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South of the Bío-Bío River, Chile is transformed. The climate cools and becomes much more humid; dairy farms replace the vineyards; and lagoons, lakes, and emerald forests of ancient trees appear. The Andes lose altitude but more than make up for it in beauty, sprouting magnificent white-capped volcanoes. This is one of the most popular destinations in Chile, not only for its beauty, but also for the cultural and outdoor activities available, and its well-developed tourism infrastructure.

Only relatively recently did Chile manage to fully integrate the Lake District into the country. For some 350 years, the Mapuche Indians fiercely and successfully defended this land first against the Incas and later against the Spanish. Their influence spread into what is now Argentina, and only in the mid-1880s did Chile manage to subdue them. German-speaking settlers meanwhile had begun to clear land and fell timber for their characteristic shingled homes. Both ethnic groups have left their mark on the region through architecture, art, and food. In fact, German pastries have become so prevalent the German word for cake, küchen, has largely replaced the Spanish word pastel in Chilean usage.

Its natural wonders continue to provide the basis for the region's economy, harboring tourism, farming, salmon production, and forestry -- a mix tough to manage, to the detriment of its once nearly impenetrable forests. But the many national parks and preserves give visitors a chance to immerse themselves in virgin forest unique for its stands of umbrella-shaped araucaria and 1,000-year-old alerce trees.

Exploring the Region -- The Lake District stretches 350km (215 miles) south from the Bío-Bío to the Reloncavi Sound, where Chile's Central Valley sinks into the Pacific. The northern third around Temuco forms the Mapuche heartland; farther south, lakes, forests, and volcanoes combine into a fairy-tale landscape almost too perfect to be true. Resorts -- above all Pucón and Puerto Varas -- draw thousands of tourists in the summer months of January and February, but it also has its charms in autumn when the leaves turn red, and in winter, you can soothe your limbs after a day of skiing with a soak in the area's numerous hot springs. The region's charm lies in its picturesque villages, boat rides, adventure sports, beaches, and kilometer after kilometer of bumpy dirt roads that make for lovely drives. An excellent alternative to the toll highway is the Ruta Interlagos, a dirt road that interconnects the numerous protected areas and lakes from near Victoria down to Puerto Varas. Another great draw here is the proximity to the Argentine Lake District, where you'll find the gorgeously located towns of Bariloche and San Martín de los Andes. If you're planning on visiting both countries, it makes sense to cross the border in the Lake District, where Chile and Argentina are separated by a 1- to 2-day boat ride or several hours by road, year-round.