LAGO VILLARRICA, tucked in the mountains some 86km to the southeast of Temuco, is Chile’s most visited lake. The reason for its popularity is Pucón, a prime outdoor adventure centre. At the other end of the lake from Pucón is Villarrica, its more sedate counterpart.
The area around Lago Villarrica was first settled by the Spanish in the late sixteenth century, but they didn’t have much time to enjoy their new territory: their towns were sacked by the Mapuche in 1602. Recolonization didn’t take place until the Mapuche were subjugated 250 years later. With the arrival of the railroad from Santiago in 1933, the area became one of Chile’s prime holiday destinations.Read More
Sitting on the southwestern edge of the lake with a beautiful view of the volcano, VILLARRICA is one of Chile’s oldest towns, although it may not feel like it – it has been destroyed several times by volcanic eruptions and skirmishes with the Mapuche. Now that Villarica’s waterfront has been transformed with an attractive promenade, replacing the rather dirty beaches, the place has once again been attracting its fair share of visitors, who find it to be a more low-key, authentic destination than the ultra-touristy Pucón. Plans are afoot to beautify Villarica even more with brand new sand beaches, a yacht harbour and an urban park with theatre.
On a clear day, you will be greeted by the awe-inspiring sight of Volcán Villarrica smouldering in the distance long before the bus pulls into PUCÓN, 25km from Villarrica. This small mountain town has firmly established itself as a top backpacker destination in the last decade. Each November–April season brings scores of hikers, climbers, whitewater enthusiasts and mountain bikers looking to climb Volcán Villarrica, brave the Río Trancura rapids or hike in the remote forested corners of the nearby Parque Nacional Huerquehue.
A day outdoors is usually followed by eating, drinking and partying in the town’s restaurants and bars, or by a soak in the many surrounding thermal springs. The place gets particularly busy in January and February when Chilean students join forces with international backpackers.
Pucón’s wide, tree-lined streets are arranged in a compact grid, with most tour companies, supermarkets, banks and bars located along bustling Avenida O’Higgins, which bisects the town, with restaurants and guesthouses scattered nearby. O’Higgins ends by La Poza, a black-sand beach on the dazzling blue Lago Villarrica, while at the northern end of Calle Lincoyán you’ll find Playa Grande, with a multitude of pedalos, jet skis and rowing boats for rent.
Ample amounts of volcanic activity mean that there are more commercialized hot springs around Pucón than in any other town in Chile. The facilities on offer vary, but the alleged health-giving properties of the waters are just about the same: bathing in them can benefit arthritis, nervous ailments and mental fatigue. Getting to some of the termaswithout your own car is difficult, though various companies in Pucón run tours to several of the hot springs below. The termas are mainly divided into two river valleys, the Río Liucura and the Río Trancura. Here are three of the best, arranged in order of proximity to Pucón.
Musher for a day
Musher for a day
No longer must you travel to Siberia or endure minus 35 degree temperatures in the frozen Arctic wastes to take part in dog sledding expeditions. Aurora Austral Patagonia Husky (http://www.novena-region.com), based near Villarica, is home to a mix of Siberian and Alaskan huskies. While there are some husky sledding opportunities near Ushuaia, Argentina (see Winter sports around Ushuaia), Konrad is the only operator in the whole of South America who leads multi-day husky sledding expeditions that allow you to drive your own sled. You can choose either a day trip in the vicinity of Volcán Villarica or one of the multi-day expeditions – either to the Termas Geométricas hot springs or across the mountains into Argentina.
The sledding season runs from May to October, September being an excellent time to visit. Summer visitors (Dec–March) can test the half-tricycle, half-chariot contraptions. Konrad and his family also rent out three beautiful 2–6 person cottages with skylights on their peaceful piece of property, complete with wandering pet sheep, cats and dogs.
Climbing Volcán Villarrica
Climbing Volcán Villarrica
Pretty much as soon as you arrive in Pucón, you’ll realize that that town’s main attraction is the Volcán Villarrica, just begging to be climbed. The path leaves from the ski centre, and it’s four hours up to a crater in which, if you’re lucky and the gas clears, you’ll see bubbling pits of molten rock. If it’s not too windy, the chairlift trims an hour off the climb. While it doesn’t demand technical climbing skills, you do need a hard hat, ice-axe, sturdy boots, gaiters, waterproof overtrousers and crampons – all provided by the tour agency you go with. The view from the top on a clear day is stupendous (though you won’t linger for long because of the noxious fumes), followed by a rollicking tobogganing down the side of a volcano along snow slides, using your ice-axe as a brake.
Guides and prices
Conaf keeps a list of companies authorized to guide climbers up the volcano. A maximum of nine climbers are allowed with one guide. Though the tour agencies may tell you otherwise, there is nothing to stop you from tackling the mountain without a guide, as long as you have proper equipment, but unless you’re an experienced mountaineer, it’s not advisable. Competition keeps prices down to a reasonable CH$45,000 or so, which includes transport and all necessary equipment. Most agencies start off at around 6.30am, though a couple leave at 4.30am to beat the crowds. Do not be tempted to go for the cheapest trip – cost is commensurate with safety, and companies offering much cheaper deals can sometimes do so by using inferior equipment and hiring inexperienced guides.