Chile road trips: exploring Sur Chico by car

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A little trepidation about driving oneself around South America would be understandable: a joy ride through much of Venezuela at the moment wouldn't be advisable for safety reasons, for example, and some of the continent's most spectacular scenery can be difficult to impossible to reach by car. Chile, on the other hand, offers a different road show altogether, especially its country-slicing, 1,494km 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. In the southern area known as Sur Chico, divided into the Chilean regions of Los Lagos, La Araucanía and Los Ríos, roads are excellent (and many that aren’t are being paved as we speak), so a bounty of beautiful joy rides taking in volcano-peppered national parks, postcard-perfect cerulean lakes and charming lakeside hamlets awaits your roadster.

Los Lagos (Lakes District) - 240km

Los Lagos is far and away the most drive-friendly in Sur Chico, with any number of routes on offer on well-maintained roads taking in one Ansel Adams-like view after another. Either by plane, road or ferry, you're likely to land in imminently skippable Puerto Montt, a good spot to get wheels and not much else. Head north to Puerto Varas, one of the most beautiful small towns in Chile, with its German architecture and dramatic setting on the shores of massive 860 sq km Lago Llanquihue, Chile's second largest. A newly paved road from Ensenada to Las Cascadas means you can now circumvent this iconic lake in its entirety, stopping in charming towns along the way like Puerto Octay and Frutillar or small beautiful volcanic black sand beaches. There are astounding views of one of Chile's most perfectly-conical volcanoes, the snow-capped Volcán Osorno, and you'll want to detour from Ensenada to Centro de Ski y Montaná Volcán Osorno for no other reason than the jaw-dropping views as you ascend the volcano through Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. Flanked by Osorno on one side, Volcán Calbuco on the other and Lake Llanquihue down below, the whole of the region is on offer from here and, with no public transportation otherwise other than for package tour buyers, you won't likely see it without your own wheels.

La Araucanía - 400km

Pick up a 4-wheel drive vehicle in Temuco – best for traversing the road through Parque Nacional Conguillío – and head east towards Melipeuco, the park's southern entrance. From there, a good gravel road heads north through this gorgeous park, where towering Volcán Llaima's grey-brown magma (it lasted erupted in 2008) has accumulated over the years and is to blame for the dramatic vistas and eerie lunarscape atmosphere, at its most picturesque, perhaps, in late April when the leaves are in full Autumn bloom. The park, created in 1950 primarily to preserve the Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree) and 608 sq km of alpine lakes, deep canyons and native forests, is one of Chile's best. Exit the park at the northern end to Curacautín and turn east towards Lonquimay, where the scenic alpine road is surrounded by a duo of overnight-worthy national parks (Tolhuaca and Malacahuello-Nalcas) in view of two more looming volcanoes: Tolhuaca and Lonquimay. Along this road, there are two great places to bed down for a night, the Swiss-Chilean Suizandina and the German-run Andenrose; both are fantastic bases for exploring both these parks on foot. Sufficiently volcanoed-out, head back west toward Hwy 5 and return to Temuco.

Related article: Insider tips: Chile

Los Ríos – 300km

Your best bet is to grab a car in Osorno, just over the regional border of Los Lagos. Head straight for Lago Ranco, one of Chile's less-visited lakes but also one of the region's most strikingly gorgeous - a glistening sapphire hideaway bound by lush mountains and dotted with verdant islands. It's possible to do a loop around, taking in dramatic lake views around the towns of Futrono and Lago Ranco, though it requires a manual on-demand barge crossing of the Río Bueno at Puerto Lapi and the road turns to rough dirt on the eastern side.  Once explored this tranquil lake's nooks and crannies, head back towards Hwy 5 and proceed north to Valdivia, an inviting city near the Pacific Coast steeped in German heritage and, as one might guess, beer! Some of Chile's best microbreweries are based in the area, including its biggest, Kunstmann. Park the car and settle in for some tasting.