A Guide to the Perfect Family Vacation in the Pucon Area of Chile
Map showing the length of Chile. Arica is its northernmost point, and the country stretches to Patagonia at the tip of South America.
Pucon is in Chile, not Chili!
Since 14,800 people search for “flights to Chili” each month, let’s start with a spelling lesson. Chili is something you eat that makes you squeal and glug the nearest jug of water. Chile is a long thin country in South America, whose inhabitants are known as Chileans – and who don’t even particularly like chili. (Though they used to a few centuries ago.) And for the 9,900 of you (probably British) who searched “flights to chilli”. That’s wrong too.
So, just to remind you, for this article we are heading not to Chili or Chilli, but Chile.
Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s hop on a flight south (or west for readers on the Southern hemisphere.) We are going to the Pucon area of Chile, sometimes known as the Lakes District. And since you asked so nicely, it’s pronounced: “Poo-con.”
Pucon is around 789 kilometers or 490 miles south of Santiago, the capital of Chile. You could visit it as part of trip to Chile, which is what our family did, or you could base your vacation in the Pucon area, possibly taking excursions to neighboring areas.
Either way I do not advise that you do as we did and drive from Santiago. The drive was long, the rental car did not have climate control, and our clothes were sticking to us by the time we arrived. Our kids, as well as being hot, were grumpy - even though on the way there we stopped overnight at Termas de Chillan. After our drive back to Santiago my older daughter wrote in her travel journal: I sat in a car for ten hours and argued with Lolo. How BORING! (I’m sure all parents reading this can imagine that scenario, so be sure to read the alternative travel suggestions at the end of the article.)
Some Fun Facts about Chile and the Pucon area
We know by now that Chileans don’t like chili (or not much) but they do like empanadas – a pasty with meat or cheese. If you decide to ignore my advice and drive from Santiago you can buy empanadas at roadside service stations.
Almost every town in Chile has a main street called Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue, or sometimes just O’Higgins Avenue. As his name suggests, Bernardo O’Higgins was of Spanish and Irish descent. He is generally considered the founding father of Chile after leading the country to freedom in the Chilean War of Independence against the Spanish in 1823.
Chile is almost 4270 km long – that’s 2653 miles, and it stretches from latitude 17° south to 56° south. This leads to widely differing climates in the south and north of the country. At 39°, Pucon is in the middle region. The Pucon area is lush and green in comparison to much of Chile, and that is because it gets more rain, so take waterproofs! We went in February and the days were mostly warm and sunny. The average daily maximum temperature in January and February is 25°c, but the temperature drops considerably at night. During March the days are warm and sunny, but by April the average daily temperature drops to 18°c and rainfall rises. June is the wettest and coldest month, with an average high of 11°c and 17 rainy days.
The volcano Villarrica is a major tourist attraction in the area, and Pucon is on the southeast of Lake Villarrica. There is a town of Villarrica, on the lake's southwest shore, but Pucon is nearer than Villarrica to both the National Park and volcano that bears its name.
Volcán Villarrica - a beautiful vista and a great visitor attraction
History of the Pucon Area
This beautiful terrain was for centuries home to the Mapuche people. They fought off invasions from both Incas and the Spanish, and until the mid 19th century their lands were independent of Chile and Argentina. (Their land spans both countries.)
During the Pinochet regime large tracts of Mapuche lands were taken from them and given to forestry companies who felled native trees and replaced them faster growing varieties. Since 1990s the Mapuche have been campaigning for improved living conditions the return of their lands. The Macpuche have their own web-site, mapuche-nation.org, which highlights their quest.
During the mid 19th century the Chilean government encouraged Germans to immigrate to Chile, and in particular to the southern areas, where lush vegetation and snowcapped mountains mean the landscape is similar to southern Germany. The Germanic influence on the area is evident today in buildings and in the food available. Immigration from Germany continues today, and our hotel was owned by a German couple.
Salto Bella Vista
Where to stay in Pucon
We stayed at Landhaus San Sebastian, a small hotel and ecological farm, which is about 15 – 20 minutes drive northeast of Pucon. As with many side roads in Chile, the last mile is over a gravel road. The main part of the hotel has three categories of room: standard, superior or a suite. Set back a little from the hotel are family sized log cabins, and it was in one of those that we stayed. Our younger daughter was beside herself with excitement, since she dreams of having her own log cabin! We, on the other hand, we less than excited to find our cabin had one single bed downstairs and another upstairs, along with a double bed. Before war broke out over who was getting to sleep upstairs with Mum and Dad (or which parent was to be banished downstairs while both kids bounced about upstairs) we contacted reception who soon moved a bed downstairs.
Landhaus San Sebastian is owned and run by Andreas and Gabriela, and they are happy to show you round the farm if you’d like. Being German they also speak very good English, which helps if your Spanish isn’t great. Much of the food on offer at breakfast and dinner comes from the farm.
If you are on a more limited budget, then in Pucon itself, Hosteria Ećole! is a good choice. This hotel offers a selection of accommodation, including for families and for solo women travellers. It also has a vegetarian restaurant where we ate a delicious and healthy meal. Again in Ećole!, staff speak fluent English.
All the photographs on the right and the one immediately below are of Salto Bella Vista, a waterfall on the Rio (river) Carhuello. From Landhaus San Sebastian this waterfall is a short walk through beautiful woodlands.
White Water Rafting on the Rio Trancura
Instructor-Led Activities on the Pucon Area
We went white water rafting on the Rio Trancura, with Politur Travel and Adventure. Our kids were 10 and 9 at the time, and not big enough to row, although their taller cousin got a paddle. Politur’s website now states that the mimimum age is 14, but as the website only promotes rapids level III and IV they may still allow younger children to ride the lower levels.
Our friendly instructor was Peruvian, but lived in Chile. (Many Peruvians move to Chile to work.) He was much more than an instructor, and entertained us with stories from his adventures in Chile and in Peru, interspersed with interesting facts about the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile, who in the Pucon area live mainly in the mountains beyond the Rio Trancura.
Every now and then our instructor would break from his stories to shout, “Paddle! Paddle!” We soon knew that meant another rapid was coming up, though we weren’t entirely convinced that that our instructor wasn’t just pandering to our egos by letting us think he needed our help. Whether or not our pathetic paddling really made much difference, we all had an exhilarating time, and would have gone back another day if we’d had more than a few days and there had been fewer other activities to try.
Other Instructor-led Activities in the Pucon Area
Several companies in Pucon run horseback riding tours, from a few hours up to 12 days long. Politur and Landhaus San Sebastian both offer horseback treks into Villarrica National Park.
Canopying is very another very popular activity. In this you are attached by a harness to a zip wire, high above the ground and ‘fly’ along the treetops. Some companies offer a variety of courses at different levels so children can take part.
In the winter months snowboarding and skiing is available at skill levels.
White water rafting on the Rio Trancura, near Pucon, Chile
Ever wondered what a volcano looks like inside?
Volcán Villarrica – inside and out
Hands up how many of you have ever ridden a pony? Rafted or kayaked down a river? Yeah, I see a lot of hands. And now, hands up if you have been inside a volcano? Hmm, as I expected, not so many hands. So if there is one activity you really MUST do when in Pucon it is visit Volcán Villarrica. And go inside it.
“Inside a volcano?” I hear you squeal. “No way, I don’t want to be boiled alive.”
Don’t worry! I’m not suggesting you climb to the summit of Villarrica and then launch yourself into the glowing heart of its crater.
What you can do though, is go inside caves formed by molten lava! Now, if you live in Hawaii, a trip into a lava tube may well be an everyday event, but these are non-existent in Europe, so for our family it was an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Tours inside Volcán Villarrica are run by the Volcano Observatory, which also monitors its activity. Chileans take safety very seriously and tours of the lava caves only run if there is no sign of eruption, although the lava has long since diverted off and stopped flowing through these tubes. The tour begins with an introduction to the geology of volcanoes and the history of the Villarrica. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and its last major eruption in 1971 killed 15 people.
But inside the lava tubes of Volcán Villarrica there is no sign of molten lava or heat. The day we visited Villarrica it was shrouded in mist as you can see from the photographs, but even if it is sunny outside the inside is cold and damp. The deeper you go, the colder it gets, so take a sweater. The caves surfaces amazed our children, who thought they looked melted chocolate, but luckily they were old enough not to try to eat it!
Back on the outside, if you’d like to climb to the summit of Volcán Villarrici you must either be a member of a recognized club or go with one of several companies in the area who provide guided trips. As with the trips inside, these only occur if the volcano is safe.
Termas de Los Pozones
Hot Springs around Pucon
All over Chile you will come across “Termas,” which are hot springs with varying claims to cure ailments from arthritis to nervousness. While I doubt that these claims are true, a trip to a termas is something you will remember for life. At the top end of the market, you can book a cabana and base your vacation around a termas with luxurious swimming pools and smart restaurants. One such termas in this area is Termas de Huife, which gets good reviews for the pools and general area, but many consider the hotel overpriced. So a day visit seems the wisest choice. Because we had stayed overnight at another luxury termas, Termas de Chillan, on our way south, we opted for the more rustic Termas de Los Pozones. To reach these pools, we left our car near the entrance and went down a very long set of steps, so we were ready to relax in the warm water when we reached the pools. These have been built up with stones to give a natural appearance. They vary in temperature from 30 - 42° c. The river Liucura runs alongside Termas de Los Pozones and many people splash in it to cool down.
Whilst floating in the warm pools is relaxing, especially if you have been hiking on one of the many trails in the area, I would advise you not to lie too long in the hottest pools - one of our daughters did this and felt faint afterwards. My husband then carried her part of the way back up those long steps, so he earned his glass of Chilean wine back at our hotel that night.
Hiking in the Pucon Area
Many people come to the Pucon area specifically for the hiking, and although it is necessary to go on a guided tour into Villarrica National Park, the same is not true of Huerquehue National Park. This park has many well laid out trails through forests and alongside lakes.
As well as wildlife such as the lizard shown in the top photo opposite, expect to see domestic animals: sheep graze near the entrance to the park and cows forage in the forest. (Check out the brown and white splodges in the bottom photo to the right.) Because much of the walk is through woodland, the heat is not oppressive, and so is suitable for children.
The first photograph below is of Lake Tinquilco, and the next is a tree, whose long creeper astonished me.
Many of the walks in Huerquehue National Park lead to spectacular waterfalls, and the terrain is dotted with small lakes.
The last photograph below shows the spectacular view of Volcán Villarrica from Huerquehue National Park.
(See below the photos for maps and information on getting to Pucon.)
Map showing major attractions in the Pucon area
Flights to Chile
The following airlines offer flights direct to Santiago
From the USA:
Lan, Chile’s national airline, flies from New York and Miami, and seasonally from Orlando.
American Airlines fly from Dallas and Miami
Delta fly from Atlanta
Air Canada flies from Toronto
Air France flies from Paris
Lan flies from Madrid and Frankfurt
Lan flies from Sydney
Qantas flies from Sydney (starting March 26 2012)
Getting to Pucon from Santiago
Recommended mode of travel:
For families I recommend: fly to Temuco, and from there rent a car.
(See map below for location of Temuco and Pucon.)
Other modes of travel:
Most travel sites estimate the drive at 10 hours and you should expect it to take longer with children. Highways in Chile are a reasonable standard, but from Temuco the road to Pucon is single carriageway so travel is slow.
If you are taking an extended vacation in Chile and have time you could break the journey. (We stopped overnight on the way south, visiting the Termas de Chillan, but this meant a round trip detour of 100 miles or 160 km.)
By bus Pucon is around 11 hours from Santiago.
Overnight trains travel from Santiago to Temuco and from there you could get a bus or rent a car.
An important Consideration when Renting a Car
Many roads in Chile are not paved, including roads to many attractions such as Volcan Villarrica, and the National Parks. As much of the terrain is mountainous and some gravel roads are deeply rutted, I would advise you to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Some Useful Sites for a Vacation in the Pucon Area of Chile
© 2012 Yvonne Spence