What to Do in Pucon, Chile: 5 Tips for an Authentic Experience Pucon: an enchanting destination in the south of Chile eclipsed by active Volcano Villarrica and surrounded by lakes, waterfalls, and thermal springs. Having just been dropped off at the local bus station, we looked up and down the single main road in Pucon, […]
Pucon: an enchanting destination in the south of Chile eclipsed by active Volcano Villarrica and surrounded by lakes, waterfalls, and thermal springs.
Having just been dropped off at the local bus station, we looked up and down the single main road in Pucon, excited to begin our adventurous weekend. I had been told that Pucon was one of the most magical and picturesque places to go in Chile’s lake district, and was keen to see a more authentic side to the country. Considering it’s only a 10 hour bus journey from Santiago, it seemed perfectly reasonable to go for a long weekend. After all, it’s just a small town, and there are only one or two things to do. Right?
When my fellow British traveler Molly and I first arrived in Pucon, that’s certainly what we were led to believe. However, if I had known about the great opportunities there are to connect with the community and the countryside, I would have planned my trip completely differently. This post aims to help you figure out what you SHOULD do, instead of what everyone tells you to do.
Before I arrived with Molly, we had heard there were only three key things to see in Pucon:
1. Villarrica Volcano
2. The two big lakes around Pucon (Villarrica and Caburga)
3. The thermal springs (or ‘termas‘)
There are many ways to tackle the above three options. You can opt for a full on, all day, intensive hike up the volcano. You can go skiing or snowboarding around the base. You can go white-water rafting in rapids around the lakes, or you can just relax in the different termas.
When we finally got to town and saw what the local tour guide shops were offering, it seemed at first that these were indeed the only options and that is what dictated our schedule for the next couple of days.
“So, what now?” I asked Molly. All around us, the only people to be seen were those other few travelers who had just got off the bus. There were no signposts showing how to get into town, and we slept on the night bus so we didn’t even know in which direction to walk. Things began to look ominous when we asked a local working at the bus stop how to get to our hostel. With much frowning and shaking of the head he attempted to explain three different ways to arrive at our hostel, before announcing it was too complicated to describe exactly and simply pointing us in the right direction.
Thankfully, after getting our bearings with the help of Google Maps and asking a few more locals, we were able to find our hostel, the lovely Hostal Pucon Sur Backpackers:
At last, the adventure could begin! We were greeted warmly by the lady running the hostel and allowed to help ourselves to breakfast even though we had only booked it from that night onwards. The hostel itself was homely and we soon settled in and were ready to see what there was to do.
Although we had just come away for the weekend, we hadn’t planned our trip step-by-step as we assumed it would be obvious what to do in such a small town. Our first point of call was to ask the people running the hostel what to do in Pucon. We had arrived on a Saturday morning and had a night bus booked back for Sunday night, so time was of the essence. The lady’s main recommendation turned out to be walk into town and ask at the local tourist shops. There were only a couple of flyers in the hostel itself, and the few tours she knew were all expensive, full day events that had already left for Saturday. Still optimistic, we set off into town.
The more we explored, the more we realised that we were not going to get the real ‘escape to the country’ that we craved. On the main street in town, there were a variety of tourist shops offering package tours that all covered the same things:
Whilst these tours were all perfectly interesting, we were startled at the lack of options to either do our own thing without a guide or to avoid a big touristy trip where we were bustled from one place to another. All we wanted to do was take a short hike up part of Volcano Villarrica on our own. However, the only way to do a hike seemed to be on the all day, intensive trip. We had already missed the early departure of this, so we planned instead for our first day to do the lakes and the thermal springs.
Once again, the only way to see the lakes was on a privately hired bus. Apparently, we could get a local bus to Villarrica and Caburga lakes for a very cheap price ($1,000 – 2,000 CLP, or about $2 USD). However we were strongly advised against this by tour companies as they said that it was difficult to walk around the lakes on our own. In addition, there was talk that one lake was closed, and we did not wish to go all the way on the local bus to find out we could not see what we were looking for. At last, we decided to do the guided tour of the lakes that would take us to the hot springs at the end.
Despite being herded as part of a big group, the tour was executed nicely and we were taken to some stunning viewpoints of the lakes and countryside. We stopped on the road to view Villarrica Volcano smoking and surrounded by clouds in the distance:
After that, we were taken to see Lake Caburga. Unfortunately, this one was the closed lake so whilst we had heard it was the most breathtaking, we were unable to see the lake fully due to ongoing construction on the waterfront. However, even with construction items in the way, I could see the attraction:
The closure not detracting from the tour, we then went on to the famous Ojos del Caburba (Eyes of Caburga). This is a waterfall close to Lake Caburga, accessed by a stroll through a beautiful forest walkway.
Finally, after leaving the Caburga area, we went on to the equally famous termas. These proved to be a series of pools of different temperatures, varying from cold outside, to warm, and finally, fairly hot indoors. It was a tranquil setting, with the surrounding forest evoking the feeling of being somewhere else in the world. As we were traveling with a large group, we had limited time there and there were a large amount of other people in the pools with us, but at least we managed to feel like we had seen some countryside.
Our tour guide paid us excellent attention and really tried to give us a good experience. We felt like we had at least seen two of the three main things we wanted to do. Yet somehow, the time constraints, the fact that we were traveling with a large group of other tourists and the overall limited structure of the tour made us feel something was missing. I cannot fault the stunning views of Pucon and the Araucania region that we saw. However I would have prefered a more ‘authentic,’ real experience, where I was able to do my own thing without so many other travelers and go somewhere a bit more off the beaten track.
How many times do you get excited about traveling and straightaway start searching for your hostel? If you’re like me, you’ll want to be somewhere centrally located with easy access to the tourist attractions nearby. However what if you didn’t go somewhere touristy and instead stayed with a real local? And I’m not talking about using Couchsurfing or Airbnb…
There were a number of things we could have done differently had we planned our trip slightly better. When selecting our hostel it’s true that, whilst it was delightful, we really only chose it because it was one of the few which offered breakfast. Here are a couple of great alternatives to staying in a hostel or cabin (‘cabaña‘) that I wish we had known about earlier:
How about immersing yourself into the local community and staying with a Mapuche family for a few nights? What if you could do this AND still get the chance to do the treks and exciting adventure activities you had originally planned? And what if you could do this for CHEAP without compromising on your plans (including without compromising breakfast)? If you’re interested in sustainable tourism and want to get an insight into the raw side of local life, then a Mapuche community tour is an incredibly economical yet unique choice. You can stay with a local family learn about their customs, as well as incorporate hikes and/or activities you desire.
What I missed from my first day in Pucon was a sense of really escaping from the organized tours and the many other tourists. Another great way to get a ‘local’ experience would have been to escape the main town completely. On an Indigenous Pewenche tour, you can spend three days hiking or horse-riding up a volcano to spend time in real tranquility learning local Mapuche spiritual customs. All this is done whilst staying a local dwelling in the heart of the surrounding mountains.
For those of you who want to stay in town simply to be close to the party, I have to say that the center of Pucon may still not be the place for you. After our exploratory first day, Molly and I ventured out into town to see what the local night life had to offer. There are a number of restaurants on the main street, Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, which are all reasonably priced and have some great cocktails. However I would recommend exploring Fresia street as this has some other good food options tucked away, is nicely lit up, and has a bit more buzz.
After dinner, while we were not expecting to see an array of nightclubs, we were still somewhat disappointed at the nightlife offerings. There seemed to just be one bar in town where everyone eventually ended up. At least the name of the bar made up for the lack of choice!
This had a nightclub at the back of the bar, which, considering the size of the town, was perfectly lively and had a good vibe. However, it only really gets going after midnight even on a Saturday night, so if you’re up early for an activity the next day you may be out of luck for good alternatives!
Finally! We were going to climb Villarrica Volcano! Unfortunately, it was yet again not quite how we had planned it. The only way to get up to the volcano without doing the full day trek to the summit and back was to opt in for a ski or snowboard experience. Neither Molly nor I had planned to go skiing or snowboarding before we arrived, but in the end, we went for this simply because it was the only way to get up to Villarrica and explore for just a short period of time. Plus, the chance to ski down an active volcano was still cool enough so that we didn’t really mind!
Once more, we were bustled off into a bus and driven the one-hour journey up to the base of the volcano. We tried not be too worried to see smoke puffing away from Villarrica…especially as it had erupted earlier in 2015 in March!
Once we arrived at the base, we had a long trudge up to the area where we were able to ski. Due to the eruption earlier in the year, the ski lifts were not working and so we slowly made our way up on foot. One by one, people in the tour stopped and skied or snowboarded from different points in the mountain. Molly and I were determined to do at least a bit of walking to get to a decent height, so continued on upwards past all of our group. Finally we reached the furthest checkpoint we could go to, which turned out to be where the ski lift would have taken us. This is the exact point where most of the treks to the summit take place. During the winter a part from the trek to the summit you have another option: Villarrica volcano ski touring experience, that would take you climb the volcano with randonnée or touring skies and backcountry skiing down the Volano.
It offered a stunning view of the National Park surrounding Pucon and the shimmering lakes in the area:
We were stunned at how far we could see, and the untouched nature of the landscape around us. We could see other snow-covered volcanoes in the distance, and the vast potential to spend days hiking and camping through the surrounding mountains. It was a huge eye-opener to finally see what undisturbed beauty the region could present.
Molly and I both agreed that climbing further up than our group and really getting a chance to see the exposed countryside around Pucon gave us the best views we had seen of the whole trip. Escaping from the organized tour gave us a chance to connect to the more authentic lake district that we really wanted. As we skied down the mountain taking in the view on the way back, we felt that we had only touched upon some of the natural beauty Pucon has to offer.
Instead of blindly turning up and following your friends’ advice, why not plan a bit further ahead and really get to know the heart of the region. If you have a bit more time and money on your hands, make the most of it. Follow some of the indigineous treks and paths that will lead you through Chile’s breathtaking countryside and will allow you to really feel like you are getting to know the natural side of life. Here are three tours which will give you a great insight into the Araucania region:
If you want to explore the National Parks in the area, you may as well do it properly. What we missed out on was the chance to really break away from a big group of people and just explore the countryside. If you are willing to spend more in order to immerse yourself in the heart of the Andes, then consider a seven-day trek through Conguillo National Park that covers Pucon, Temuco and a variety of different trails. Flights within Chile, lodging, and meals are all included in this tour, so you don’t have the hassle about worrying where to stay or what food to bring in order to be prepared for the trek.
If you would like to sample some real trekking in the Andes, up volcanoes, and through thermal springs, then go all in with a week long adventure that allows you to do all of this and more. The Llaima Adventure includes a mixture of ascents of different volcanoes in the region, and allows you to explore two stunning National Parks. You will also have the chace to visit hot thermal springs, Laguna Gualletue, and explore Pucon, Temuco and Lonquimay cities. Once again, internal flights, food, and lodging are all included, and this is a private tour which you can book to avoid other large groups of toursits.
Our motto at Keteka is ‘always a traveler, never a tourist’. Take a look at our 5, 8, or 11 day tours through the Araucania region for some full experiences of Chile’s Lake District that still retain a sincere vibe. You can choose which trip is best suited to your hiking and adventure desires, whilst allowing yourself time to get to know the real local area. You can visit three different Mapuche tribes and sample local cuisine, as well as still being able to visit the termas and the diverse local towns. This tour allows you to combine real cultural interactions with the chance for adventure.
Recently a friend visited Pucón in order to do as much adventure activities as possible down there and he documented it into this short video:
Check out the activities that Bennett did here:
Pucón is one of the best rafting spots in Chile, embark in a journey through the rivers of Pucon. In the Trancura river you can choose between class II and class IV Rapids.
Chileans love Pucón, no matter where they are from, they visit it every time they have an opportunity. Ziplining is Chilean families favourite activity when they visit Pucón during summer time, or how they call it Canopy. The highest zipline here has 500 meters and traspasses the Trancura river at 82 feet high.
If you are fit and like outdoor adventures as much as we do, you can’t miss this climb. For Bennett was Pucón’s main highlight, and as you can see on the video he had a cloudy day and couldn’t see anything from the summit. The adventure will take you 9 hours in total (climb and descente), but you will enjoy unbelievable views, specially when you will reach the summit and you’ll be able to see the breathtaking scenary with Villarrica’s lake on one site and the volcano crater.
Back in town, we said our last goodbye to Lake Villarrica, which is located just next to Pucon and is easy to walk to from the town center. Here you can find some of the famous black sand of Pucon, and although the water is extremely cold, there are kayaks and boats for rent in the summer. The lake in itself is a peaceful refuge for tourists, and we basked here in the last of the sun’s rays before preparing for our final bus ride home.
I have to say that whilst we had a very enjoyable long weekend in Pucon it was certainly not what we expected. The activities we ended up doing were more like ‘organized fun’ as we were bundled off in big groups and so found it difficult to truly connect with the environment. I can, of course, understand the desire not to let tourists wander around an active volcano on their own, however there were a surprisingly limited set of alternatives on offer.
If I were to travel to this region again, I would take a longer period to travel around the whole Araucania region, taking in at least Temuco and Conguillio National Park as well as Pucon. In addition, there are many other adventure activities that we could have done in a longer period of time (that are actually good for you!), such as hiking through the surrounding region and camping, going white-water rafting, and also mountain climbing.
For travelers thinking of exploring this area and looking for a way to connect with the authentic countryside of Chile, my recommendation is to take your time and plan a long trip hiking through the mountains. This way you will see the captivating scenery, get to visit the volcanoes and hot springs, as well as see real indigenous Mapuche people and culture. Along with this, you will then have time to pack in all the extra adventure activities you might want, from horse-riding to rafting to snowboarding. With a bit more time and planning, you will truly be able to get that exhilarating ‘escape to the country’ experience.
Molly taking in the natural beauty of Lake Villarrica