Insider tips for a road trip south to Chile’s ‘Sur Chico’

Eat fresh seafood among friendly sea lions and stay in traditional Mapuche accommodation, plus more good ideas to accompany Lonely Planet’s new guide.  

For those who want a roadtrip through the best of South American scenery with both cutting-edge infrastructure and off-roads adventure – you can’t beat Chile.
But don’t just take our word for it – see what the world’s seminal travel guide has to say about it.
After listing some of the hard-to-reach or unsafe areas in other corners of the continent, Lonely Planet writer Kevin Raub says:
“Chile, on the other hand, offers a different road show altogether, especially its country-slicing, 1,494km [929 mi] stretch of Pan American Highway (Hwy 5) from La Serena to Puerto Montt, which is on par with any freeway in North America or Europe.”
Raub’s latest article on Chile is a guide to driving the part of the country that locals call Sur Chico (“Little South”) – the verdant area of lakes, rainforest, volcanoes and rivers between Chile’s Central Valley and Patagonia.
The seasoned Chile veterans here at ThisisChile liked Raub’s article so much, we decided to chip in with our own suggestions for the Lonely Planet route through Sur Chico.
Los Lagos
The guide begins with what Lonely Planet describes as “far and away the most drive-friendly” area of Sur Chico: the Lakes Region.
After hiring a car in Puerto Montt it suggests you bear north to “one of the most beautiful small towns in Chile:” Puerto Varas.
We agree with Raub’s call on Puerto Varas, but before pushing on from Osorno we recommend you visit the ancestral lands of the Mapuche and Huilliche people in the coastal region west of Osorno for a chance to stay with local families and learn about indigenous traditions.
The article then suggests you circumnavigate the spectacular Lake Llanquihue, “stopping in charming towns along the way like Puerto Octay and Frutillar or small beautiful volcanic black sand beaches.”
Our tip: time your visit to Frutillar to coincide with a musical performance at the unforgettable Theater of the Lake.
La Araucanía
To take on the Andean peaks, lava flows and lush national parks of the Araucanía Region, Raub recommends picking up a four-wheel drive vehicle in Temuco.
While there, we strongly suggest a pitstop at the Temuco market, to stock up on the best of the region’s fresh produce – homemade cheeses, traditional spices, tea, honey and seafood – for the trip ahead.
The article then says to take on the “gorgeous” Parque Nacional Conguillío, with its “dramatic vistas and eerie lunarscape atmosphere,” caused by recent eruptions of the “towering Volcán Llaima.”
After Conguillío, we’d push on to the picturesque Laguna Icalma, a beautiful little lake perched high in the Andes and ringed by beaches you’re sure to have to yourself.
Los Ríos
Lonely Planet says to get a car in Osorno, head straight for Lago Ranco, and loop around the  “strikingly gorgeous” lake, taking in its “verdant islands” and the “lush mountains” that surround it.
We say: it’s not called “Los Ríos” (the rivers) for nothing – and this area draws white water rafters and kayakers from around the world. For a more serene alternative, fishing for trout and salmon is a great way to experience the natural beauty of this area.
Next, a trip to the port of Valdivia is a must while in this neck of the woods, and Raub doesn’t steer you in the wrong direction when he suggests sampling its famed boutique beers.
Another charm of this German heritage city is its seafood market, where the areas fishing fleet brings in its daily bounty. We’d say to head to the market for an a taste of the ocean, and an up close encounter with the market’s resident sea lions.
For more information, check out the Lonely Planet article.