Pucón is the adventure zone and tourist central of Chile. On a clear day, from every block in its small downtown, you can see the snow-patched Volcán Villarrica, among the top ten active volcanoes in the world. A few blocks from the main street is a marina and beach on the shores of Lake Villarrica, where vacationers whip around in ski boats and jet skis, join tourist boats for a jaunt around the lake, or take a leisurely swim in the shallow water near the waterfront.
Some travelers prefer to avoid tourist locales and go off the beaten path. Admittedly, those experiences may be more authentic, and I definitely like doing them, but sometimes it’s really nice to be in a place with amenities that revolve around tourists. Everything in Pucón makes it easy to be a visitor. It has a plentitude of good restaurants, tons of stores selling tourist necessities and souvenirs, waiters and shopkeepers who understand gringo-accented Spanish, and countless tour companies offering excursions to participate in Pucón’s adventure activities.
Choosing from the dozens of enticing thrills offered in and around Pucón was a difficult task, only because I wanted to do them all! Canyoning, ziplining, paragliding, kayaking, horseback riding, biking, relaxing in hot springs, camping in national parks, it all sounded so much fun. Alas, budgetary and time constraints made it impossible to do everything, so I had to parse down the choices.
My first adventure outing was a rafting trip on the Class IV rapids of the Trancura River. I was a bit worried about the raft hitting a too-intense rapid, overturning, and me getting stuck under it, a concern that was mostly due to some horror stories I’d heard from friends. But these same friends also talked about how much fun it is, so I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.
Turns out, all the hype is completely warranted. Surging over billowing river waves, ducking as walls of river collapsed onto our raft, paddling like our life depended on it when we were in danger of capsizing after a particularly strong rapid almost sucked us into its whooshing hole. It was an absolute blast, and I didn’t fear for my life once.
My fellow rowers were all Spanish speakers, so I had to quickly learn that when our guide yelled “Adelante!” it meant “Go!” and “Fuerte!” he meant “Paddle harder!” and “Alto!” then we should stop rowing.
After each rapid, we high-fived our paddles and sat back to enjoy the calm stretch of river until the next rapid. When we finally dragged our raft on shore at the end of the ride and attempted to dry ourselves in the swiftly cooling evening air, it felt like we had accomplished something great.
That night, I arrived home about fifteen minutes before the clock was to strike midnight. On any other day, this would be of no significance. On this night, it would mark the end of my 20s and the arrival of my 30s. The owner of my hostel, Alejandro, busted out a bottle of champagne, and a few hostel mates and I cheersed to my birthday. After an entire year of feeling slightly apprehensive about this moment, there was no stopping it. My 20s are officially behind me.
The next morning I awoke late to great happiness because it was the best day ever! Despite now boasting an age that sounds a whole lot more than one year older than my last year’s age, I was very excited for the day. I am one of those weird people that really, really loves my birthday. Even though I was a continent away from my family and friends, I knew it would be a good day.
Since I wouldn’t be skydiving like I’d planned, it was a day of doing some of my favorite things, eating and shopping. Cheesy eggs and a chocolate-carmel torta (one of the best pieces of cake I’ve ever had) washed down with a chocolatey-cinnamon coffee fueled me for a day of browsing the shops on the main street of Pucón. I strolled in and out of bookstores, department stores, travel stores, art stores, jewelry stores, and an artisan galleria. Making an exception to my no-buying rule, I treated myself to a new ring with seven bands, one for each month of travel I’ve accomplished so far. This is to remind me of how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing at this point in my life.
Dinner was an asado at the hostel, where some hostel mates sung Happy Birthday to me in Spanish and I chowed down a plate of vacuno. Then it was early to bed in order to rest up for what I knew was going to be a very strenuous day the next day.
At 6am I dragged myself out of bed, layered on snow pants over yoga pants and a snow jacket over my only warm-ish hoodie, tightened up some hiking boots, threw on my hat, gloves, and scarf, chugged some coffee and inhaled some bread and jam, and joined my tour group in a van that took us to the base of the Villarrica Volcano.
Our guides gave us a choice of paying 6,000 pesos (about $12) to take the ski lift to higher ground or hiking for an hour to the same spot. I was the only one in the group who wanted to hike! Luckily, an exuberant cute young Israeli guy decided to join me, so the two of us followed one of our guides up the steep climb while the rest of our group headed for the ski lift.
We trudged up the dirt and rocks and caught up with our group a little ways past the ski lift drop-off. Then we continued on up, lumbering through volcano rock, skidding over unsteady dirt, slipping on snow, scaling boulders like stairs. My ice pick helped me to keep my balance on the loose dirt and rocks and the icy snow. As we went higher, the snow got particularly tough to maneuver without sliding back downhill, so we attached crampons (basically, strap-on bindings with spikes) to our hiking boots for our feet to easily grab onto the icy slope.
Hours and hours we climbed, at times braving freezing wind, at others drenching with sweat from the workout and the beating sun. Clouds wisped over us, then suddenly they cleared out, and we were above the cotton softness that covered the town below. It was like being in a plane, except we were on a volcano!
Finally, we made one last trek over some volcano rocks, and we were at the top. The big hole that was the crater was right in front of us, dispelling a vapor that looked like smoke but was actually sulfur gas. The gas-filled air was suffocating, burning my throat and causing everyone around me to incessantly cough. But forgoing fresh air for a bit was totally worth it to see the top of an actual volcano.
I treaded around the crater’s edge, trying not to take deep breaths. Then we perched on the side of the crater for lunch. I couldn’t believe that I was actually sitting there, basically inside a volcano, casually chomping on cheese, crackers, and grapes.
After lunch, it was time to descend that huge volcano we had just spent hours ascending. Lucky for us, there was a better way to get down than clamoring back the way we came.
What is the best way to get down a snow-covered volcano? By sledding!
There was a long course of sledding paths all down the snowy part of the mountain, kind of like a waterslide covered in snow. We sat on little round plastic sleds that were tied to our backpacks and flung ourselves down the volcano.
Sledding down Villarrica Volcano is in the top ten of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. I went so fast, shooting down the slide, flying around the curves, almost sliding right out of the chute, crashing into the person in front of me and learning how to use my ice pick to catch on the snow right before impact so I could avoid future crashes.
The luge course went on and on and on down the volcano. What took five hours to climb up took only about a half an hour to sled down.
Upon our return home in the late afternoon, one of our hostel guys greeted us with some homemade pisco sours. They were delicious but sure didn’t help me stay awake! Completely exhausted, I collapsed on my bed and promptly fell asleep as soon as the sun went down.
Now that I have gotten my fill of thrills for the time being, I am heading north to the more tame Valle de Elqui.