By RICH GRANT
It’s not easy to go east from Chile.
A string bean of a nation, Chile stretches 2,580 miles from north to south, but averages only 110 miles in width. It’s like taking a land mass slightly larger than Texas and rolling it into a thin pencil that is twice as long as California.
Running down the entire eastern side of Chile and separating it from Bolivia and Argentina are the great Andes Mountains – the longest mountain range in the world. There are only 42 passes over the mountains from Chile to Argentina, but perhaps the most spectacular is the Cruce de Lagos, the Cruise of the Lakes.
About 175,000 people take this spectacular lake passage through the Andes mountains every year. It is the mountain route that Che Guevara takes in the movie “Motorcycle Diaries.”
Today, the full-day tourist excursion requires taking four buses and three ferries as you alternate between bus rides up jagged mountain passes and ferryboat cruises across the chain of three fiord-like lakes, each one ringed with volcanoes and tumbling waterfalls.
Located 650 miles south of Santiago, the area is called Chile’s Lake District and with its lush green valleys and sawtooth mountains, it looks like the German or Swiss Alps. It can sound that way, too, since many of the original settlers were from Germany. They still speak the language of their forefathers and even have their own local German radio stations.
For hundreds of years, the lake passage was used as a way across the Andes by the Huilliches, the native people of Southern Chile. Later, the Jesuits of Chile used this passage when they founded missions in the area.
In the early 1900s, a young Swiss explorer named Ricardo Roth 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 blue buses to complete the 117-mile journey between Puerto Mott, Chile, and the ski resort of Bariochie, Argentina, in a leisurely eight hours.
While this is one of the most scenic routes in South America, most people take it to see the views and experience the Andes, some stopping, like we did, to spend two or three days in the middle of the trip in the ecological village of Peulla (population 120), the center of Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales, Chile’s first national park.
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 in – a 20-mile boat trip across Lago Todos Los Santos (All Saints Lake), regarded as the prettiest of the lakes in the region. The sheer mountains and cliffs lining the lake prohibit building any road.
It takes two hours to sail 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, the highest peak in the area.
Arriving at the Peulla ferry dock, it’s a half-mile walk to the two lodges located here. Because this is the center of 970-square-mile Vincent Pérez Rosales National Park, development is limited.
The 71-room, historic Hotel Peulla was built in 1890 and has a German 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.
This region receives 260 days of rain a year and because of the steepness of the mountains and the quietness of this remote region, you are always in hearing range of a cascading waterfall.
A tour operator offers a series of day adventures, from a safari in a four-by-four vehicle up into the mountains to the Argentina border to horseback riding and sailing. Packages can be purchased that include the ferry, hotel, meals and your choice of adventure activities.
The horseback riding is spectacular. They dress you in knee-length half chaps that give everyone a dashing gaucho-like appearance as you splash your trail horses across the shallow Río Negro to the foot of the Andes. Overhead, condors and kingfishers circle in the sky, while the distant roar of a waterfall drifts down on a breeze from the high, snowcapped crags above.
They also have an 11-station canopy experience that crosses streams and ravines and is, of course, terrifying. But if you can take your mind off the fact that you are flying at outrageous speeds on a wire a hundred feet above the ground, the scenery will take away what little, if any, breath you have left.