To better understand the Chilean Lakes Region in which we live & work, our reader must first take a step outwards and project into the surrounding world. We begin by establishing a frame of reference from that larger sphere.
Chile is a long, narrow country stretching along South America's western edge, boasting a jaunty Pacific coastline running over half the length of the continent. Santiago is the capital. It is a developing country with a population quoted at 17.8. The per capital income was US$21,714 in 2013 as compared with the average of US$38,660 for the highly developed albeit troubled countries of the OECD.
A pleasant charmingly reserved nation, proud of its accomplishments and nationalistic, it has a machismoistic Spanish speaking, family oriented culture. Chile is a wonderful, politically stable, agriculturally rich country that many immigrants have been happy to count as their adopted home.
Comprised mainly from those of European ancestry (89%) the Indigenous hold (10%) of the population and others mix into the final (1%). A predominantly Christian country where Roman Catholics hold sway with (67%), other Christian groups comprising (17%), the non-religious counting at (12%) and the balance (4%) are unidentified.
Multiparty representational democratic republic; the president is elected for a four year term of office.
A market oriented economy with strong financial institutions and a sound fiscal policy which has the strongest sovereign bond rating in Latin America; with a low debt to GDP ratio.
Major sectors of the country are industry which includes mining (especially copper) and agriculture which brings in over half of the nation’s wealth.
Our exploration of the topography starts by looking at the map below and locating the equator at 0° latitude and 70° longitude. Upon these coordinates we find ourselves at a point near the borders of Columbia and Brazil on the South American continent. Moving in a southerly direction we jump to the major line at 20° latitude and reverse to a range between the 17th and 18th degrees. Here we find the location of the northern most point of the Republic of Chile.
Chile is located in the midst of a highly seismic, volcanic region which has been dubbed the Pacific Ring of Fire. This ring is home to over 40 major countries. All countries that share borders here on the Pacific Rim live with the knowledge that mother nature can be a strong and unpredictable force to the contend with.
Yet with the right mindset and a few precautions the risks of living here are minimal.
A sampling of countries in The Pacific Ring of Fire include the following: Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, The United States, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, The Philippines, Russia, Singapore & Taiwan.
Situated on the Western or Pacific Coast of South America, the Republic of Chile is bordered by Peru in the North and Bolivia in the North-East corner. Argentina which is to the East separates the two countries with a towering snow-capped mountain range called the Andes. The far south ends the country at Cape Horn. But looking south beyond the Horn we can see the South Shetland Islands and we acknowledge a Chilean claim stake in parts of Antarctica.
Being over 3,000 miles (4828 km) long (greater than the distance from New York to San Francisco) the Republic is never much more than 200 miles (321 km) wide at any point. The country’s climate comprises a wide range of weather conditions across a long geographic scale. Extending itself across 39° degrees of latitude makes writing generalizations about Chile difficult.
Having a flip flop of seasons from those of the Northern Hemisphere proves to be good for both the tourist trade and export of agriculture. With high summer crops ripe in February at a time when parts of North America & Europe are steeped in snow has given Chile new markets to provide for export currencies.
There are four seasons here in most of the country. Summer from (December to February), autumn (March to May), winter (June to August), and spring from (September to November).On a synoptic, the most important factors that control the climate inside the country are the Pacific Anticyclone, the southern circumpolar low pressure area, the cold Humboldt current, the Chilean Coastal Range and the Andes Mountain Range.
It has been noted that the country is distinguished by five natural (as opposed to administrative) regions, each of these having its own distinctive characteristics in regards to climate, temperature, predominant vegetation, flora & fauna. According to the Köppen climatological system, Chile is host to at least seven major climatic subtypes.
These range from desert in the north, to alpine tundra and glaciers in the east - southeast; humid subtropical conditions on Easter Island and Oceanic in the south. The Mediterranean climate enjoyed by all of the major population centers of Central Chile is one of only five similar to it in the world.
Although the country can be broken down into further sub-sets of climate we are sticking to a basic division of just five. Within this break down we should take note that each segment is separated by a river. These major five natural divisions’ best simplify explanations about the country for our present purposes. Each one of these zones is displayed on the following map and is explained in overview on the upcoming table.
NATURAL REGIONS OF CHILE
In previous sections we have oriented ourselves to the northern border. Having introduced the five natural regions we now turn our attention to locate the southernmost boundary of the country.
Latitude 56° finds us at Cape Horn and the internationally recognized tip of the country. But if Chilean claims on the Antarctic are counted as well then the country would extend much further and onwards to the South Pole.
Having ventured south we are now in the coldest parts of the country. This Austral Zone borders the Temperate Oceanic area and also encompasses both the Magellanic and Sub Polar Oceanic areas. For today we will leave out details regarding the frigid sub continental Antarctic region beyond Cape Horn. But rather pick up our discussion with thoughts of the cold of this region.
It is from this freezing area that the seawaters via the Humboldt Current emit a very cold blast. This Pacific Ocean current extends out into the sea at a breadth of 1,000 km (620 miles) wide. Flowing northwards along the entirety of the coastline of the country it ultimately veers out to open sea near northern Peru.
The cold low saline waters are known to contain a large marine eco-system rich in nutrients. Providing for nearly twenty percent of the ocean’s fishing production, this is one of the world’s largest, most diverse and abundant fish stocks on planet earth. The Humboldt delivers a deep upwelling splash of cold that affects the weather patterns of the entirety of the country south to north. It adds a wet chill to the already brisk cold winter winds of the Magellanic winter.
Here the Southern Oceans of the Drake Passage can suffer icy cold and savage driving wind shear. It is an oceanic route that is normally affected by bad weather, where winds of more than 60 Knots, and waves of 10 to 12 meters (32-39 feet) in height are very common. This is the kind of water that sailing captains shun during the Chilean Arctic winters or the stormy weather days of any season.
The seas around the tip of the continent are known to experience floating icebergs. The bordering lands are home to perennial snow, ice sheets and ages old highland glaciers.
There’s a mix of evergreen & deciduous forests inland abounding with small lakes and wide rivers swimming with salmon & trout. These are the play and work grounds of many fresh water fishing outfitters, trekking guides, adventurers and preservationists alike.
A cross section of philanthropists, businessmen and modern day pioneers, live, frequent or have planted flags in these Patagonian lands. A handful of these folks including past presidents and captains of industry own large tracts of sparsely populated territory or undeveloped wilderness land.
There are many areas to which no roads have yet been built to pass thru…a place that internationally some refer to as “The Last Frontier”.
The Pacific coasts of the Austral South are a combination of numerous islands, channels, fjords, and inlets leading to moorland. With very strong winds blowing in from off of the coast, vegetation here whips and turns. Some days the ferocity of the wind can be so strong that the trees actually begin to lean over with the gale. As they grow in this manner they are shaped into twists and bends often referred to as “flag trees.”
Regular and intermittent showers keep both the air & land moist, whilst those fierce sea winds add an even further chill to the cold damp environment. Fog is frequent as there is no dry season here. The annual rainfall is between 4,000 mm (157in) in the west to 450mm (17.7 in) in the east. It is so cold on some days that snowfalls can occur even in summer.
The land being continual moist from the frequent rain and latitudinal cold hails an average annual temperature that varies from between 6°C (42.8°F) in the northern reaches to 3°C (37.4°F) in the southern most areas. It’s a very cool environment indeed.
Yet on warm sunny windless days Patagonia can be a comfortable place to hike, fish and camp or simply partake in the astounding beauty of the wilds.
As the Humbolt current moves further north into the Southern Zone it supplies the moisture that dumps months of heavy winter rain onto the broadleaf & mixed forests of the already lush green. The perpetual rain replenishes the groundwater and tops off the many glacial lakes. The picture is lush and green; everywhere you look verdant fields, tender ferns, rugged bamboo and a diverse understory of plant growth make up these temperate rain forests.
This large area rainforest borrows its name from the nearby coastal city of Valdivia, established in 1552. This region gets some of the heaviest winter rains in all of the country. Both the Andes and the coastal ranges are low here affecting the weather.
There is a chain of striking volcanic mountains inland. Many of them are either dormant or extinct, whilst on the other hand several of these volcanoes are the most active ones on the continent. Eruptions certainly are not predictable but the government provides regular scientific monitoring. Early warning systems are in place and as such fatalities in modern times are rather rare.
It is certainly ironic though that the volcanoes are what make the area so glamorously attractive. They appear as striking white capped mountains towering majestically above the tree line. These “volcans” are an impressive back drop to the many glistening blue waters of the alpine lakes that define the area. It’s a very other world reality that most people living here wouldn’t trade for anything.
With such an outstanding volcanic presence there is also a correspondingly high amount of geothermal activity underground. Many subterranean hot spots heat ground water that comes into contact with the thermal gradient. The outcome has been the formation of a large number of natural hot springs.
These pools of naturally heated water are usually full of certain volcanic minerals (sulfur for example) and as such are heavily sought after for their use as elixirs of health. People owning the properties on which these rare springs have been located often turn them into private business ventures. Open to the public for a fee there are many in the area to choose from. Styles vary from rustic outdoor pot holes to fancy lined pools some even offering food service, overnight accommodation and your choice of spa treatments to suit.
There is a dry season here. During the height of summer tourists from all over Santiago and Argentina descend on rural areas in the zone to enjoy the warm daytime sun of the beaches and the cool evening forests of the mountain. As such these rural lakeside communities swell with both families and young partygoers, renting hotels, houses, apartments, cabins and campsites.
Year after year these tourist towns swell in number during the high season. The area restaurants, cafes and streets are filled to overflowing. The parking is aggravatingly tight but the energy and spiritedness in town is fun and uplifting. Revelers come to enjoy themselves and they need plenty of places to eat, drink and sleep. So the local entrepreneurs grab their opportunity to profit from this short lived influx of seasonal patrons seeking services.
Some weeks there are so many out-of-town guests, that all of the B & B’s and area hotels are completely overrun. During those peak days private home owners often take up the call for more housing. They often make an interesting sight standing at the side of busy roads holding out makeshift signs willing to let out their homes for the night.
Temperatures average in the 70’s Fahrenheit (24°C). The summer days generally get into the low 80’s (27°C) cooling down rapidly at night due to the heavily treed highland environment. Then winter days range in the 40’s (7°C) and 50’s (12°C) with a few days in the 60’s (15°C) and some nights getting as low as 32 degrees freezing (0°C).
Over the course of a year, the temperature typically varies from 3°C (37°F) to 26°C (78°F) and is rarely below -1°C (30°F) or above 30°C (86°F). The average rainfall runs more or less 140 cm (55 in) per annum.
Three Other Regions of Chile
Below I will cover just in passing the three remaining natural regions of Chile. This is because the focus of my attention is on Southern Chile. In this manner I have left more room to discuss specifics of the South and Lakes Region where our home base is.
North of the Bio-Bio River the trees and plants begin to change into matorral vegetation; ranging from forests to scrub and grasslands. The weather is typically characterized by a temperate Mediterranean climate, with mild, wet winters and hot dry summers. It is one of the world's five Mediterranean climate regions, which are all located in the middle latitudes on the west coast of continents. These include the Mediterranean Basin, the region of lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea ,the California chaparral and woodlands eco-region near Santa Barbara, and Baja California, the Cape Province of South Africa, and the southwestern corner of Australia.
Summers are typically hot in low-lying inland locations but can be cool near the sea due to the cool waters. Winters are typically mild to cool in low-lying locations but can be cold in inland and higher locations.
Central is Chile's main agricultural region, and the region is also subject to extensive grazing, logging, and urbanization. Of Chile's ecoregions, the Matorral is the least protected by national parks and preserves.
The temperature here warms significantly over the southern regions due to the increase in longitude and the weather. This is the most densely populated area with the capital city of Santiago holding over half of the country’s residents. This is also where the most fertile ground and essential bread basket of the country is located.
Once the Acongagua River is crossed this begins the Near North and the semi-arid line of the country appears. It begins with the merging of the Andes and the coastal mountain range. There are transverse valleys which run east to west which become the defining feature of the region.
In the Far North the desert is in full bloom so to speak. Now we begin to experience the ocean side cliffs and altitude climb of the coastal range with peaks of over 2000m (6561 ft). This area has Chile’s highest mountains an also host the Altiplano and Puna high plateaus.
Most of the region is covered by the Atacama Desert and has a dry arid climate.
Southern Chile’s Lakes District
Climate & Temperature
So now that we have clearly mapped out the natural zones of the country, we can more easily understand the general climatic nature of Southern Chile and its own particular biome.
To review, it’s a temperate area with warm spring-like weather for almost half of the year, with two months of warm sunny summer, a couple of weeks for transitional periods between the seasons and then three or four months of rainy wet cold winter, intermittent sunny cool but comfortable days.
Temperatures average in the 70’s Fahrenheit (24°C). The summer days generally are in the low 80’s (27°C) cooling down rapidly at night due to the moderating impact of the cooling highland tree cover. Then come the winter days ranging in the 40’s (7°C) and 50’s (12°C) with some nights getting as low as 32 degrees freezing (0°C).
It’s a joyfully easy winter comparatively for those of us coming from blizzard prone cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, Stockholm or Moscow. But weather that folks moving from most parts of California and warm weather cities such as Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami or New Mexico might find uncomfortable to live in outside of the spring and summer seasons.
The coastal range is lower than further north with no peak over 1,500 meters (4,921 feet). There are features here in the Andes from the last glacial maximum and the intermediate depression is home to glacial moraines and lakes.
Here the climate is temperate oceanic consisting of mixed forests with dense canopies of tall mature trees and a shade tolerant forest floor. The understory is characterized by a dense mix of mosses and ferns, interspersed with patches of bamboo. Dominated mostly by evergreens but with a mix of deciduous and conifer trees also being common. This forested thicket shares the name of its closest coastal city, Valdivia.
These Valdivian & Magellanic (Austral South) sites are the only temperate rain forests in South America. They are also one of a small number of such woodlands on the planet. Put together they are the second largest in the world, after the Pacific grove of North America (which stretches from Alaska to northern California).
Some sections still consist of old-growth trees, and in all seasons, but especially in the spring and summer, there are plenty of colorful wildflowers & beautiful flowering trees. Fully half of the species of woody plants are endemic to this eco-region but share many plant families with their sister rainforests in New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia.
A word about water… without the heavy rain that falls during wintertime the brimming rivers, alpine lakes and lush green vegetation that is the great attraction of summertime tourists would not exist. There is no other region of the country that shares the ultimate beauty and water security of the area.
If people are looking to duplicate the topography of Southern Chile in a warmer region of the country you will find that such a comparable place does not exist. To gain drier weather systems and warmer temperatures you will have to make tradeoffs on the climate.
Either that or you will need to consider taking up the lifestyle of a snowbird as many here have already done. By spending only the pleasant weather months here, the cold rainy seasons are passed elsewhere (such as North America). In this way some expats in the zone have found a way to have essentially the “best of both worlds.”
Agriculture & Lumber
The pastures in the area are well suited for raising cattle. Milk, butter and cheese are important products of this region. All kinds of berries grow in the area, some of which are exported, and freshwater farming of various species of trout and salmon has developed. Trained aqua-culturists take advantage of the abundant supply of clear running water of the zone.
It’s too cool here for major wine vineyards (located mostly in the Central Valley) and commercial melon or citrus doesn’t do well in this temperature being heat lovers. But crops of potato, blueberry, and raspberry or apple production are well represented. The region is known as “the Cereal Granary” of Chile with major crops of oats and wheat having been planted.
Grass grows well here and hay produces several cuttings available to over winter cows and horses. Bee hives are often delivered from northern apiaries and hosted thru the summer months for honey harvesting in autumn. The lumber industry is also important for both the export of building materials and cellulose for the paper market.
The lakes in this region are remarkably beautiful. The snow-covered Andes form a constant backdrop to vistas of clear blue. The area is well known for its glistening glacial lakes, beaches, rushing rivers with popular white water raft ways, waterfalls, hot springs and national parks for hiking. There are lots of opportunities for enjoying activities in the great outdoors. As such all of these features are a major attracting force for those interested in owning a second home or resettling into the area here.
The region is relatively thinly settled with the three largest cities having the following populations, Temuco (238,000), Osorno (148,000) and Valdivia with (133,000). Smaller municipalities range in size from a few thousand upwards to a few tens of thousands. Villages, pueblos and settlements with few people come under the governmental auspices of their nearest municipality and are counted as part of the outlying community. Towns publish both the core population and outlying area census…but often guidebooks don’t know to make these distinctions.
Populations of the major tourist towns of Panguipulli, Pucon, Puerta Varas and Villarrica publish head count figures of between 15 to 40 thousand respectively. Summertime “floating populations” can double or quadruple these figures, when an influx of high season tourist and summer holiday inhabitants descend.
The population density of much of the area is quoted as 22 people per kilometer, but it could be much less depending on the measuring parameter used.
For the purpose of comparison Pucon, Chile quotes 22,000 inhabitants; Kalispell, Montana 20,972 and South Lake Tahoe, California weighs in at 21,400. Some in country figures show the area at a population density of between 15 to 30 people per square kilometer (39-78 per sq. mile) whilst some international calculations quote 24 per kilometer or 56 people per square mile.
The area has good basic infrastructure with stable electricity supplies, treated municipal water, asphalt on highways and major roads. Secondary roads (if public) are often just gravel but with drainage pipe installations and are semi-regularly maintained by the local public works crews.
If you are from small town USA you won’t be alarmed since it is still somewhat common to have a few gravel roads there. But, if you are from a major city in any Northern Hemisphere county and only accustomed to first world infrastructure, this may be irksome to you and many foreigners have had difficulty adjusting to this.
Bus transportation in major towns of 10,000 and up is very good with regularly scheduled service. Stations are safe, clean, well lit and regularly patrolled by police. Freight and packages can be shipped and received by bus and companies have regularly staffed service desks keeping to their published hours of operation.
Most outlying communities have mini-bus transport that runs at least a few days per week or more. Bus is the standard mode of transport in the country and rural access is especially important to aid many poorer citizens without cars. Taking these secondary line routes can be an informative and pleasant way to see the non-touristic nature of the smaller communities and see where and how our hardy country folk live.
There is access within several hours (depending on where you live) to major malls, big box stores and higher end goods and services of the larger population centers.
Very small pueblos will often not have many varieties or choices of goods and due to the small size have a limited quantity of stock. But none the less they will always have basic supplies such as paper products, milk, water, soda, a few bottles of hard liquor, plenty of wine & pisco brandy, bread, chips, veggies in season, a few deli meats, honey, cigarettes and such.
Major public and private hospitals are found in the cities of Temuco, Valdivia and Osorno. Offering birthing services, surgeries, routine medical treatments and most typical outpatient needs. All of our hospitals provide at least basic quality level attention, being hygienic and reasonably priced. The country has multiple insurance options otherwise cash payments are always accepted.
All large to mid-sized towns will have at least a few doctors in private practice, a small public hospital or mid-sized clinic. Even small communities usually have at least an emergency health aid station sometimes staffed as a type of Red Cross outfit with rotating area on call doctors or nuns with basic medical training attending.
When seeking specialist practitioners most people would choose to travel to the capital city of Santiago (10 hours by bus) to pursue appointments with the country’s best doctors. Areas of medicine where the capital offers the better physicians are oncology, crisis intervention psychiatry, drug rehabilitation, geriatric medicine and burn trauma treatment & recovery.
National commercial airports are found in the cities of Temuco, Valdivia and Osorno.
Generally in the rural areas there are no hard lines and cellular communications dominate for both phone and internet traffic. The main providers are Movistar, Entel and Claro, although others are breaking into the market. Service can be unreliable and expensive compared to that of major developed countries.
There are several skiing /snowboarding concessions open during the winter months. A few have reputations for not having good clearance of the roads to the slopes…they are still fun but don’t expect Aspen Colorado level services.
In general local nationals don’t speak much English. The people that do will be those from the higher socio-economic classes that have been educated in the better schools of the capital. Therefore most usually no one at banks, malls, supermarkets or gas stations will be able to speak English beyond a few simple words.
Though in summer one can often find English speaking college students from Santiago working as wait staff in some of the better hotels, restaurants and tourist service office of Pucon.
Plan to travel to a large provincial city hospital or Santiago for major medical or legal consultation if you need to explain something complex. Interpreters can often be hired through agencies in the city.
Via networking you can often find other English speaking people in your area that may be willing to assist you with language services. Be gracious, thank people for their help and always make sure to compensate them.
Public schools are not of the same standard as those of the United States, Europe or Australia.
Better teachers mainly work at private institutions. Of course the best schools are mainly in Santiago or other major cities. Population centers of 15,000 or more may offer alternatives such as Catholic or German based instruction which is well thought of.
Outside of the three major cities in this zone (Osorno, Temuco &Valdivia) private schools choices are available in the towns of Pucon, Puerta Varas & Villarica. Home school is a legally recognized option.
If, you are looking for schools with either partial or complete English language based instruction, there are a number of choices in Santiago. These were originally set up for the children of diplomats or foreign expatriates.
There is one school that grants a US high school diploma. Other degrees offered are British Form School or International Baccalaureate degree according to their accreditation.
Cost of Living
Cost of living data can be found below for Santiago Chile & major cities.
The area has good prospects for those of you wanting to own a property where you can utilize alternative energy systems. Being in the foothills of the Andes there are plenty of highlands with rolling slopes, rangy hillocks and other upland ground with rising and falling elevations. These are the sorts of hillsides that sport at least a small stream of running water.
With enough elevation, flow gradient and headwater pressure a home could expect to operate a refrigerator, computer and desk lamp every day in which a water power system was operable.
Solar power installations are not cheap but it is another choice for energy. Utilizing panels specially designed to function well on cloudy days a system designed to charge industrial sized batteries on sunny day overages functions relatively well. And adding in a back-up generator can make it possible for someone to go the mile during the weeks of winter rain and live a simple life that is completely off-grid. There are a growing number of companies selling both alternative energy equipment and services.
The property market in Chile is rather too complicated to explain in just simple terms, but I will touch on the major points.
Primarily there is no Multiple Listing Service (MLS), and brokers generally do not cooperate cross-agency wise. Banks do not offer mortgage loans to foreign tourists wishing to purchase real estate. The banks historically are very risk averse and their policies protect against hot money inflows and unproven players in the financing markets.
Prices vary by region, area and sector. If you see cheap property for sale in the desert that doesn’t mean you can hope to find a comparably sized parcel and price tag in the highly sought after 2nd home market of the Lakes Region.
Chile is now one of if not the most expensive country in Latin America. You cannot expect to come here any longer and buy out the place with a few hundred thousand US dollars. In the center of Pucon $100,000 US won’t buy you a castle. Depending on the neighborhood you could probably find a one acre lot with a beautiful view of the lake, utilities, and a great close to down town location.
But that’s just the price of the land. Putting a modest 1,000 square foot (100m) Chilean home on the lot will add another $100,000 US to the price. Fifty million pesos ($100,000 US) is also about the general starting price for new office space in downtown Villarrica or gets you in the door to see most modest condo apartments in the area.
Many North Americans come here looking for property and complain that back home they can get a lot more for their money, though buyers from California, Europe and Australia still find the pricing here to be competitive compared to what they are used to. You can get a more reasonably priced one acre lot on the outskirts of town in the 30,000 USD range and upwards. But to get the lower price tag you’ll have to trade on the location and quality of the view.
In many parts of the Lakes District you can expect to pay Southern Chile’s equivalent of other internationally known tourist towns of comparable size. Places such as Kalispell, Montana or South Lake Tahoe in California come to mind. As they say, the first three rules of real estate are location, location, location.
To put things in perspective here is a link that compares premium square meter pricing across twelve major real estate markets in Latin America.
That brings us to the end of our overview of Southern Chile and the beautiful Lakes Region.
Throughout this effort we have strived to build you a general but sturdy frame of reference about the country. This essay took a great amount of time to produce and is given freely.
This information is certainly not exhaustive but gives you a good start on your way to better understanding the country of Chile.