After pretending to be city dwellers for two weeks in Santiago, it was time to hit the road. We squeezed back into our backpacks and hopped on a grueling nine-hour bus ride to the city of Temuco, the gateway into Chile’s Lake District, which RoughGuides.com describes as “a region of lush farmland, dense forest, snow capped volcanoes and deep, clear lakes.” Gone were the arid, skin-cracking deserts we’d spent most of our time in since leaving Ecuador. Here there are actual forests and – believe it or not – rain.
When we got off the bus, we were tired and sore. Apparently we’ve lost the knack of long-haul bus travel, although even the shorter rides in this region are bone-crunchingly bumpy. Also, for the first time since our odyssey began, it was hard to figure out how to get to the next town. The major bus websites in Chile are shockingly barren of routes to Pucón and Coñaripe, the lakeside tourist towns we were aiming at next. In the end we reasoned that the vast majority of tourists who come to this area drive on their own. We did at last find the local collectivo buses that service the tourist towns, much to the chagrin of our lower spines. If the rides weren’t short, my teeth might have rattled out of my skull.
Temuco itself isn’t much of a destination. As we were told by people who live there, its only tourist business is from those passing through on their way to the lakes. Nevertheless it has a good museum of the Mapuche people, who were the last indigenous culture to hold out against the Spanish, and a lovely nature preserve (i.e., a forested mountain) right in the middle of town that, being in need of exercise and greenery, we climbed.
We came into Temuco on the second day of the “Teleton,” Chile’s annual charity drive. There were performances linked to the Teleton right in Temuco’s central park, but for some reason nearly every shop and restaurant was closed, even though it was Saturday night. On the next day there was some sort of celebration around the local fútbol team, which involved lots of people chanting, driving around, making noise, and nearly setting themselves on fire.
To begin our week of excursions, we bypassed the tourist hub of Pucón to go straight to the tiny village of Coñaripe. Tiny, as in the whole pueblo is about seven blocks long and three wide, only the main street is paved, and at least one public utility (water, electric, gas) went out every night we stayed there. We did score a spacious and very comfortable guest house and, despite our first inclement weather in a long while, enjoyed the sunset over Lago Calafquén.
The reason for going to Coñaripe was to visit Termas Geometricas, billed as the classiest of all the hot springs in the region. It had been a long time since Termas Papallacta in Ecuador, and our muscles needed a good, warm soak.
Termas Geometricas is a series of seventeen (give or take) heated pools that snake up a narrow river gorge into the Villarrica National Park. There are tours from the larger towns of Villarrica and Pucón, but on those you waste most of your time in transit and only get to spend two hours or so at the pools. By hiring a driver in Coñaripe, we were able to get to the termas soon after they opened and spend most of the day relaxing.
Which was all fun and games until we dared, dared! to eat a bag of Doritos. While it was clear that no one was allowed to eat in the pool area, there was nothing to indicate that we weren’t allowed to bring food from outside at all. It put a crimp into our afternoon to be told we weren’t allowed to snack while sitting right next to people who were eating food from the overpriced on-site restaurant. The staff chewing us out took a while to explain exactly what we were doing wrong. At first, all they said was “You’re not allowed to eat” while the people next to us were happily munching away.
In the end, we had to take our lunch out to the parking lot. Oh well; that’s what cranky travel blogs and TripAdvisor reviews are for: customer feedback.
The tourist hub of the area is on the other side of the national park from Coñaripe, nestled between the shore of Lago Villarrica and Volcán Villarrica, the giant active volcano looming over the city with a steady stream of superheated water vapor puffing out of the top. Villarrica is one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, but that’s okay – it hasn’t had a major eruption since 2015.
The trouble with Pucón is that its tourist industry is all based around “adventure tourism” – kayaking, white-water rafting, biking, climbing to the top of the volcano, etc. We wanted to see the sights, but not if we had to hike ten kilometers uphill.
So I’m going to give a shout-out to Viajar en Chile, the fantastic travel agency we used for all of our excursions around Pucón. The great thing about Viajar en Chile is that they actually run their own tours. Before now, almost every tour company we’ve dealt with was a “consolidator” that sold seats on other agencies’ tours when they couldn’t fill enough of their own. As such, no matter who we booked a trip with, we were never really sure which company was going to take us. With Viajar en Chile, that’s never an issue. If you book with them, you travel with them.
Which leads to another nice thing about Viajar – they offer different tour options than the other agencies in town. Walk down the main street of Pucón and the trips listed on all the billboards are exactly the same: climb the volcano, tour the region, go kayaking, go fishing. With Viajar we got to do things that weren’t on the generic Lake District menu, and we didn’t have to keep pace with a bunch of twenty-year-old German athletes who run up and down mountains every day before breakfast.
On the day we arrived, we were able to schedule a tour to the base of the volcano (meaning the point halfway up where the ski lift starts). All the agencies in town offer tours to the base, but only Viajar has a sunset tour, complete with hors d’oeuvres, Chilean beer, and pisco sours. From that far up the mountain, you can see four of the nearest lakes and several other volcanoes. Once it gets dark, and if it’s a clear night (it was) you can see all the stars of the southern sky and, as an added bonus, the volcano’s glow.
That’s not actually fire and/or lava. (Aaawwww…) It’s the water vapor cloud that you can see during the day, which at night reflects the light of the lava in the volcano’s crater. After four pisco sours (our guide Paulo kept pouring and pouring) it really didn’t matter. It was just pretty.
I’ll reiterate what I said last week: Chile is driving us to drink.
Next we took an all-day tour of the local area. This one visited the rapids at Saltos de Marimán, the waterfalls at Ojos del Caburgua, the beach at Lago Caburgua, and Termas Peumayen. The most fantastic of these was the Ojos del Caburgua – four waterfalls pour into an azure pool from all sides. Trails and miradors let you view it from every angle, and cool air blows upward from the glacial water – a relief on an otherwise blistering summer day.
After a day of rest (overcast with a high chance of rain) we took one more tour that only Viajar had as an option and that Lea couldn’t pass up under any circumstances. We went into the volcano.
There are volcanic caves (lava tubes) accessible at a private park on the side of the mountain. These are quite different from the limestone caves most people have toured at one time or another. We had hoped to visit lava tunnels in the Galapagos, but there they were closed due to venting of toxic gases from the volcano on Isabella. These caves were safe at the moment, so we jumped at the opportunity. It was cold as a knife both on the mountain and inside, but well worth the trip.
Next on our tour of the Lake District we’ll be heading into German-settled Valdivia and Puerto Montt before hopping on a plane and flying to the ends of the earth. Will there be bratwurst? Stay tuned!