Pucón and Chilean Lake District, December 19-24

We ended up spending five nights in the town of Pucón, by far the longest in one place during our South America travels so far. We had perfect weather our entire stay, which certainly contributed to our thorough enjoyment of the town and its surroundings.

We added several activities to the previously-reported mountain-bike ride and volcano climb:
  • Emily and Jennifer took a four-hour guided horse ride in Parque Nacional Villarica, with spectacular forest and views (photo 1). We're really starting to get the hang of this horse-riding thing. Although Emily enjoyed the ride, her favorite part was the Choripán barbecue afterwards. (We've since tried to replicate it in the camper, with moderate success.)

  • While Emily and Jennifer were on horses, Tim and Alex were flying from tree to tree 50 feet in the air on zip-lines (photo 2). Forest canopy zip-line "tours" are the latest adrenaline fad in outdoor-adventure towns, worldwide.

  • We took an excellent, albeit traditional, all-day hike in Parque Nacional Huerquehue.
The guided activities and a couple of upscale meals really blew the bank, but the rest of our time in South America has been quite inexpensive, so we decided not to worry about it.

Our "home away from home" in Pucón was a pair of adjacent shops: Sol y Nieve, an adventure travel agency (highly recommended) with whom we organized our volcano climb, horse ride, and canopy tour; and Pizza Cala, where we frequently partook in excellent pizza and reliable wireless internet. Both establishments are run by charismatic ex-pats (one Colombian, one American) with whom we became quite friendly during our stay.

The previous travelog mentioned that we ran into the big orange adventure-bus a second time, weeks after our earlier encounter. It was even more exciting when into our campground came pedaling the German bicycling couple we'd befriended way, way back at a remote national park in Argentina (mentioned in an early travelog). At the time, they were headed south and us north, but we've since turned around and caught up with them. We very much enjoyed getting to know them a little better, and hearing more about their epic bicycle trip.

From Pucón, we drove to Puerto Varas, arriving less than two hours before our next-door neighbors from home. We hadn't particularly planned this rendez-vous -- their winter-break Patagonia vacation is in conjunction with a work engagement in Santiago. We assumed our paths wouldn't cross, but as the time grew closer it became clear we were headed right in their direction at just the right time. Emily and her best friend Julia got to spend several hours together, including not-really-swimming in a frigid lake with a stunning volcano backdrop (photo 3). We had a joint-family dinner and breakfast before they headed off for trekking in the Cochamó region, then to the famous Torres del Paine in southernmost Patagonia. (That's the one area of Chile we've visited before, so we won't try to get all the way down there on this trip.) It was particularly nice of the neighbors to haul in a large delivery of replacement reading books for the kids, just in the knick of time.

Digression on geographical terminology:
Patagonia refers to the entire southernmost portion of South America, divided into Chilean Patagonia and Argentine Patagonia. It's a geographical, not political, concept, so there's no hard and fast boundary. Northwest Patagonia comprises a popular area known as the Lake District -- the Chilean Lake District, where we are now, and the Argentine Lake District, which we'll visit later on.

After Puerto Varas, we first headed northeast to Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales, where we did an excellent bike-hike combination (photo 4) on the flanks of the same volcano that forms Emily and Julia's swim backdrop. (This one, Volcan Osorno, is much harder to climb than Volcan Villarica, so we didn't even consider it.) Photo 5 is from the same park.

Next, we headed south into a remote area in the general vicinity of Cochamó, recommended to us by the neighbor's trekking guide. Getting there was half the fun -- the area is laced with fjords and lakes squeezed among steep, high mountains. What few roads exist are rough gravel, and short-haul ferries are used in some otherwise impassable spots. On the way into the area we were concerned about making the second of the two daily ferries, so Alex drove with haste, especially considering the road conditions. Fortunately no harm was done except some rattled nerves, and we made it to the ferry dock in time -- it stung a bit when the ferry was over an hour late. Backing the camper onto the surprisingly small Don Felipe was somewhat exciting (photo 6); the ferry ride itself was beautiful (photo 7).

Once we'd settled into the area, we explored primarily by bicycle over a variety of terrain,
admiring pristine lakes, rivers, waterfalls (photo 8), and mountains. (The few people who live there seem to get around primarily by horse -- perhaps because the closest gas station is over 100 kilometers of gravel plus a ferry ride away.) We almost-swam in a slightly less frigid lake than the one in Puerto Varas, and we stumbled upon what must be one of the last remaining water-powered mills still in use (photo 9). The miller graciously showed us how he grinds grain for the isolated farmers, a perfect complement to the staged historical water-mill demonstration we saw back in the Black Forest.

One evening we were invited to an asado (barbecue) with a Chilean family camping near us. Jennifer and Alex enjoyed talking with the parents (the father spoke flawless English, rather unusual), while Emily and Tim had their own fun roasting marshmallows with the family's two young kids. Embarrassingly, neither Tim nor Emily had ever roasted marshmallows before, a major deficiency in their upbringing now rectified. The irony of marshmallows being a distinctly North American tradition -- the bag the Chilean family had along was imported from Skokie, Illinois -- wasn't lost on either family.

Next: Alarmed by the fact that we have only three weeks left in South America, we'll need to start doing some actual planning. We're debating between heading a bit further south in Chile by long-haul ferry (the only way to get to the next drivable area), or crossing over to Argentina now, so that our time in southern Argentina is more leisurely and flexible.

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