Weekending in Chile – Destination Pucón
Perfecting “weekending” in a country that spans more than 4,300 km north to south can be daunting at times but once refined can open up destinations previously thought out of reach. Pucón is just such a place. Dominated by one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, the city offers adventure seekers world-class options for excitement while still delivering relaxation, and tranquility for the posh and pampered. For me, a classic weekender, traveling to places like Pucón challenged me to develop a new travel muscle.
Visiting Chile from the US for the first time can be intimidating and exciting. Bringing with it the bustling metropolis of Santiago, a new language, different cultures and the logistical challenges that come with any new region. Despite having visiting nearly 30 countries on three continents prior to my first arrival here, my angst regarding South America remained. With 10 days in Santiago to seemingly sort my South American jitters I was ready to spend the 4th of July weekend outside the city. With no time or real desire to plan my next move, I picked a spot on the map of which had been referenced frequently in conversation but in reality I remained blissfully unaware of where I was going. Walking to the Tur-Bus office, I booked an overnight bus trip to Pucón for one. With my 30L backpack bulging at the seams I took my seat in the middle of the bus, opened a book and settled in.
A comfortable bus ride, terrible sugar-added juice box and a chocolate brownie later the cabin crew drew the curtains open and switched on the cabin lights signaling the end of my 10 hour journey.
No cell phone, little idea of my hostel’s direction and even less Spanish fluency found me wandering the empty, dark streets of Pucón at 7am on a Thursday. A rare snow was falling in the town proper. My feet quickly soaked from a mix of pooling sleet, snow and rain that assisted in forming a solid grimace of doubt and displeasure where my eager smile once lived. Passing one closed business after another the warm fuzzy travel buzz faded. Most of this sleepy winter town hadn’t yet thought of rising from its comfortable slumber.
Finding ostensibly the only available bastion of warmth and food at this hour in the Rostock bakery I began collecting myself and an appreciation of my momentary solitude. While sipping on my cortado chico (cafe macchiato) the sun rose, the streets filled and Pucón began showing why it’s so highly regarded. Villarrica Volcano, completely obscured at first by darkness and clouds seemingly formed itself in an instant and the excitement that escaped me earlier began smoldering inside once again like the Volcano itself.
As with so many places in the world the media and images online help to create expectations for destinations in your mind but once you arrive, you’re thrilled to have been so naive in thinking you knew what to expect. Pucón stands as a favorite destination for Chileans and foreigners alike. Its alpine charm is welcoming, the options for adventure and relaxation are limitless, and its beauty and uniqueness will remind you for years to come why you buy bus tickets on a whim to distant map dots and why you ever began traveling at all.
Things to Do:
With such proximity to active volcanoes, thermal springs and spas are scattered around with some frequency. Two of the most popular options are Termas Geométricas and Los Pozones. The entrance to each is around $20,00CLP ($40USD). Each is some distance from downtown Pucón but well worth the trip. It’s easy to get to by car or by a group organized through your hotel or a local tourist company (there are plenty). It’s well worth the extra cost to hire a driver or go as part of a group. They simply drop you off and collect you after a set time. Side bonus, you can take a nap during the ride back after all of your hard relaxation. If you only have time for one, Termas Geométricas is the way to go. Spas range from 95F – 115F and are marked with small wooden placards at the entrance of each pool. A snack shop is available but it’s recommended to take snacks so you can maximize your time enjoying the springs. Also take a swimsuit, change of clothes, travel lock for your storage locker and flip flops. Towels are provided.
Huerquehue National Park:
Open year round, this nature reserve is set just east Caburgua Lake about 20km from Pucón. Pristine mountain lakes, cascading waterfall and forest of “Monkey Puzzle” (Araucaria) trees make getting lost outside the city for and afternoon or a few nights in a tent well worth the effort. Take the forks in the trails to the waterfalls and enjoy your time. Great for all ages and fitness levels with options to keep everyone entertained. You can arrive by car, tour group or by bus. Buses Carburgua service the park from Uruguay 540, 3 times a day, 4 in the summer for $2,000CLP one-way or $3,600RT. Departures are 8.30, 13.00, 16.00 and 18.20 (summer only) and Returns at 9.30, 14.10, 17.10 and 19.30 (summer only).
The dominate feature and the inspiration for many trips to Pucón, Villarrica is impossible to miss and frequently reminds us that she is very much alive. The volcanic sides make an almost perfect cone and double as ski slopes in the winter months. Details and open dates can be found at SkiPucon. If you are seeking a challenge and thrill join, an adventure tour to the summit and peer over the edge for a glimpse of the lava pool within. This can be a difficult 6-hour hike to 2,860m and is most easily accomplished in the summer months. Summiting in the winter can be more difficult but comes with the added benefit and enjoyment of sledding your way back down turning what would be a tiring hike into a 30-minute thrill ride on your backside. Take plenty of warm clothes with you. Most tour companies will provide the necessary gear but it’s not always the newest and can leave you questioning the meaning of “waterproof” if you get precipitation on your accent.
Places to eat:
This is a great little town with lots of options. Líder and Unimarc have grocery stores near the Tur-Bus station on the outside of town with a more modest Eltit grocer in the heart of the city.
Trawen: For me this is the ultimate option in town. Fresh, modern and well worth the money, this comfortable local quickly becomes routine on your visit. Hot breakfasts complete with eggs and bacon as well as coffee beyond my Chilean expectations make this a repeat no brainer. At night, enjoy their locally sourced ingredients or their playful twists on the classic Pisco Sour.
La Maga: This Uruguayan style grill is a meat lover’s paradise. Aged beef, full bar and a lively open-grill atmosphere make this a fun night out enjoying specialties of the region.
Where to stay:
Chili Kiwi Hostel: Located directly on the lakefront, this Hostel has a great travel vibe and can help arrange tours, adventures and next travel stops in the region. Operated by a real Kiwi who loves the region and skiing, you can’t go wrong. Chili Kiwi was voted Top Hostel in Chile by HostelWorld.com 2015.
Out of the City Option:
Monte Verde Hotel & Cabanas: Located a few kilometers from town and offering a secluded feel with lake views, this property is where budget meets comfort. Modern rustic architecture, B&B feel and a cooked-to-order egg breakfast make this place feel like home.
Wild Card Option:
Hotel Antumala: This anomaly has some of the most beautiful waterfront property along the lake. A massive property, beautiful landscaping, spa, incredible lakefront views and proximity to town make this bargain hotel hard to pass up. While many recent updates have been made and the staff is friendly this is an older property that is starting to show its age.
Villarrica Park Lake Hotel: Coming on at the higher end of the price spectrum this highly rated Starwood property comes with all of the creature comforts expected. Spa, gym, tour desk, swimming pools, lake views and dining make this place a contender for sure. It’s located between Villarrica and Pucón so having a car makes accessing the property easier.
Getting there and around:
80 km from the nearest commercial airport and 780 km south of Santiago proper, last-minute flights are often cost prohibitive and spending 10 hours in the car each way kills the weekend quickly.
Getting there from Santiago is as simple as closing your eyes. Many bus operators offer multiple services daily to Pucón (Refresher on Chilean bus travel) but for me, the best option is an overnight Premium Cama ticket on Tur-bus departing from the Vitacura station around 21.15. For between $25,000 – $35,000 CLP (US $50-70) each way you can arrive hassle free overnight in around 10 hours while you sleep comfortably in your fully reclined plush seat.
Flights from Santiago (SCL) to Temuco (ZCO) on LAN Airlines start around $50,000 CLP (US $100) with enough lead time. Temuco is 80 km from Pucón so a bus or private transfer is needed.
Taxis in Pucón don’t operate on a meter and can be quite expense for repeated use. Small trips inside the city are a few Lucas (1,000 persos). Leaving town to a property outside the city limit starts the trip around $5,000 CLP (US $10) and goes up from there.
A local bus runs between Villarrica and Pucón on Camino A Villarrica from 5:30am to 10:00pm. This is a local transit bus and can be a great budget option between the two towns and all points along the way. Simply flag the bus down and let the drive know where you want to stop. The max fare is $1,500 CLP (US $3) for the round trip.
While storing your bags under the bus on this long-haul is generally safe, it’s a wise to carry it onboard with you. If you have a Premium Cama seat a carryon-size suitcase will fit nicely behind you. When you recline to sleep, you cover the compartment containing your bag securing it during station stops while you are catching Zzzs.
When to Go:
November – March. Outdoor and water sports are ideal in the summer. Comfortably warm temperatures matched with less rainfall make this the ideal time to enjoy. More stores, restaurants and activities operate in the summer.
June – September. Increased rainfall and night-time lows near freezing make the winter season great for skiing and enjoying the contrast between the numerous hot thermal spas and the crisp, fresh air. While the skiing is great, the town can feel sleepy with less dining and entertainment options.
(Note: This story was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question before planning your trip.)