When overseas travelers land in Chile for a Patagonia vacation, they probably don’t expect to be greeted by Germans, and they’re usually not. That said, there’s a palpable and positive presence in the cityscapes and dairyscapes of southern mainland Chile. In particular, they’ve left a visible imprint on cities and towns around scenic Lago Llanquihue, a glacial remnant lake just a short drive from the ferry port of Puerto Montt.
German colonization here started in the mid-19th century, but Puerto Montt has lost most of that heritage – even in the 1920s, US geographer Mark Jefferson wrote that “All this is exaggeration of the grossest sort…I found two persons who spoke no Spanish, but both were German-born. No street in the city has a German name, nor is German used on signs.” Today, though, many visitors prefer to stay in lakeside Puerto Varas, whose historic district includes numerous Germanic residences bearing the names of original inhabitants such as Gottschlich, Jupner, Kuschel, and Opitz. The steep-steepled Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón takes after the churches of Baden-Wurtemberg.
Only a short distance farther north, the town of Frutillar is more self-consciously Germanic – Middle-European houses face almost the entire lakeshore, and its hillside Museo Alemán is an open-air tribute to the colonization process. The smaller town of Puerto Octay, to the northwest, is similar but more rustic.
One major contribution that’s spread beyond the nucleus of German colonization is the near universality of kuchen – baked pastries and other sweets with fresh fruit (“Frutillar” means “strawberry field” in Spanish) – that are almost universal in Chile. Arguably, though, they’re best and most abundant in this part of northern Patagonia – widely referred to as the “lakes district” – and nobody with a sweet tooth should miss out on them.