Intro to Pucon
Many of the destinations in the Don’t Skip series are off the beaten track. That’s not the case with Pucon, which is hardly unknown. As a matter of fact, it’s long-established as a hub of outdoor activities in this part of Chile. Depending on the season, you can skydive, kayak, ski, swim, hike, mountain-bike, rock-climb or even paraglide! With its setting on the eastern shore of Villarrica Lake, with Villarrica Volcano as a backdrop, it’s a great base for exploring. The main activity early on was timber and cattle commerce, but tourism had early beginnings as well. The first hotel, Gran Hotel Pucón, opened in 1923, complete with sprawling grounds and a golf course! Anglers are drawn to the lakes and rivers for fishing, while there are many opportunities for skiing the volcano in winter. We visited Pucon in December, so our observations below are relevant to the climate changing from winter to sunny spring.
Climbing Volcan Villarrica
Villarrica Volcano stands 2,840 meters (9318 feet) and is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile. A stop-light type system indicates the level of activity on any given day. Most of the time we were there, the light remained yellow, indicating moderate volcanic activity, small lava flows, etc. When it’s red, you need to know your evacuation route.
We climbed with the tour operator Aguaventura, specializing in all sorts of adventure sports. After being outfitted with a pack of supplies for the climb, we head out to the volcano. The ski lift that is sometimes available to take people up a few hundred yards wasn’t operating, so it would be a full trek. The first part, before the snow line, was the most difficult, being both steep and full of small, loose volcanic rock and dirt. Above the snow line, the route became even more steep. The climb took about 5 hours, including a couple of short breaks. The views from the top were spectacular. We sat and snacked and contemplated the clouds below and the rumbling crater in the center. The way back down the volcano takes a mere 30 minutes or less, and is accomplished by sledding down on a small, plastic disc in stages. You can use a trusty ice pick to slow down if you get going too fast.
Huerquehue National Park
Huerquehue National Park is about 20 miles from Pucon. Beginning on the Ñirrico trail, we learned about the flora, fauna and geological history of the park. Los Lagos trail is manageable for a day-hike: steep, but rated as moderate. It’s one of the most popular trails in the park. The views of Villarrica Volcano in the distance are beautiful. At higher altitudes you can see araucarias (Monkey Puzzle trees). The park is a reserve for these trees. Birdwatching is very popular here too, and we did hear and see many birds, though we have no idea what they were. Different trails pass by thermal pools, lakes and waterfalls as you walk through the native forests. There are organized tours from town, or you can get to the park by local bus. Park headquarters are at Lake Tinquilco. If you’re not with a group, rangers can provide a map and show you the trail options.
Chilling by the Lake
The black sand beaches around Lake Villarrica are a great place to relax, read a book, take a dip or people watch. There are floating pedal bikes for rent, and in the summer, sailing and water-skiing are additional options. We loved the laid-back atmosphere, but could imagine it getting quite crowded in the peak of the summer. The scenery is beautiful, and, again, you just can’t beat that volcanic backdrop!
Geothermal Hot Springs
The area around Pucon has more than a dozen baños termales (hot springs). The closest are Quimey-co (more spa-like with massage and other treatments available), Huife and Los Pozones (more rustic). Termas Geométricas are a new option open year-round, but located further away from Pucon. Here, pools are connected by angled wooden foot-bridges.
Where We Stayed
Pucon is easy to get to, with buses arriving from Santiago and other major cities. For us, it was about a three-hour ride from Valdivia. There is a wide variety of lodging and dining options in Pucon, from backpacker hostels to 5-star resorts. We stayed at Hostal el Refugio, which was comfortable and in a convenient location. Restaurants in town are plentiful, if touristy and a little over-priced. There’s enough variety though, that eating is never a problem. Competition is heavy, so food is generally pretty good!