An active volcano, a lake and (lots of) woods are your passport to a world of activities in this small Chilean city
“Where is it?” is the question we ask when arriving in Pucón, in southern Chile. We crane our necks from side to side and try to look upward in search of the Villarrica Volcano, the most active in the country. On the opposite side is a lake of the same name with an area of 68 mi2 [176 km2]. Nature is grandiose in this city of 26,000 inhabitants in the region of Araucanías, 495 miles [797 km] from Santiago. Due to these and numerous other attractions, life in Pucón takes place outdoors. The many options for activities include skiing in the winter, rafting and birdwatching in the spring, fly fishing and mountain biking in the fall, kayaking and stand-up paddling in the summer and climbing the volcano all year round. Rain or shine, Pucón brings you closer to nature.
But before it turned into an adventure destination with over 80 options for accommodations, including inns and hotels, Pucón was frequented by Chile’s elite. Inaugurated in the 1930s to serve this public and still running to this day, Gran Hotel Pucón is strategically located. In front is a beach with freshwater and dark black sand that draws crowds of tourists in January and February. In the 1940s and ‘50s, business mogul Guillermo Pollak erected another emblematic building by the lake: Hotel Antumalal, with modernist-style architecture. Those staying in the room adjacent to the private beach get a bonus: falling asleep to the sound of the waves breaking softly on the volcanic rocks.
The inauguration of the big hotels helped Pucón win over other fans: skiers. In the cold months, the Villarrica mountainside, which contains 20 ski slopes – for beginners and experts –, as well as a school for children, stays packed. The facilities are rustic and the views are incredible. There, you can enjoy the experience of gliding down a mountain that exhales smoke.
Villarrica is also the setting for Pucón’s biggest adventure. The 9,340-foot [2,847 m] climb up to the peak takes five hours, and those who make it are rewarded with a view of... magma! Solidified or in liquid form, the material that comprises the innards of the planet is often visible in the crater. The inevitable question comes to mind: what if Villarrica were to suddenly start spitting out lava (the last time was in 2015)? Our guide, Gonzalo Sañudo, is emphatic: since there are devices constantly monitoring the volcano’s activity, the trail would be closed if there were any risk of eruption.
For an activity that doesn’t take the same physical exertion but has plenty of beauty, try level 1 rafting on the Liucura River (which means “white rock” in the Mapuche language of Mapudungun). The waterway is framed by mountains and, of course, the volcano. The air is filled with gusts of perfume from ulmo trees, whose flowers produce honey with antibacterial properties. But think twice before you jump into the Liucura: even in the summer, the water is freezing. For more adrenaline, go to the Trancura River, where the rafting ranges from level 3 to 5.
Relaxation and good food
The capricious weather could well throw some rain and cold your way. But in Pucón this is no reason to worry. These climatic conditions are ideal for what could be the highlight of your trip: a day dedicated to the hot springs. There are dozens in the region, an effect of the volcanic activity. They are well worth the 90-minute drive to the Termas Geométricas, private grounds in the middle of a verdant canyon that are visually dreamlike, reinforced by the vapors exuded from the 19 pools whose temperatures range from 95 to 113 °F [35-45 °C]. The manmade red walkways that stretch for 1,640 feet [500 m] over a stream will make you feel like you’ve been transported to the Far East.
Back in the city center, the food options serve both vegans and carnivores. The latter will be seduced by simply passing in front of the restaurant La Maga. Its Uruguayan-style grill on the sidewalk calls attention for the wood embers roasting pork chops and rump cover steaks. If you’re in the mood for trout, famous in the region, one good option is Trawen, which also has a menu of craft beers, including a local highlight, Pillán. Chocolates, sandwiches and coffee are the strong suits at the popular Cassis.
Between bites, you’d do well to stop by craftsman Serbando Castillo Morales’s shop. Some 50 years ago, he introduced the trend of flowers made out of wood, which have since become a regional souvenir. Petals of roses, camellias and dahlias on sticks sharpened like pencils. Save some space for them in your luggage, and, back home, think back to this place built between a lake and a volcano.