Chile sure has a lot of laid back and beautiful rural cities. And of all of these, Pucon has to be my favorite so far. The town lies on the shores of sprawling and beautiful Lago Villarrica, at an elevation of 227 meters, and surrounded in all directions by dramatic peaks covered in lush, green forests. Above all towers the glacier of the great volcano. Like the eye of Sauron, but perhaps less sinister, it keeps constant vigil over the valley below. Unceasing smoke belching from the chimney reminds all that Mother Earth is ever alive. As recently as 2015, Volcano Villarrica erupted, sending residents into a panicked evacuation in the middle of the night.
Extremely rare natural disasters aside, Pucon is situated in the most beautiful location. The small city, located in the southern third of Chile, carries the vibe of California’s Lake Tahoe in summer – if Lake Tahoe played constant Latin music and had an active volcano dominating its vistas. And much like Lake Tahoe, it exudes a fragrant multinational aroma. Tourists and outdoor enthusiasts the world over congregate here to savor its abundant natural playgrounds. Pucon is an outdoor lover’s delight.
From mountain biking to ample lake activities, skydiving to hiking, Pucon seemingly offers everything a nature-worshipper or adventurer could want. Hang gliding? Sure. Geothermal hot baths? Done. Canyoning? Say no more. And dozens of more activities. It’s all set among dramatic and beautiful natural scenery. But perhaps the highlight and most unique activity has to be the opportunity to hike up to the top of the cone of Volcano Villarica.
Yes, you read that right. You can hike to the edge of the bubbling cauldron, gazing straight down into a ferocious pool of churning red lava. Tour companies abound, offering full-day guided climbs up the glacier that covers much of the mountain like an eternal white mantle.
The ascent, up to a height of 2,860 meters (9,380 ft), sounds intimidating but there are chairlifts that will take you up a significant portion of the way. Ironically, the most difficult portion is right at the beginning, so taking the lift helps ease the burden. From there, going up the rest of the way involves hiking on the soft snow of the glacier. The climb is physically challenging but done routinely by even novice climbers.
Not even halfway up, you can absorb the majestic 360-degree views of southern Chile’s mountain ranges. At the top, most of your time will be spent staring straight down into the hot lava pool. They even provide gas masks in case the wind suddenly shifts and toxic fumes come wafting your way. But don’t worry, the guides know the wind patterns extremely well and always stay upwind. Getting down is a breeze as you get to sled down the length of the glacier – an awesome adventure in its own right! The overall experience is easier than it seems and 100% worth it. Just be sure to dress appropriately (layers of clothing) as the weather can change quickly.
And after a long day of volcano climbing, what better way to than to enjoy the day’s achievement than by sitting in one of a plethora of restaurants, enjoying fine Chilean wine or craft beer as you stare up at the mountain. The little town comes to live in the early evening, as all the day-adventurers return to quench their thirst on local beers and expound on the day’s exciting activities to anyone willing to listen.
Looking for something relaxing to do the day after a long glacier and volcano hike? Try the Japanese-inspired geothermal baths, known as Termas Geometricas. Located inside the extensive Villarrica National Park, and nestled in a forest, a series of natural baths of varying temperatures invite weary travelers to relax and let nature soak in. Waterfalls and cold pools surround the hots springs. Geometricas is considered one of the top 5 hot springs experiences in the world. As nature baths go, this one is not to be missed by any Pucon-bound traveler.
Getting to Pucon is a bit of a trek – it’s a 12-hour bus ride from Santiago. Options abound among one of the many bus services that traverse the spine of Chile on the Panamerican Highway. The drive is scenic, the buses are extremely comfortable, and the costs are minimal. And if driving an entire day is not your thing, direct flights from Santiago and Buenos Aires are also available.