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The Villarrica volcano dominates the tiny Chilean town of Pucón. Hordes of national and international tourists flood to the Lake District, and Pucón in particular, for activities related to the snow capped volcano with views into the round, gleaming crater which bubbles with lava and erupts on a regular basis.
Apparently it is often compared to Japan’s Mount Fuji, and it’s not hard to see why. Hundreds don snowshoes and pickaxes to trudge five hours to the top everyday. Some say the most exhilarating part is reaching the top, while for others its the experience of sledding down a 10,000ft snow-covered volcano for 30 minutes straight (to put it into perspective, the fastest lava-surfers in our group sped down the Cerro Negro volcano in Nicaragua in just one minute).
We’ll never know which our favorite part of the exhilarating experience was. There were no ascents that day or the next, or the day after that. It rained the whole time we were in town.
Normally a couple of nomads like us, with nowhere to be, would just wait until the weather clears up and make the hike – but we are traveling during the Chilean summer vacation period. While many Chileans jet off to Buenos Aires, Rio or the beaches of Colombia, they also hit the Lake District and Patagonia in droves. Hotels and hostels are booked far in advance and it has been rough to find rooms at all, which is why we had already booked reservations in advance at our next stop, Valdivia, where it was so difficult to find any accommodation whatsoever we had to book into dorms for two nights (which turned out great – read our Bosque Nativo hostel review here).
So, what did we miss in Pucón? What makes it such a gem in Chile’s tourism crown? If we would have had better weather or stayed longer, here are just some of the (weather dependent) things we would have done:
Hike Villarrica Volcano
Obviously the main attraction, this is one of only five volcanoes worldwide known to have an active lava lake within its crater. Thousands hike the volcano we never saw every year and every one of the dozens of travel agencies in town offer tours. Check out this TravelDudes.org post on which to choose and other great tips for hiking Villarrica Volcano.
If climbing isn’t your thing, why not jump right in to the belly of the beast. The Villarrica volcano has the only caves in an active volcano on earth that van be visited. Formed when lava flowed onto a great mass of glacial ice, there are tunnels up to 400m long inside the volcano. You can book this with agencies in town as part of a tour, but it makes sense to visit independently as either way visits are by guided tour only included in the $20 fee.
White water rafting
The glacier-fed Trancura River has Class 3 and 4 rapids, which is great for beginners and people who have experience with white water rafting.
Kayaking is also possible in the white waters of the Trancura River, but beginners can also start in gentle and often thermal waters of other river systems around Pucón.
There are countless thermal hot springs surrounding Pucón, some even offering midnight star-gazing trips as well. Quality seems to vary widely, so do your research both online and in town at the various travel agencies. This post on InterPatagonia.com refers to this area as a hot springs paradise.
Day trips to Lincan Ray and Coñaripe
50 kilometers from Pucón, Lincan Ray is a small, picturesque village of 3,000 inhabitants set on Lake Calafquen. There are two beaches with beautiful views of the surrounding forests, and a visit here involves relaxing and taking in the small town life often missed by those who head straight to Pucón. From there, it is a quick jump over to Coñaripe on the other side of the lake. The village is much more rustic, but there is a nice beach and hot springs. It is possible to do this day trip by local bus but more easily done by car. Find out more on how to do this day trip here.
Hiking in the Huerquehue National Park
45 minutes from town by local bus, there are easy, medium and difficult hikes in the park among a landscape that is much different in and around Pucón itself. There are waterfalls to visit, plus great views of the volcanoes as well. Possibly the most detailed review of the experience can be found here.
Four km south of Caburga Lake, the Ojos del Caburgua are two waterfalls that, from above, look like a pair of eyes – one blue and the other green. Under 15km from the town itself, it would be possible to rent bikes and ride out yourself, or there are plenty of guided tours that include this on the itinerary as well.
Set in a glacial valley, the 53 sq km Caburga Lake has warm waters that are great for swimming (there are two nice beaches), plus sailing, fishing and exploring the wildlife native to the lake which borders the Huerquehue National Park.
Rent a bike / mountain biking
Mountain bikes can be rented all over town – make sure to get a newer one with better shocks. It will cost more but is worth it. Renting a mountain bike in Pucón makes sense not only for the experience of riding through the beautiful landscape, but also as a liberating means of transport to Caburga Lake and waterfalls on the Ojos de Caburgua Loop or the Alto Palguín Chinay which leads to the Palguín hot springs. Rental agencies will provide maps marked with many more trails as well.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda!
Do not fret – there is a silver lining in this dense, dark cloud and it is – the Germans.
Yes, ze Germans!
We’ll be covering this more in a post soon to follow, but the importance of the German influence here in Chile’s Lake District for our particular needs can be filtered down to one thing:
Oh, and the chocolate and the homemade bread.
Basically, Pucón is home to dozens of great cafes serving homemade cakes, pubs serving locally brewed German-style beer; bakeries are spilling over with bread and there are more ‘chocolaterias’ or chocolate shops, per capita than anywhere else in the world (a statistic I admittedly just made up, but it could be true.) In other words, there are plenty of places to sit and indulge during rainy days. Our personal favorites were:
In addition to amazing chocolates, cakes and ice creams made in-house and the best coffee in town, this small South Chilean chain has a full menu of excellent dishes. We ordered everything from salads to pizzas to breakfast and every single one hit the spot.
The gelato in this place was to die for, but they also have a large variety of cakes and savory meals. The sitting area in the back seemed to be more cozy than the big room in the front, but the tables right at the window make for great people watching on the main road, O’Higgins.
Trawen is another lovely cafe with a wide selection of cakes, but also delicious pasta creations such as ravioli with Roquefort and roasted apples.
4. Cafe de la P