At the base of smoldering Volcán Villarrica, Pucón has gained a name as the destination for hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, windsurfers, and white-water rafters and kayakers. Still popular with Chilean holiday-makers, it enjoys a longer season than most lakes district resorts because hordes of youthful international travelers frequent the area from November to April. It has no sights of its own because almost everything worth seeing or doing is outside town. But at day’s end, everyone swarms to local hotels, restaurants, and bars to party.

That doesn’t mean Pucón lacks a serious side. Over the past several years, the landmark cooperative Hostería ¡Ecole!, along with the affiliated Fundación Lahuen, has actively promoted regional forest conservation.

Flowers bloom in the foreground while white smoke or steam streams across the sky from a snow-capped volano in the distance.

Volcán Villarrica as seen from Pucón. Photo © Stephen Colebourne, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

The locus of adventure travel in the Andean lakes district, Pucón offers activities ranging from climbing Volcán Villarrica to rafting the Río Trancura, hiking at Huerquehue, horseback riding, fly-fishing, skiing, and visits to nearby thermal baths. Competition, often cutthroat competition, can keep prices low and temperatures high among local operators. Occasionally, though, they cooperate in putting groups together, especially outside the summer peak.

Commercial operators include French-run Aguaventura (Palguín 336, tel. 045/2444246), Kayakchile (O’Higgins 524, tel. 045/2441584), Politur (O’Higgins 635, tel./fax 045/2441373), Sol y Nieve Expediciones (Lincoyán 361, tel./ fax 045/2444761), and Summit Chile (General Urrutia 585, tel. 045/2443259).

Best known for its accommodations, noncommercial Hostería ¡Ecole!(General Urrutia 592, Pucón, tel. 045/2441675, organizes groups to visit the Fundación Lahuén’s nearby Santuario Cañi forest reserve and other excursions. The staff also offers suggestions for independent excursions. Mario’s Fishing Zone (O’Higgins 590, tel. 09/9760-7280) is a fly-fishing operator.


Cuevas Volcánicas

On Volcán Villarrica’s southern slopes, but outside the national park, the misleadingly named “volcanic caves” are really lava tubes that descend 340 meters into the mountainside (unless you’re a bat, the darkness at the bottom is absolute). Reached by a fork off the road to Parque Nacional Villarrica, the Cuevas Volcánicas (tel. 045/2442002, US$30 adults, US$20 children) are 14.5 kilometers south of the main Villarrica-Pucón highway. Some guides can manage English if necessary. Admission includes a one-hour tour cost and transport to and from Pucón. Although the service has declined, it’s interesting sight in its own right.

Río Trancura

Barely half an hour east of Pucón, the Trancura is not one of Chile’s premier whitewater rivers—there are long calm floats between rapids—but the Class IV waterfalls make parts of the upper river a wild ride indeed. Heavy competition has kept prices down to about US$45 per person for the Alto Trancura, US$23 for the calmer Bajo Trancura. Both are half-day excursions, either morning or afternoon, but the Alto Trancura means a little longer on the water.

Hot Springs

The entire volcanic cordon of the Sur Chico is dotted with termas (hot springs), and there’s a particularly dense concentration around Pucón. Several have been turned into retreats or resorts that vary from basic day-use facilities to upmarket but not-quite-lavish hotels.

On the Río Liucura northeast of Pucón, Hotel y Termas Huife (Gerónimo de Alderete 324, Pucón, tel./fax 045/2445970, US$169-207 s, US$245- 311 d) is the most upscale option, a modern chalet-style resort with spa facilities in 40°C waters and massage therapy. Day-trippers can use the outdoor pools (US$26 in summer, US$21 the rest of the year). The resort provides its own transportation from Pucón (US$38 round-trip, including outdoor pool access). Infrequent buses also pass near the entrance. Restaurant and cafeteria meals are available. Termas Huife is 30 kilometers northeast of Pucón via Paillaco, on the road to Parque Nacional Huerquehue. The higher rates are in effect mid-Decembermid-March only.

Just two kilometers beyond Huife, the minimalist Termas Los Pozones (tel. 045/1972350, US$8.50 pp in the daytime, US$13 pp at night) is a backpacker’s alternative. It features a series of riverside pools ranging 30-40°C open during the day and at night (when some Pucón travel agencies run tours). Bring food and other supplies, as there’s little on-site. There are usually one or two buses daily (US$3 one-way).

On the highway to Argentina, the Parque Termal Menetúe (Camino Internacional Km 30, tel. 045/441817, pool use: US$27 pp in summer, US$23 the rest of the year, children are half-price) has the best indoor installations in the area. There are pools, mud baths, and massages. Menetúe also has cabaña accommodations (with breakfast US$150 pp in summer, US$131 pp the rest of the year; full-board packages US$169 pp in summer, US$150 pp the rest of the year). Menetúe runs its own daily transfers from Pucón, which includes access to the baths (US$36 in summer, US$32 the rest of the year); the transfer is free for those housed at Menetúe.

Southeast of Villarrica, beyond the town of Coñaripe, Ruta 201 leads to a turnoff to the Termas Geométricas (Km 16, tel. 09/9442- 5420, 10am-10pm daily in summer, 11am-8pm daily the rest of the year, US$28-36 adults, US$13-17 children under age 15), a Zen-like hot-springs retreat that’s drawn raves for its 17 thermal pools, linked by wooden walkways in a lush sylvan setting. There’s also a café, but no accommodations. Alcohol is forbidden.

Rancho de Caballos

At Palguín Alto, near Termas de Palguín, the German-run Rancho de Caballos (Casilla 142, Pucón, tel. 09/8346-1764, riding tours US$100 pp per day) offers a series of three-hour to 10-day riding tours of the backcountry in and around Parque Nacional Villarrica. In addition to tours, Rancho de Caballos provides simple cabaña accommodations (US$20 pp), with meals available in addition.

Corral del Agua

At Curarrehue, about 40 kilometers east of Pucón, a narrow gravel road leads northeast toward Reigolil. At about the 14-kilometer point, an even narrower road dead-ends 11 kilometers later at Corral del Agua (tel. 09/8398-9774), a small private nature reserve and lodge that organizes hiking and horseback excursions into the much larger backcountry of Reserva Nacional Villarrica, along the Argentine border.

One of Corral del Agua’s most impressive sights is the Salto Malal-co, a waterfall that spills vertically over a columnar basalt wall that resembles California’s Devil’s Postpile. There’s abundant birdlife, including nesting condors and many lacustrine and riverine species.

Santuario Cañi

In a high, roadless area about 21 kilometers east of Pucón, the Fundación Lahuen administers 400 hectares of mixed Araucaria forest in the Santuario Cañi, Chile’s initial private nature reserve. A project is underway to create a “Sendero Pehuén” to connect the reserve with Parque Nacional Huerquehue, as part of the ambitious Sendero de Chile project. It will have campgrounds, shelters, trail markers, and hygienic facilities.

For the moment, access is limited to guided hikes (around US$28 pp with a minimum of three) under the auspices of the Fundación Lahuen through Manuel Venera at the Grupo de Guías del Cañi (Camino Pucón Huife, Km 21, tel. 09/9837-3928) and other local operators. For information in the United States, contact Ancient Forests International (Box 1850, Redway, CA 95560, tel./fax 707/923-4475).

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Patagonia.