If you have any desire to go to the south of Chile, I cannot encourage you enough. RO and I returned on Monday night from a long weekend in Pucón and without a doubt it was my favorite few days in Chile thus far. In short: beautiful scenery, friendly people, plenty of opportunities to spend time outdoors, and great food.
I took both Friday and Monday off from work in order to extend the trip a little bit: the bus ride is between 9 and 11 hours each way, so RO and I wanted to make sure we had enough time to make the trip worth it. We hopped on an overnight bus Thursday night, and arrived in Pucón early Friday morning. We meandered through the still-sleepy town looking for breakfast, but after passing door after door of closed cafes and shops, we decided we would have better luck a little later in the morning. We found the Princesa Insolente Hostel, our home base for the weekend, dropped our stuff off, used the wifi for a bit, asked for cafe recommendations, and went on our way in search of breakfast. We ended up at Cassis: a cafe/restaurant/ice cream shop/chocolate shop with a beautiful natural wood interior and huge windows that let in natural light and showcase the beautiful views around Pucón.
Full and happy, we went in search of agencies to book guided excursions for the weekend. We were unprepared for how many options we had: everywhere we turned we came across a new agency offering the “best” rafting, trekking, horseback riding, skydiving, mountain biking, volcano climbing, four-wheeling, paragliding, and hot springs experiences you could want. Mannequins decked out in gear to climb Volcán Villarrica stood outside the little shops. A little overwhelming, yes, but it is nice to have options! We decided on booking with Aguaventura, a French-owned agency recommended by our hostel. Hiking the volcano was our top priority, so we knew we had to book as soon as possible: if the weather has been bad recently, there can be a backup of travelers – sometimes an accumulation of a week or more – trying to get a spot in a group to make the trek. In hindsight, we could have shopped around to find the best deal, but we were focused on getting a spot, so we booked right then and there.
Later that afternoon, we signed up for a horseback ride through land still owned and worked by the Mapuche people. We were led by a Mapuche man from his farm, through the village, and up into the mountainside. It was interesting to speak with him and learn about how he sees himself and his village in relation to the rest of Pucón and Chile as a whole. In addition to taking visitors out on his horses, he is also a liaison between the other people in the village and the Chilean government. He works to maintain the history of the village and help integrate it’s traditions into the broader context of the Chilean economy. Following the ride, we were brought to a small hut where a Mapuche woman served us fresh empanadas, tortillas, and sopapilla, accompanied by a drink that I can’t recall the name of, as well as jam for the sopapilla and a freshly chopped mix of tomato, onion, and cilantro for the tortilla. We returned to the hostel for the night to relax and get to know the other people staying there as well.
After a lazy Saturday morning and some shopping for things we would need for rafting and the volcano hike, we went back to Cassis for gelato (it looked really good at breakfast time, and while RO and I are die-hard chocolate and ice cream fans, we knew it would be best to wait until an afternoon craving hit) and headed back to the hostel to drop off our things and change into our bathing suits. We had booked a rafting trip that morning for the afternoon, and went to the agency (a different one this time) to get on the bus that would take us to the river. Decked out in full wetsuits, boots, lifejackets, bright shorts (“So we can find you if you sink” said the guide) and bright yellow helmets, we hoisted the raft into the river and off we went.
I’ve been whitewater rafting plenty of times before (thanks, Dad!), but while I knew what to expect water-wise, the scenery was just incredible. It was a quick trip – only about an hour and half on the water – but I enjoyed myself.
After rafting, we returned to the hostel to cook dinner and prep for our volcano trek the next morning. With a 6:30am departure time, we knew it would be best to have everything prepared and ready to go the night before. Food packed, clothes laid out, and alarm set for 5:45am, we crawled in bed to get some sleep before the big day.
Cue the volcano anecdote.
4:22am rolls around, and I wake up, a little worried that I missed the alarm and that we wouldn’t make it in time to the agency. Reassured that I still had over an hour before we had to get up, I fell back asleep easily.
Two hours and 19 minutes later: 6:41am. I wake up and have a funny feeling that it’s not supposed to be as light out as it is. I roll over, check my phone, and see the time. Oh boy. This time, I go into overdrive and wake RO up as fast as I can. What do we do? Have they already left? People wait weeks to be able to make this trek! Hopefully they’re on Chilean time (consistently a few minutes behind). There was no time to even be proud of ourselves for laying everything out ahead of time: we threw on our clothes, grabbed the food, and were out the door in three minutes flat. Seriously. We wouldn’t have made it if we were any slower. RO ran out first to pick up our sandwiches, and was greeted by a man from Aguaventura asking us in broken English if we were RO and Emily. I think our rushed behavior tipped him off. We let ourselves through the gate, and fast-walked/ran the few blocks to the agency, where everyone else in the group was already packed, dressed, and sitting in the idling van. We ran inside to grab the rest of our things, one of the desk workers tossed me the GoPro we had reserved the day before, and we boarded the bus. The door slid shut behind us and I maneuvered my way into a position where I could lace up my boots and put on my gators. Sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, a neck protector, and a granola bar completed the look. I stuffed my snacks and camera into my backpack and decided I was ready to go.
We arrived at the base of the volcano, and could see the gas rising from the crater and bending to the left. While there were a few clouds, the sky was bright blue and nothing looked threatening: all good signs concluded the guides, and we were cleared to start the hike. They warned us that due to the volcanic activity and the fact that the volcano contains a glacier as well, the conditions can change at any time, and we should be prepared to turn around at any point. Ice pick in hand, I stepped into line and we began to hike up.
I wish I had been able to record the whole hike to share it with you all! Partly because of the nature of the activity (I felt pretty badass, climbing a volcano and all. I’m not sure what other word to use.) and partly because of the view. You could look out and see for miles (kilometers would be a more appropriate measure here, I suppose). The lakes that wrapped around the mountains, the towns that sat in the valleys, the contrast of the green hills around us with the still snow covered Andes, and the glacial volcano. Yes, life seemed pretty darn awesome right about then.
The hike itself wasn’t long, distance-wise, but it took a while as we took our time and had to traverse across the volcano because it was so steep. We took plenty of breaks, in which we slathered on more sunscreen and made sure we were drinking enough water. There may have been snow, but the strength of the sun left us hot and sweaty. Even the guides, tanned and well-dressed, made sure to reapply SPF 50+ every time we stopped. The sun is no joke here in South America.
When we reached the top, we bundled up in our protective gear (both for snow and gas protection) and had time to enjoy the view and take pictures. You could peer down into the crater, but were advised not to get too close because you never know the stability of the edge. After pictures and our guides pointing out major landmarks towards the horizon, we strapped on our backpacks and got to the thrilling part: sliding back down. No hiking this time around, save a short stretch at the end, it was all sitting down and barreling through the snow, feet first. You kept your ice pick at your hip for steering and speed checking, but if you felt comfortable, you were allowed to go as fast as you want to. With no chance of falling, I figured I should go as fast as I could. Think of it as extreme sledding. It was awesome. I love skiing, and had contemplated renting a pair to ski down at the end, but sliding down was thrilling, and I’m glad I stuck with the “normal” option. There are countless people who make the same climb, and it is in no way a remote hike, but it’s definitely one for the books.
After a long day, we piled back in the van and went to the agency to unpack and hang out. Enter an aprés trek beer and some good conversation on the rooftop deck. When the sun set, we took a trip to Los Pozones, a group of termas|natural hot springs, to relax and see the stars. A final night in the hostel and we woke up Monday morning to catch our bus back to Santiago. While an eleven hour bus ride home is not ideal, it allowed us to see some beautiful scenery and to save money to spend throughout the weekend. For the experience we had, I think it was worth every penny. Or peso.
This is where I have some disappointing news: all of the pictures I took in Pucón with my Canon are lost. Somewhere in transit, my camera went missing and I only realized it when I went to show my host sister the photos on Tuesday. Hopefully it will turn up, but between stories I’ve heard about thieving and considering the complex system of buses, I have a feeling it’s long gone. From the trip, I only have a few iPhone pictures and some from the GoPro we rented. I’m very disappointed, (in myself and the situation) especially because the camera was a gift from my parents for my birthday this summer. There was crying, I’ll admit, after I went to the bus station and pressed the representative to check for my camera, but her search in the registry turned up nothing. I’ll keep looking, but I’m trying to wrap my head around that it was found and kept. But, as my host sister said, it’s just a material thing, and the memories are much more important. It’s hard to accept at the moment, but así es la vida|that’s life.