The pretty village of Pucón in Chile sits beside the stunning Lake Villarrica and is dominated by the Villarrica volcano. Every street leads you to water, whether it’s the lake or the black sand beach, mountains of which some are snow-capped, and of course, the lord of it all, the white-topped volcano that resembles a massive meringue on a platter of green.
This vision had me spellbound every morning, with its puffs of smoke mingling up into the clouds lurking around the summit. Pucón is known as an adventurer's paradise and an adrenalin junkie's playground, but there is more to this small Alpine-like town sitting in the heart of Chile's Lake District.
The scenery is simply breathtaking, hot springs are everywhere, and the national park begs you to take a walk through it if you aren't into the strenuous effort of trekking. Birds actually sing in the mornings, especially around the mirrored surface of Lake Villarrica, where Mapuche statues proudly stand waiting for the tourists to shoot off their Instagram selfies.
Considering I was there during the winter month of August, the shop windows overflowing with woolly garments tended to draw me like a moth to a flame. Some mornings it was so cold that the toilets would block up with ice, and boiling water had to be flushed down to free them up. Winter runs from July to October, when the town overflows with skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts.
Spring is between September and November, with the summer months of December and January, drawing the water babies. There is always something to get up to no matter what the time of the year; it just depends on whether you can put up with the cold.
The abundance of specialty chocolate shops makes for an easy escape from the frigid outdoors. I spent hours sipping espresso in my favorite coffee house, Madd Goat, and pigging out on handmade heavenly chocolate creations whenever the urge to indulge couldn't be ignored.
Restaurants will always give you the Mapuche condiment known as "merkén" (think chili, coriander, and salt all ground up together) to liberally sprinkle over your goat's cheese, or it can be used as a rub on fish or meat, which would really warm you from the inside out. I found the most amazing small Italian restaurant, "La Trattoria da Pietro" with authentic Italian cuisine on offer, thanks to the owner/chef coming from Bolognia, Italy.
The historic heart of the town is choked with cafes, restaurants, tour operators and my favorite, chocolate shops to suit the most discerning chocoholic. There are plenty of original handcraft shops to pick up a souvenir and quaint delicatessens to indulge in some of the local goodies, which of course includes their own brand of dulce de leche for a finger-licking sugar hit.
The main drag of Bernardo O'Higgins is wide and bustling, while Fresia Street is where you will find upmarket boutiques and artisan shops to poke your nose into. The nightlife is boisterous, with adrenalin-charged souls pumped up on boutique beer and burgers, and the police are forever walking around the streets with their sniffing hounds in fluffy doggy coats.
You can grab a rickety bus to reach some of the out-of-the-way places, or do as many others do and hitchhike, as it appears to be the local way of getting around. The town's backstreets are predominantly of the dirt variety, and smoke continuously billows out of the rustic stone chimneys of the somewhat quirky wooden houses. This is the town where the dead have the best view, as its cemetery sits on the highest point.
Hole-in-the-wall pop-up cafes appear out of nowhere, and you can sit at the open window on a stool to sip your coffee. Veggie sellers line the pseudo footpaths with vast arrays of fresh produce, and quirky wooden huts sell cheese and empanadas.
For those that have no wish to run amok in the wilds, there are plenty of civilized activities to do:
- Check out the thermal baths and hot springs.
- Poke your nose around the Aldea Intercultural Trawupeyum Museo-Centro cultural village that is a living-museum on the Mapuche way of life.
- Take a tour of the caves at the base of the Villarrica volcano.
- Go for a walk over the suspension bridge of the Trancura River.
- Try your hand at fly fishing in one of the many riverways.
- Visit the Santa Clara Monastery where the Capuchin Poor Claire nuns sell chocolates, cookies, and beautiful handcrafted embroidery.
To get to Pucón, you can fly into Temuco Airport from Santiago or jump on board one of the many buses and let the scenic countryside pass you by.