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Foundations of Chile: The Chilean Lake District

ARAUCANÍA AND LOS LAGOS – Chile is a country that spans 4,270 km from its northern desert to its southern glaciers. As a result, it is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna with 30,000 species endemic to the country. From thriving grasslands to the world’s driest desert and thick evergreen forests, Chile’s rich biodiversity has laid down the foundation for its unique culture and traditions.

The evergreen and temperate forests of the Araucanía and Los Lagos regions in Chile are considered among the most important ecoregions in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In recent years they have become the focus of urgent conservation efforts as the impact of climate change and human activity continue to threaten the ecosystem and its flora and fauna. The south of Chile also boasts an array of different traditions and cultures, from the indigenous Mapuche people to the German settlers, this area of Chile has an interesting history to tell.

The Temperate Rainforest

As Chile stretches further south away from the scorching Atacama desert, the temperature cools and the rain returns. The Pacific Coast of southern Chile is a network of valleys and rolling hills, with large stretches of evergreen forests. Due to the strong winds from the polar front, this region of Chile has a much wetter climate, with high levels of rainfall most of the year and an average temperature of 4℃ to 12℃. Consequently, the areas of Valdivia and Chiloé are covered with one of Chile’s most treasured ecosystems; the temperate rainforests. Stretching across Chile and into parts of Argentina, the temperate rainforests are a hub of native Chilean wildlife.

Volcanoes and Lakes

The Chilean Lake District is perhaps most famous for the spectacular array of impressive volcanoes and lakes. There are 16 major lakes across Araucanía and Los Lagos, and many more smaller lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. Surrounding Lake Llaniqhue, the largest lake in the Los Lagos region at 860 km2, six monstrous volcanoes dominate the landscape, the largest of which is Villarica at 2,847 m (9,341 ft). Villarica is still considered active, although it has not erupted since 1971, and is one of only five volcanoes worldwide known to have an active lava lake in its crater. The lakeside beaches of the area all have dark sand made from ancient lava that has been ground down over many years into fine sand. The towns that surround Lake Llaniqhue, such as Puerto Varas, have a strong Mapuche community, who believe that when the Volcanoes erupt it is the bad spirits escaping from their volcanic prison.

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Foundations of Chile: The Atacama Desert

Flora and Fauna

Temperate rainforests are found in limited areas around the globe, mostly in coastal areas where there is a high level of atmospheric moisture, such as New Zealand, making them important areas for endemic flora and fauna. A total of 576 native plant species have been recorded in the area, and more than half the woody plants found in the Valdivian temperate rainforests in Chile are endemic. At least 64 bird species have been recorded in the area, all of which are dependent on the wetlands for their survival, and the two species of Chilean deer are also found in the Lake District; the small pudú and the huemul deer, of which only an estimated 2000 individuals now survive.

In recent years, these areas have come under increasing threat due to the effects of climate change and human activity. Certain bird species have suffered due to glacial action and deforestation for farmland. The creation of large plantations also negatively affects biodiversity as the loss of certain species of plants results in food and habitat shortages for certain birds and mammals. The temperate rainforests are now largely protected by the National Emergency Office of the Ministry of Interior and Public Security (aka ONEMI) through the creation of reserves such as Pumalin and Bernardo O’Higgins National Parks.

The Settlers from Across the Sea

Traveling to the southern towns of Osorno, Valdivia, and Llaniqhue, tourists may be surprised to see traditional German architecture and shops filled with kuchen (German-style cake). During the later parts of the 19th century, some 6,000 German immigrants arrived in Southern Chile as part of a state colonization scheme. They brought their skills as farmers and merchants to the area, and are largely responsible for the farming industry which now exists in the south. The impressive German architecture and the traditional cuisines of Kuntsmann Beer, beef, cheese, and kuchen, are a celebrated part of the culture of this area.

The Mapuche: Over 2,000 Years and Counting

The southern regions of Chile and the Chilean Lake District are, of course, also the lands of the indigenous Mapuche people, who have lived in these areas for well over 2,000 years. Many Mapuche communities still live in these areas. In their native language of Mapudungun, “Mapuche” means “people of the earth,” and many of their traditions, practices, and beliefs, are centered around the natural world. The Mapuche also have great skill with textiles, and their elaborate woven ponchos and blankets can be found in abundance in these areas of Chile.

The Chilean Lake District is one of the most beautiful areas of the country and a popular destination for bird-lovers and adventurers. These lands hold the origins of Chile’s German history and its famous beef and cheese industry, as well as the ancestry of the indigenous Mapuche people and their native traditions. With its unique ecosystem and colonial history, this region is an important pillar of Chilean heritage and the foundation of many of its cultural traditions.

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