Cows were grazing on the shore of Petrohue, a strange and beautiful inlet in southern Chile. Blue fog rose off the water and slid up the surrounding hills. The "lake of saints," Todos Los Santos, spilled across the horizon in peaceful undulations. Beside me, a man nibbled something green and fuzzy.
His name was Luis, and he befriended me between bites from a branch of nalca, a juicy, 3-foot-long vegetable that tastes a little like celery. Luis told me stories about his adventures. In his only trip out of Chile's Lake District and into the smoggy capital of Santiago, setting foot in the city for the first time, he recalled dramatically, "I fainted."
He claimed to have crossed paths with a leopard while climbing one of the hills that loom over the rapids of Petrohue. Upon reaching the top of the hill, he said, he discovered another hill behind it. And there was another one behind that one, he said, and so it goes.
"The mountains never end," he assured me.
Petrohue is one of the mysterious, dreamy tableaux of southern Chile's Lake District, a lush, 200-mile strip of mountains, river rapids, snow-capped volcanoes, waterfalls, hot springs, forests and great lakes.
Some friends and I were driving into lake country when we saw our first volcano. Its faint outline popped into view suddenly like an apparition. Another one appeared. Then suddenly there were three. They grew larger and clearer as we got closer to Lake Villarrica, a fishing mecca of sun-dappled water ringed by green fields and soft, forested hills.
Two towns, Villarrica and Pucon, sit on the edge of Lake Villarrica. Like most of the lake region, they are a mix of rich and poor; of wealthy tourists, dirt roads, and chickens and sheep wandering on the beach. After we arrived at the lake, we rented one of the colorful rowboats along the dock and ferried away from shore for a better look at Volcano Villarrica.
Besides luring skiers and hikers, the volcanoes warm underground springs that are tapped for thermal baths. Some are indoors and built within hotels, but I preferred the baths in outdoor settings, such as in parks or a clearing in a forest.
It was drizzling the day we visited a bath in the middle of the National Park of Puyehue. Slowly we lowered ourselves into the pool, looking up at the mint-green web of leaves and rain-blackened tree trunks around us. Steam from the warm water floated up to our faces as cool drops fell from above.
The Puyehue forest hosts a rare ecosystem known as a cold jungle. Strewn with vines and thick with bamboo trees, the forest appears tropical but the air is cool. Rays of sunlight shoot through the crevices between leaves and branches like glass shards, and moss drips off the trees. Clear streams trickle through the cold jungle, home of reindeer and condors.
"This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plenitude of leaves," wrote Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, inspired by a walk through the cold jungle. "Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I am: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face, and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time."
Many of the Lake District's roads are unpaved, so getting around is not always convenient. One day, friends and I decided to go to a waterfall in a forest east of Lake Villarrica. The fall, named Salta Leon, was at the end of a bumpy, dusty dirt road that we followed for about an hour at 10 mph. Tired and exasperated, we finally arrived at a ramshackle wooden cabin. Still no waterfall.
"That will be 200 pesos [about 35 cents]," a woman announced as she stepped out of the house and collected our money. She was headed back inside when we asked her, a bit impatiently: Where was the waterfall? She pointed vaguely to a trail of boards in the woods and we began following it.
We walked until we could hear the pounding of the water and felt ourselves damp with spray. Then we looked up to see white foam crashing through the opening of a forested cliff. After bathing in a stream below, we drove to a nearby thermal bath called Termas de Palguin. There we sat contentedly in the warm, mineral-clouded water.
The rivers that branch through southern Chile attract white-water rafters from around the world. But even less adventurous visitors may have to brave the rapids occasionally, if only to get from one side to the other. One way to cross rivers is in a special kind of raft that is tethered to a steel cable overhead to keep it from being swept recklessly downstream. Locals will row tourists across the narrower rivers for about 50 cents.
We took a memorable boat trip down the Calle-Calle River from the coastal city of Valdivia. As the ferry took off toward the Pacific Ocean, Volcano Choshuenco towered in the distance behind us. Nearby, a sea lion bobbed in and out of the water.