PUCON, CHILE – The first thing you notice when getting off the bus in Pucon in Chile’s Lake District is the smell of smoke from the wood-burning stoves that are ubiquitous around town. The next thing you notice is the volcano.
Located in Chile’s Lake District in the southeast portion of the Province of Cautin, Pucon and the surrounding area is home to Lake Villarrica and the Villarrica volcano. It’s about 11 hours (700 km) by bus traveling south from Santiago, Chile’s capital, and though that might sound like a lengthy trip, if you get a seat on the left side of the bus, you can enjoy the views of the Andes mountains visible during much of the journey.
The Villarrica volcano, at 2,847 meters, is one of the world’s few permanently active volcanoes, according to VolcanoDiscovery.com.
The volcano erupted March 3, spewing smoke and lava and forcing a temporary evacuation of residents and visitors. Those who witnessed the eruption reported sightings of lightning striking the ash cloud above it.
The volcano towers over the city and can be seen from practically every vantage point as you move around town. It’s located about 17 km to the south of Lake Villarrica, within the Villarrica National Park. A 3-km zone around the volcano was closed following the recent eruption, but visitors have since streamed back into Pucon. The National Service of Geology and Mining has since downgraded the activity rating for the volcano from red alert to a yellow warning. When the volcano is not in a dangerous spate of activity, guided ascents are available. The Politur Travel & Adventure and Sol y Nieve companies, just two of dozens of travel agencies in Pucon, normally offer excursions in summer. (Chile is in the Southern Hemisphere, so the seasons are opposite North America.)
Many travelers to Pucon come to see the volcano and then realize there are many other things to see and do when they get here. First on that list would be Lake Villarrica.
The lake, with an area of 17,300 hectares, was formed by glaciers in the last ice age and is popular among visitors in part because the water temperatures are in the 20-something degrees Celsius during the summer, making swimming and waterskiing popular. Fishing is also popular, with trout and salmon both populating the lake’s waters, and many guides are available for sport anglers.
The town lies on the eastern shore of Lake Villarrica and is a sort of home base for excursions to the volcano, the lake and surrounding areas for hiking, skiing depending on snow conditions (there are numerous ski shops in town) and horseback riding. The town boasts dozens of hotels and the restaurants offer a variety of cuisines, catering to a diverse group of travelers to the town.
Particularly numerous and popular are restaurants offering churrasco steak and Chile’s renowned red wines.
There are more than 30 hostels in Pucon, according to hostelworld.com. Prices vary depending on the season but generally they are considerably less expensive than at a hotel. For example, the Dondegerman hostel cost 36,000 Chilean pesos (about $72) for two people in the off-season. The hostel is a popular destination for hikers, skiiers and others pursuing outdoor activities in the area and it operates a tourism agency onsite.
Walking around town during the cooler months, travelers will notice the ever-present smell of smoke from wood-burning ovens and the stacks of chopped wood in backyards and side lots that fuel them.
According to Worldwatch Institute, while Chile has taken the lead in Latin America in tackling urban air pollution, little has been done to help towns like Pucon address particulate pollution from firewood burning, which supplies 20 percent of the country’s energy, the institute said.
Chile’s Lake District covers Chile’s Ninth Region, known as La Araucanía, and Tenth Region, called Los Lagos. It stretches from the city of Temuco at the northern end to Puerto Montte in the south. There are 12 major lakes, with dozens more smaller ones. There are numerous rivers, waterfalls, forests, thermal hot springs and the Andes, including six volcanos with Villarrica the highest.