I recently took a trip to the lakes region in the South of Chile. Many of my students have repeatedly told me that before I leave, I have to take a trip to the South as by many it is considered the most beautiful area of the entire country. Forget the Atacama, Patagonia and the Andes… the lakes are where it is at. And so during the Chilean Independence holiday, I spent 5 days in Puerto Varas, a small town situated right next to Lake Llanquehue (Chile’s second largest lake) in the heart of the Lakes region.
I have never been to the Lake District in England but having seen photos and spoken to other English people here, I can deduce that the landscape in Puerto Varas, many thousands of miles away, is not too dissimilar. Think rolling green hills separated by hedges, huge lakes, grey skies. The weather in particular is reminiscent of English weather and made me feel right at home very quickly; it is supposed to rain 300 days a year here, which explains just how green this area is. But of course, this is not England and so there are a few major landscape differences. A couple of the most significant are two active volcanoes, Orsono and Calbuco (the latter which erupted in 2015), that both sit inconspicuously over the lake. On a clear day (I luckily experienced one of these), the view of these volcanoes standing side by side, Orsono the perfect symmetrical triangle and Calbuco, the more rugged and uneven, is breathtaking. And then there are a whole host of national parks at your doorstep which include spectacular waterfalls, overgrown jungles and hidden emerald lagoons. Not too shabby.
But, alongside the incredible natural and diverse beauty of the region, Puerto Varas and the surrounding villages also have an extremely interesting history of colonization, which perhaps surprisingly involves Germany. South America is known for its Spanish and Portuguese influence, due to the Iberian conquest which is visible in the language, architecture, religion and many other aspects of daily life. But in this particular region in the South, a distinct German heritage exists which is as a result of the 6000 Germans who emigrated to Southern Chile between the years 1850-1875.
But this is a slightly different narrative to the all too familiar pattern of aggressive colonisation, which normally sees competing European nations battle it out for domination of land brutally taken from the indigenous people. Granted, the indigenous Mapuchans of this region did not get a choice in the matter and were probably non- too thrilled about their new German neighbors. What is different, is that the Germans were invited by the Chilean government. The newly independent Chilean government under the Presidency of Manuel Montt were increasingly worried about the threats of European intervention and indigenous rebellions in the un-colonised south. To remedy this, a German immigrant already living in Chile, Bernhard Phillipi had the bright idea of a state-led colonisation programme of Germans. His request to carry this out was initially denied, but his plans were approved in 1852 and he was sent to Germany to recruit Catholic families to settle in Southern Chile. This proved difficult, and Philippi actually only succeeded in enticing predominately Protestant settlers to Chile. A series of revolutions in 1848 in the German states had created many exiles, who were amongst the first to make the long and perilous journey across the Atlantic to a small slither of land attached to the edge of the New World.
Maybe they found some affinity for the weather, the rugged beauty of the region or solace from the political turbulence back in Europe, but these early German settlers remained in Chile and created their own distinct community. The majority of German immigrants who arrived in Chile were skilled artisans, farmers and merchants, and stamped their mark on their new home immediately with their industry, architecture, food, drink and religion.
The result is a strange hybrid of cultures. Of course, the inhabitants are Chilean and speak Spanish. But the area is overwhelmingly German in its appearance and culture. This is particularly true for the small town of Frutilliar, situated about 40 minutes North from Puerto Varas on Lake Llanquehue. Small wooden houses litter the town, besides many cafe’s selling the local specialty Kuchen, the German translation for cake. Frutilliar also contains a museum which was the residency of one of the earliest German families in the area. This huge estate, which includes not only beautiful gardens and streams, reveal the rural and isolated life these early German settlers had. The farmhouse in the garden contained an array of gardening tools that showed their efforts in taming and cultivating the wild Chilean land, while the house showed the simple domestic life, with simple furniture and old school photos.
In fact, the only real betrayal that we were indeed not in a small Bavarian village, was a view of Lake Orsono from a window on the top floor of the house. This could just about be sighted through the grey clouds; a stark juxtaposition and reminder that despite the strong German feel of the town, we were still in the rugged Southern Chilean landscape.
This German-ness is also evident in Puerto Varas, through the Churches. Due to the high numbers of Protestants who emigrated to Chile, there are several Lutheran churches throughout the city which define the rural skyline. Many of these churches today have a neglected and run- down feel, but in their heyday, they were probably the social hub of the town. Alongside the churches and the cuisine, remain German schools, a Weekly German newspaper, and a popular artisan beer names Kuntsmann. All the important things.
This clash of cultures was a welcome reminder of the diverse nature of Chilean history. Its long- lasting cultural effects on the Lakes region are striking, and the strong German heritage that exists today an impressive feat of the European settlers who flourished in this isolated yet beautiful land.