Story and photos by Rich Grant
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 42 passes over the mountains from Chile to Argentina, but perhaps the most spectacular is called the Cruce de Lagos – the “Cruise of the Lakes.”
About 175,000 people take this spectacular lake passage through the Andes every year. 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 fjord-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 much 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 and even have their own local German radio stations.
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. It’s also possible to stop in the middle of the trip in the ecological village of Peulla (population 120), the center of Parque Nacional Vicente Perez 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), 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.
This region receives 260 days of rain a year, similar to the American Northwest. Because of the steepness of the mountains and the quietness of this remote region, you are almost always in hearing distance of a cascading waterfall. In Peulla you can go sailing, hiking or four-wheeling, but perhaps most fun is horseback riding, splashing across the shallow Rio Negro while overhead, condors and kingfishers circle in the sky.
The full Cruce de Lagos crossing to Argentina runs year-round with more options and times available during heavy season, September through April (the Chilean summer).
Getting there: TurisTour (http://www.turistour.com/en/) offers day and overnight trips to Peulla and a variety of other packages with food and recreation adventure options included. Hotel Peulla (www.hotelpeulla.cl) is a recommended place to stay.
More info: Visit the Cruise of the Andes site, www.cruceandino.com/en/
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