excursion leaves from either town.
Cruce de Lagos Tours
Starting from Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas, TurisTour offers day trips and overnight trips to Peulla and a variety of other packages, with food and recreation options included.
Rooms at the Hotel Peulla start at US$ 107 per person for a single room and breakfast during the low season; the Hotel Natura Patagonia starts at US$ 131 per person; it’s worth the upgrade.
The Cruce de Lagos crossing from Chile to Argentina runs year-round, with more options and times available during the high season, September through April, the Chilean summer.