Gateway to Patagonia

For many travelers, Pucon is the gateway to Chilean Patagonia. For me, it’s nothing short of paradise. Upon our arrival on Friday the sun was shining down into the town and the sky was a clear blue, illuminating the perfect conical shape of Volcano Villarrica in the background. However, Saturday a thick layer of clouds engulfed the surrounding hillsides and rain threatened all day, a sure sign that summer hasn’t arrived just yet. Not to worry, the atmosphere at my hostel was familial everyone spent the day reading, playing cards, and just chilling in front of the fireplace. 

Thankfully, the rain abated in the afternoon just long enough to sneak in a game of pickup basketball with some like-minded Americans. 

Sunday the forecast showed even worse weather, but instead there was just some light cloud coverage, with the sun peeking through intermittently. Stefje and I took the opportunity to tackle the most popular bike ride in the area: a 40 kilometer loop to a series of waterfalls. On the way there we took a dirt trail to get our first taste of the countryside in Southern Chile. The landscape was drop-dead gorgeous everywhere we turned. As we sped through the downhills and laboriously climbed the uphill sections, our view was graced by verdant green cliffs smothered in trees, farms raising cows, sheep, and horses, and two strong rivers which provide the water source for the area. 

The unreliable tourist office in town had told is it was just a half hour ride, so we were understandably winded upon finally showing up after 90 minutes, but the views definitely made the challenge worth it. Los Ojos de Caburgua was a serene setting. There were two sets of waterfalls on either side of crystal clear lagoon, rushing towards each other with tremendous force. 

We took our time exploring the area both up and down river, where there were some smaller waterfalls and white water rapids, then just found a nice place to sit and enjoy the view. 

On our way out we took a look at the map and decided we were too close to Lago Caburgua to pass it by. What a mistake that turned out to be! The Southern point on the lake, Playa Negra, looked just a stone’s throw on the map, but it was literally straight uphill for the next four kilometers. We huffed and puffed up the hill, straining our leg muscles to will the bikes forward inch by inch and hoping for just one downhill section to ease the pain. Once we arrived, we found most of the beach under construction, but beyond the view of the lake and its surrounding forest was enjoyable. 

More fun though was the way back, as we finally got to use gravity to our advantage and bombed the downhill portion, constantly picking up speed without pedaling for minutes on end. Eventually the road leveled out and we had put our weary muscles back to work, so that by the time we reached Pucon in the early afternoon we were tired, sore, and in desperate need of a good meal. 

We were definitely in luck on that front, as Chile has proved an absolute delight when it comes to finding fresh fruit and vegetables. The grocery stores are so well stocked here compared to the rest of South America - and the restuarants so outrageously overpriced - that we ended up cooking most meals in the cozy, well-stocked kitchen in our hostel. That evening the storm we had been warned about finally arrived. Rain fell in buckets, but made the hostel a fun atmosphere as everyone was trapped inside together. 

Stefje has just finished Wild by Cheryl Strayed, so on Tuesday she put on her best Reese Witherspoon impression and we set off for an overnight hiking and camping excursion into the nearby El Cani nature sanctuary. In the morning we packed up supplies, including all our gear and enough food for seven meals each, then hoisted our heavy packs to the bus station. We arrived at the park at 12:08PM, which was a stroke of good luck as the ticket booth closes at noon and we were able to enter for free. But we immediately paid the price for not getting the complimentary map. For the first hour we ended up circuiting an informative nature trail with signposts about the flora and fauna of the reserve, but it turned out to be the wrong route and at the end we were farther from our destination than when we started. 

By backtracking along the main road we made it back to the entrance and this time found the correct path. For the first two hours the path was steep and the going was S-L-O-W sloooooow. A light rain fell intermittently, threatening to soak both us and the gear but holding off just enough to keep pushing on. Weighed down by a heavy pack and struggling uphill, we took it step by step but honestly didn’t make it too far before pulling over for lunch with a picturesque view of Lake Villarrica and the lush valley right in front of us. 

By now the clouds had luckily been driven off and we had a clear view of all the postage stamp sized farms dotted with pine trees. After another section of arduous uphill work we arrived at the park’s refugio, an abandoned building that gets spruced up for campers in the summer months. Above the refugio the entire composition of the forest changed. The pine trees we had been eyeing for the last two days disappeared, giving way to monstrous Araucaria trees, their thick trucks ushering us through a narrowing path. The trees were impressive in both their size and appearance, as the high branches reached above the underlying brush to soak up rays of sun. 

It was rapidly apparent why this area of Pucon was worthy of environmental protection, and we were both immediately grateful for the opportunity to experience it first hand. A little further on we came to the first of two lakes, Laguna Seca. Dry in the summer - hence the name - but filled with snow run-off right now, it emitted a peaceful stillness, catching us staring in rapture at the moss-draped trees on its banks that seemed straight out of a fairytale.

Finally we were treated to a section of easy hiking, as the trail leveled off through the calm and quiet of a dense forest, accompanied only by gargantuan trees and the sounds of chirping birds. We were particularly impressed with another variant of Araucaria trees, which were sharp like cacti yet green like Christmas evergreens. 

At this point we concluded that due to the morning’s poor weather - which had long since given way to luxurious sunshine - no one else had even entered the park that day. We were the only two souls, enraptured in a mythical wonderland. Just when I thought the views couldn’t get any better, we saw one more surprise: snow! We had gained enough elevation throughout the course of the day that we were now above the snow line. It was a harbinger of a cold night ahead, but added another level of serene beauty to our environment. 

We tramped through the snow pack until we came upon our campsite destination for the night, Laguna Negra. Ringed with melting snow and inhabited by a friendly family of ducks, we both agreed it was the most peaceful campsite we had seen yet. 

Behind the lake was our ultimate destination, the peak viewpoint of El Cani. Stefje was too tired to even think about going up that night, but I shoveled down some food, pitched the tent, and set off for the top. Immediately, I lost the trail due to the increasing amount of snow. But I knew the direction couldn’t be anything but straight up, so I dug my toes and fingers into the snow and began scaling the incline. A few minutes in, I paused to catch my breath and turned around to catch of full view of Volcano Villarrica dominating my view. In the last rays of daylight, purple and orange hues interplayed on the snowy surface and I started scrambling to the top to reach the viewpoint before sunset.

Fellow travelers had told me a lot about this view, but nothing could prepare me for the feast my eyes rested upon. Standing in line like soldiers marching to battle, three snow-capped volcanoes punctured the skyline, reminding me of Chile’s prevalent status in the Pacific Ocean’s ring of fire. 

Scanning towards the North, I could see from above the four lakes that I had already walked or biked by, their water reflecting the wonderful golden fiery colors of sunset. 

Behind me to the East were the impressive glaciers of the Andes mountains; I was now so high that nothing obstructed my view clear across to the border with Argentina. It was an impressive view made all the more glorious as the reward after such a grueling hike. The feeling of accomplishment was soon surpassed by one of feeling incredibly small and insignificant, as I came to appreciate the epic wilderness stretching around me in every direction. 

The way down took less than a third of the time, as now instead of fighting for every inch I could slip and slide with child-like abandon, practically skiing down the path created by previous hikers. We suffered that night, as the altitude brought cold air and the moisture that had hung in the air all day seemed to seep into out tent, chilling us to the bone. On the positive side, I was already eager to get up when the alarm went off at 5:30AM, our scheduled departure time to climb back up to the peak for sunrise. With baited breath, we reached the top and stared in awe as the colors of the volcanoes morphed from purple to yellow to white, heralding the coming of a new day. 

Rays of light streamed like flood lights onto the valleys below, illuminating the forest around us with trees and green scenery for as far as the eye could see. The only signs of civilization were the tiny towns of Pucon and Villarrica, with their roofs reflecting the morning light. To our right on Lake Caburgua rested the most curious cloud, suspended in mid-air above the water like a levitating blanket. 

Without a sound in any direction, it was one of the most peaceful sunrises I’ve ever experienced. 

After what felt like an eternity observing our surroundings in the pre-dawn peace, the first breath of sunlight came over a distant mountain range. It caused the surrounding lagunas to come to life, as ducks started swimming around and low levels of fog to steam up off of the surface. 

A long and steep descent made us deliriously tired, but having an extra day in the park was definitely worth it. We descended back into a more temperate climate, rolled out our sleeping bags, and found the perfect spot to catch some morning sunshine, simultaneously cruel laughing at and sharing advice with the flow of hikers sweating past us up the trail. By the time we made it back to Pucon, it was high time for some hammock chilling, as then sun had come out and made for a summer-like atmosphere in town. 

On Wednesday we decided to stick around the area for one more day so we could get up close and personal with the waters of Lake Villarrica. The enormous body of water was bright and clear as we departed, providing spectacular views of the volcano right next to us. We could even see some tiny wisps of smoke coming out of the boiling cauldron at the precipice, a reminder that the still-active volcano erupted just this March. 

There was a stiff breeze blowing into our faces as we paddled out of the symmetrical inlet, making the going tough but promising an easier ride on the way back in. Once we escaped the coverage of Pucon’s bay, strong winds whipping all the way across the surface of the lake made the waters significantly rough, but it was nothing we couldn’t manage. Along the right side of our view was a wooded peninsula, home to an bourgeoning community of expensive vacation houses and a line of beautiful black sand beaches. At the tip of the peninsula where our view was least obstructed, we parked the kayak on a tiny beach and set up an afternoon picnic, taking in a dazzling view of the lake and it’s far-reaching shores. 

The combination of the sun and the water made it feel like a tropical beach, but in the afternoon some clouds and stronger winds rolled in, signaling that we should coast back into town. 

With a wondrous few days of biking, hiking, and kayaking in Pucon behind us, we decided to reward ourselves with a resplendent dinner at Latitude 39, a restaurant owned and operated by San Diego transplants. In addition to the fish tacos, breakfast burritos, and imported Ballast Point beer, they serve up a wide range of different burgers that had come highly recommended. Seeing as it’s been months since I had a truly great American beer and burger combination, I took outsize pleasure in the stout burger: a venison patty topped with bacon, cheese, and a fried egg all smothered in their homemade stout sauce. It was a memorable, if messy, dining experience! 

Thursday we left Pucon behind, but not before first placing it high on the list of cities I’d like to return to sooner rather than later. The day before we had checked the bus schedule and everything headed South was already sold out, so we followed a ritual we’re getting comfortable with: write your destination on a piece of cardboard, walk to the edge of town, and stick your thumb out. The persistent rain couldn’t even dampen our spirits; we were optimistic about hitchhiking to our goal, the town of Osorno. 

Not long after our first ride stopped and told us they could take us across the lake to Villarrica. We coasted along the Southern edge of the body of water, with beaches and vacation homes on our right, farming land dotted with trees on our left. Villarrica is bigger than Pucon, but that’s not saying much. It didn’t take us long to walk from our drop off point all the way to a gas station on the other side of town. Here our good samaritan was a friendly van driver, headed to the next town and happy to let us sprawl out in the spacious back seat. 

But once he dropped us off we got a renewed appreciation for how sparse this area of the country is, because the gushing flow of traffic slowed to a trickle. This just made us ever more grateful when a pick-up truck told us to hop in the back, tranquilo (no worries). The driver and his aging mother occupied the only two seats, so we huddled in the back, taking in the countryside whizzing past us in reverse. 

He dropped us off at the turn off point to the town Huiscapi, and it was there that we had our first significant wait of the day. Over a lunch break we chatted up two ladies - the only humans in sight - that were waiting for the bus, and we were just about ready to take the next bus with them in 5 minutes when one more time luck prevailed. The next driver even agreed to take the two women, so the four of us piled in and shortly afterwards he dropped Stefje and me off at a gas station on the side of the Panamericana highway. 

Ah, the Panamericana! Five months after first encountering it, we were reunited once again with this vast snake of a road, which connects South America down the backbone of the Andes mountains. Although we had only gone a third of the distance to Osorno, it felt as though the tough sledding was over as most of the cars here were on long-distance voyages. Sure enough, the third car passing by picked us up, as the formally dressed construction manager from Santiago was intrigued by two gringos headed to the same destination. 

We flew past rolling hillsides green with freshly mowed lawns and spacious cattle ranches, passing directly through Chile’s entire “Los Rios” region at a mind-bending 150 KM/hr without stopping once. Before 4pm, we were in Osorno, immensely pleased with the speed and ease of our free journey. 

Our plan in reaching Osorno was to try and grab onward travel to a trio of tiny coastal villages, so we hauled on foot all the way across town to a tiny bus station, drawing stares all along the way. Osorno doesn’t attract many tourists as it’s more of an industrial transportation hub than a destination, but the locals we did interact with were all overly helpful and extremely friendly. Eventually we found a bus to the coast, a tiny cramped affair packed with congenial locals who all seemed to know each other. 

An hour and a half later we departed in the tiny beach town of Maicolopue and instantly a stiff breeze smacked us across the face, spraying salt up our noses. The sky was overcast and threatened rain, but that didn’t matter: we had arrived at the beach! In front of us lay the endless Pacific Ocean, like a plate of glass so smooth and unobstructed you might see straight across to New Zealand. 

Behind two inlet bays bisected by a rocky outcropping were the quaint houses of Maicolpue, accessible only through ridiculously steep staircases. Great big barrels of waves thundered down onto the shore and we spent more than a few minutes just sitting in front of the ocean, letting the ceaseless sound of the waves calm us after a long day of traveling. 

In retrospect I’m not quite sure what we expected this tiny town to have in store, but we certainly didn’t anticipate such a dearth of humans. In town it seemed as though everyone had evacuated for an incoming hurricane, with most of the windows boarded up waiting for the return of summer. We found a single open grocer stocked pretty much only with cookies and coca cola, then posted up on the beach for a night of camping well within earshot of the soothing sound of the waves. 

A light rain fell most of the night, as winds pushed the must off the ocean surface and onto the beach, but by the time we woke the following morning the weather abated enough to take in one last perfect view of the ocean. 

We easily could have spent the day or even the week on the beach, but on Friday we had to move on to our next stop in Puerto Varas, because earlier this week I got some exciting and unexpected news. After dabbling with the idea for a few weeks, my friend Isaiah booked a ticket to Chile on Thursday and is arriving on Saturday! The spur of the moment trip will be some much-needed time off from work for him and another fantastic opportunity to travel around South America with one of my best friends...I can't wait to see what happens next. 

Patagonia On A Budget

Looking for more information on how to make your own dream vacation in Patagonia a reality for just $30/day? Check out my e-book, Patagonia On A Budget. Inside, you'll find: 

  • The best value on the craziest adventures

  • Prices and details for accommodation, transportation, and activities in every destination

  • Detailed maps and itineraries of the most popular backpacking routes

  • Recommended campgrounds with the best rates and facilities

  • Instructions and safety advice for hitchhiking

  • The only packing list you'll ever need for camping

  • The electronics, websites, and applications to depend on during your expedition

  • A special bonus guide on packing and cooking during long hikes through national parks