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Pucon, Chile

Skiing, white water rafting, and even volcano climbing await in this outdoor adventure destination.

That said, for budget backpackers like ourselves, none of those activities are very Cheap and Charming. Thankfully, Pucon’s stunning landscapes are free. And for a modest entry fee, nearby Villarrica National Park gives visitors a chance to immerse themselves in nature. 

Pucon was our last stop on our two-week journey in Chile. From Mendoza, Argentina, we crossed the border into the capital city of Santiago. We then headed to the artistic seaside town of Valparaiso, followed by the beach in Viña del Mar. While our time in Chile wasn’t long enough, it gave us a sampling of the country’s diversity, geographically and culturally. 

After a 12-hour overnight bus ride, we arrived to the tiny resort town of Pucon under overcast skies.

As is often the case in South America, an onslaught of hostel owners greeted us at the bus station. We ended up at Guest House Victor Gallegos, a cozy lodge-like cabin owned by a husband/wife. Across from our hostel, we grabbed egg and cheese sandwiches from local eatery, Comida Al Paso San Andresito. Fueled up, we wandered into interesting neighborhoods then made our way down to the main drag, Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue. We passed fine dining restaurants setting up for lunch and retail shops selling expensive climbing gear. Eventually, we reached La Poza, a vast woodland park along beautiful Villarica Lake

Here, Playa Grande is a beach featuring black, volcanic sand created by previous eruptions of Volcan Villarica. Due to the clouds, we had yet to see it looming over the town. While at the beach, the afternoon sun broke through. Brillant blue skies rivaled the glacier lake below and punctuated the starkness of the black sand. Despite the chilly air, school kids gathered by some beached boats and played at the water’s edge.

Heading back into town, it was then that we got our first glimpse of Volcan Villarica.

Like Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, Italy, the towering volcano is huge – and very close. Considered Chile’s most active volcanoe, smoke periodically billows from the top. Apparently, it’s one of the only known volcanoes in the world to also contain a lava lake within its crater. Not that we’d ever get close enough to see for ourselves. We actually couldn’t believe that travel groups offer guided climbing tours of the volcano. Beyond the obvious danger that it could erupt at any time, Volcan Villarico is not for for the novice hiker. Since it’s covered in snow all year, tackling it involves proper clothing and equipment, like crampons and an ice pick. 

Instead, we opted for the natural (and safe) beauty available. A short local bus ride away, Huerquehue National Park  offers multiple hiking trails. Set within the foothills of the Andes Mountains, we chose the shorter circuit of the Los Lagos (“The Lakes”) trail. This seven-mile trek took us through ancient forests, lush vegetation, and scenic vistas. Our favorite part was seeing the “monkey puzzle” trees which look straight out of a Dr. Seuss book with their tall trunks and crown of branches. After a steep climb, we were rewarded with stunning views of Volcan Villarico, and later, the peaceful tranquility of Nido de Aguilas waterfall. 

Our wanders are never complete without a post-exploration beverage. In Pucon, that meant a local micro-brewery out in the countryside. 

Cerveza Crater is located in Villarica, just a short bus ride from Pucon. Run by a Belgian/German couple, the beer is (unsurprisingly) very good. Many German immigrants live in Pucon and their ancestors actually began the country’s beer production. Around the turn of the century, more microbreweries appeared offering a wider variety of beer styles. Our favorite of the Cerveza Crater line-up was the Golden Ale, a Belgian-style beer with honey notes. We tried it straight out of the holding tank – cold, refreshing and very tasty. 

After chatting with an Argentine cyclist and playing a game of Rummy 500, we returned to town. While some fancy, volcano-climbing tourists headed to five-star restaurants, we made our way back to Comida Al Paso San Andresito. It was a beautiful evening so we pulled up an outdoor seat. Taking advantage of their BYOB policy, we cracked open a bottle of 2008 Oveja Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz. A sweet stray dog meandered over and laid down by our feet. Then our server presented us each with an el Completo, Chile’s version of a “loaded” hot dog. Gourmet? No. Luxury? Yes. 

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