Home sweet home in southern Chile: Following the trail of German immigrants

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When we were planning our trail through southern Chile into Patagonia, we found out that along the way we would pass through Chile’s Lake District, a region that was primarily settled by Germans and still boasts a huge German influence.  When I read this, my interest was immediately sparked. After all, the former East German First Lady Margot Honecker resides in Santiago, but just how ‘German’ would the Lake District be? Would there be blond-haired, blue-eyed children running around everywhere, and women in traditional German outfits serving big frothy steins of Hefeweizen in rustic wooden cabins? I never realized that chocolate and cake were something so typical for Germany, but we heard that there would be lots of exactly these two things. Since I haven’t been to Germany in almost two years, I was excited for this sweet little slice of ‘home’ in Chile.

german style house frutillar
German Style House Frutillar

Our first stop in the Lake District was Puerto Varas, which we found described on Wikipedia as a ‘historical treasure of strong German features, with houses that have been declared cultural heritage, including the Sacred Heart Church, the Kuschel House, the German House, the Schwerter House and the Niklitschek House.

puerto varas deutscher verein
The Deutscher Verein (German Club) in Puerto Varas

As soon as we arrived, I could feel the German-ness of the town all around me. I first noticed that the small wooden cabin type houses similar to those found in Bavaria were mixed in with the cement block structures typical in Chile. Puerto Varas is also situated on a lake, which actually reminded me of the Wolfgangsee in Austria, and to me, Puerto Varas resembles St Gilgen, a little village on that lake.

kunstmann bier chile
Kunstmann: German-style Chilean beer

Germans have been living in this part of Chile since the mid-19th century when the Chilean government killed two birds with one stone by inviting over my ancestors, who were undergoing a fairly serious revolution at the time, and handing out free land that the government was desperate to develop.

German signs in Chile
Signs for german food in Valdivia

We never learned about this mass exodus at school, but between 30,000 and 40,000 Germans settled in Chile at the time, crossing the ocean for weeks heading toward an unknown future.

Although today there is less blonde hair and only very few hints of German remaining in the language, German names of the original settlers can be found on plaques on the city’s grand buildings and on gravestones in the city cemetery: Beck, Bittner, Hoffmann, Gebauer, Klenner, Kuschel, Lückeheide, Minte, Mittesteiner, Müller, Nettig, Schminke, Schwabe, Schwalz, Strauch, Tampe, Vyhmeister, Von Bischoffshausen, among others.

hotel frau holle frutillar
Hotel Frau Holle, Frutillar

The only German I heard was from other German tourists, but there is one word that has truly stood the test of time: Kuchen, German for cake. Chileans have other words for cake, like torta or pastel, but they use the word ‘kuchen’ specifically for their most decadent, gorgeous cakes, which can be found in every café on every street in the Lake District. I was very happy to discover that this ‘kuchen’ is exactly like home, from multi-layered chocolate cakes to the flat cheesecakes piled high with glazed fresh fruits.

german fruit cake valdivia
German fruit cake in Valdivia

Still, I was not entirely satisfied, partially because of wild expectations I had after reading an article by this Chicago Tribune journalist who came here 25 years ago still found places like Fritsch`s hardware, the Shulz grocery, the Holck bakery, the Roller restaurant, the Gutenberg bookstore, Vyhmeister`s supermarket and Herr Streichholz`s unisex salon, which all seem to have disappeared since.

frutillar kuchenladen
Kuchenladen (cake shop) in Frutillar

Our hostel owner told us all about a nearby town called Fruitillar, which is smaller and ‘even more German’ than Puerto Varas, he assured us.

puppenhaus frutillar
Puppenhaus (the Doll House) Frutillar

Though fairly lackluster, Frutillar truly could have been a town in Southern Germany. The main street, set on a beautiful volcanic lake, is completely lined with the wooden type of houses you find in many villages in Bavaria and lots of signs in German advertising the ‘Frau Holle Hotel’ (Mother Holle, a famous figure from a Brother Grimm fairytale), das Puppenhaus (Doll House) or das Kuchenhaus (Cake House).

I marveled at the kuchenes (Chileans have added their own plural ‘es’ to the German word, very cute) that all looked as if my grandma herself had made them. There is even a German Colonial museum with buildings furniture and machinery dating back to the second and third generation immigrants who quickly opened crop fields and incorporated and established their traditional German foods in the national market.

Germans in Chile
German style houses and clocks in Chile

Even though the village is tiny, it makes for an enjoyable half-day trip, which consists entirely of coffee and kuchen. You could easily be transported from Chile to Germany, unless you look across Lake Llanquihue, where volcano Osorno sits, which would remind you that you are nowhere near Germany. Sadly the weather didn’t cooperate during our visit and we didn’t even see the base of this volcano ourselves.

Germany in Chile
Fondue and Cake in Chile

A few days later, we were on the way over to Bariloche, Argentina, just a quick five-hour drive up and over the Andes mountains, wondering if as many Germans had settled in Argentina’s part of the Lake District. Would there still be cake? Would be able to still go for our afternoon coffee and kuchen, which had become a daily habit by then?

coffee and cake in bariloche
Typical afternoon snack: Coffee and Cake in Bariloche
bariloche cathedral
Bariloche Cathedral

We quickly learned that the Germans had been just as fond of the Argentinean side of the Lake District as the Chilean side. A town surrounded by massive mountains and sparkling blue lakes, it didn’t surprise me that German emigrants felt at home in the region. Before we even saw any signs of Kuchen though, we spotted the tower of the neogothic church jutting out from skyline of the city – a church that could be found anywhere in Germany.
However, a second wave of immigration in Bariloche’s history is a bit darker than in Chile. Many of the Germans who headed here were escaping prison sentences in Germany, or worse. Several Nazi leaders fled Germany for Bariloche after World War II, avoiding the war trials happening in post-war Germany. They seem to have escaped their reputations for the most part, here in Bariloche. Erich Priebke, one of Hitler’s captains, who was responsible for the mass execution of 335 Italians in 1944, became the respected director of the German School of Bariloche and living as a free man in Argentina for fifty years until he finally was extradited in 1990.

valdivia fire truck
Fire truck in German in Valdivia, Chile

Today, Bariloche felt just as German / Swiss / Austrian as the towns in Southern Chile, with several German-style breweries and brewery tours, so much ‘kuchen’ (though Argentines use the Spanish words for this) and most notably, chocolate. Bariloche is so famous for its chocolate, this year the city won the award for the largest Easter egg in history – over 4 tons of chocolate. Although I have no idea of the final count on how many pieces of cake I managed to eat in the Lake District, let’s just say I am certain that I made up for the two years since I have been in Germany!

chocolate in frutillar
Chocolates for sale in Frutillar

Beer, chocolate and cake are some of my country’s great exports, but overall I felt like the German influence here was a bit superficial and overhyped. I was expecting our famous breads, not the many varieties of white, processed rolls, and where were the savory dishes like Spaetzle or Bratwurst? Especially in Argentina, the Italian influence, both culturally and gastronomically, is so much more prevalent: the hand gestures, the pasta and pizza dominating the restaurant scene, and the familiar tones and rhythms of Italian in their Spanish.

bariloche cakes
Cake in Bariloche

Nonetheless, it was interesting to follow in the footsteps of those Germans who had set out in search of a better life over one hundred years ago, and, with exception of Christmas markets in England and Chicago, I felt more at home here than anywhere outside of Germany.

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Tags : barilochechile


  1. Great Post. I was kinda aware that there were Germans in the southern part of South America, but not anything like what you have discovered. This destination has now been moved way up on the list of future trips as I also can relate to everything German.

    I’m second generation German/American, as my fathers side immigrated from Northern Germany and my mothers side immigrated from the Ukraine (German farmers). My mother only spoke German until the age of ten, living on a farm in South Dakota. Half the town I grew up in, in Lodi California, was German.

    I fix bratwurst mit krout quite often and have even fixed Spaetzle a few times and love Schnitzel. My grandma and mom used to bake Kuchen all the time. I cook, but I don’t bake so I have to rely on my aunts for my Kuchen fix. The Kuchen I’m familiar with is more of a custard pie with fruit. Just like the Borscht my mom made was more of a vegetable soup, without beets. As time passes, I suspect that ‘passed down recipes’ get lost in translation.

    At any rate, I liked this post and look forward to visiting that part of the world. I’ve already crisscrossed Germany (the mother land) several times and feel really at home there, even though I can’t speak very much German.

    1. Hi Steve, I didn’t know you were 2nd generation German-American! Has your mom taught you German when you were a kid? The kuchen you mention (custard pie with fruit) is actually a really popular homemade cake in Germany 🙂

    1. Pauline – I only knew very little about that, when we got to Chile. Seeing German firetrucks and kuchen and all that was so surprising! The cuckoo clocks are such an old-fashioned German thing, I don’t think my generation still has them in their houses… at least no one I know 😉

    1. Now that I think about it I would almost say that the region reminded me even more of the Upper Austrian lake district than Germany! Some parts of Southern Germany look like the places in Chile’s lake district, but I think overall it resembles Austria a bit more?!

  2. I’m German and spent January and February in Puerto Varas and felt quite at home.

    As to the stuff you were missing:
    In the Jumbo supermarket in Puerto Varas, you can find a variety of real German bread made of sourdough and Bratwurst, too. In Puerto Montt, there’s a huge German Aisle in the Jumbo supermarket. You can get everything German from Schwartau Extra to Erdinger Weißbier.

    Did you try a “Completo Dinamico”? It’s with Sauerkraut and if you’re lucky, you can even get it in Santiago.

    I also laughed my ass off at “Kuchenes”. So sweet! (-;
    Florian recently posted..Wildes Wochenende am Titicaca See mit dem Abenteuerhund!

    1. Florian, you are right about the Jumbo! I should have at least mentioned it but we were so used to them from Santiago by the time we got to the Lake District. I was so happy when we arrived in Santiago just before Christmas and I spotted all the German Christmas goodies at the Jumbo – AMAZING!! 🙂

  3. Kuchenes, that is hilarious. You can’t go wrong with an afternoon Kaffee and Kuchen in my opinion, so enjoy feeding your cravings for the next few weeks. 🙂 I knew there were German settles in Chile, but didn’t realize there were so many. This could literally be a place in Germany, it looks so similar.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Everest Base Camp chronicles cont…

    1. Tammy, I totally agree: There’s never anything wrong with Kaffee and Kuchen 🙂 I miss this daily habit, but I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be fitting in my pants anymore had we not left (and broke the habit!) 😉

  4. So funny, as this topic had just come up the other night here in Mexico as Julia and I were chatting with someone at the hostel about European immigration here. I was talking about how I remember seeing on The Amazing Race about the lake district in Chile and how the churches had onion domes and all that. This post was an amazing follow up and thanks for all the background, even the shadier bits!

    1. The Amazing Race was in the Lake District?! I have to find these episodes online! We didn’t know much about the immigration from Europe to South America, but we also learned that Argentina has a huge Croatian community, and so does Chile – we had no idea!

  5. I am very happy that you have enjoyed visiting my country. I am second generation German/Chilean. My mother used to make kuchen every weekend and she taught me many things about German traditions. I love to make sweet things, nice Stollen for Christmas, also the Hexenhaus is a must in December. I live in Villarrica, around 3 hours far from Frutillar to the North, in the IX region, still a big German influence here. We also have a lake and a vocano. Close to Villarrica is Pucón, where you can also feel home, the houses there are very German type and you can find more kuchen and typical German bread at Rostock bakery there and here in Villarrica.
    I liked very much your post, warm regards from the South of Chile.

    1. Hi Marisol, great to hear from you! We actually passed through Villarica but only stopped in Pucon – we were so unlucky with the weather, otherwise we might have stopped in Villarica, too 🙂 We loved that region of Chile! I love that you even make Hexenhaus for Christmas, that’s amazing! And Stollen – I hope this tradition will live on in Chile!! 🙂

  6. Hi Girls…I “chanced upon” your website whilst looking for family history information; must say I found your work refreshing and fascinating!
    My German ancestors (brother and sister) were born in Valdivia 1872 and 3. The family returned to Germany where they stayed only a few years, then immigrated to Australia.
    What adventures these children must have had,even though live would have been very tough.
    I am still searching for records for this family in Chili…so if any of your followers have any suggestions about the subject; would love to hear them!
    I believe not only was the country looking for agricultural workers at the time,but also academics,artists,writers etc.
    The father of these children may have been a writer from Rostock;surname REUSS. Mother KROEPELIN.
    BTW….favorite photo was the “Krunstmann’s beer truck,Valdivia.
    Greetings from Fay in Australia

    1. Hi Fay, thanks so much for your comment! It must be so interesting to trace your family’s history in Chile. Good luck in finding out more about their lives!

  7. Dear Friends

    What you don’t know !

    When I entered the Chilean Air Force Academy in 1971 ( I was just 15 ! )….I was surprised to see so many German last names !…also a few Italian , British and French last names .

    The German descendants were very Patriotic and hardworking …like most of us European descendants , our fathers and mothers wrought us up in a strict code …I would say 1/3 of the Academy was made of this type of kids….it was a bit stunning that our marches were German mostly , our uniforms were Royal Air Force ( 1930 was Chilean Air foundation year heavily influenced by the RAF )…but all the military ways were German , the salute , the attention position and….we were VERY happy with that …my two sons Giancarlo and Christian went trough this Academy , and now a days when something is said to be military cool in this academy it’s said ” to be Prussian ! ” , well this boys blood is mixed , half Italian and half German …I married Karin the beautiful daughter of Klaus Sievert Blumenbach who arrived in Chile in 1953 .

    And I have had kuchen almost all the days of my married life !

    Kindest Regards to you all…we shall meet in Puerto Varas for Kuchen and caffe !


    1. Giancarlo – thank you so much for your comment! I loved reading about your experiences with the German influence in Chile.. I will definitely be in touch should I return to Puerto Varas so that we can enjoy some Kaffee und Kuchen together 😀

  8. Great post! Now I have added a few more places to my To Visit list. I have never been to South America, but I have been to Germany. I think it would be fun to explore the German cities in the Southern Hemisphere.
    LyndaS recently posted..Dinner By Design

  9. It’s very interesting to read your experience visiting my region (I’m from Puerto Montt).
    The german colonization was an important part of our local history (there are at least three monuments in puerto montt to the german settlers), but most of the current chilean-germans are completely chileans, with particularities as the surname and in some cases blonde hair (the case is different for the recent immigration after the war). In cultural terms they are not very different, partly because of their chilean identity, and partly because some german elements were also incorporated in the chilean southern society, especially food (as kuchen, strudel, berliner, sausages and raw meat [“crudos”]). For example, mi family is completely chilean, but our traditional dessert is the raspberry/blackberry/gooseberry kuchen 🙂

    By the way… In southern Chile we normally talk about “the germans”, but actually many of them were ethnic germans from Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland or even Netherlands. As the immigration was before of the unification of Germany, for the chileans they were all “germans”. An example of this is the town of “Nueva Braunau”, named after the czech city of Braunau (Broumov), and that also have a german museum (owned by the Niklitschek family 😛 ). Some people say that the Province of Llanquihue was populated with germans from Austria, and the Province of Valdivia with germans from Germany, but I’m not sure about this distinction.

  10. I agree that there really isn’t much evidence of German culture in Bariloche. What there is is contrived, frankly. Visually, Bariloche could be Banff in Canada, which no one claims is German in cultural flavour.

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