Pucon is surrounded by the gorgeous Villarica national park, named after one of the five volcanoes within. The alpine scenery is stunning – snow capped hills and volcanoes, crystal clear mountain lakes, and evergreen vistas all the way to the Andes that form the border with Argentina make it a truly special setting. And fortunately for us, it is criss crossed with 4WD tracks and hiking trails. Unfortunately for us, the weather only cooperated some of the time.
We drove up to a pretty little park within the park to visit a set of waterfalls that ran down a smooth gray lava floe. The stone was frozen just as it had cooled when the lava flowed downhill only three years ago, creating a perfect path for the river to bump over and along as it made its way down to one of the lakes below.
It was pouring rain when we arrived, and there was nobody in sight. Nobody to take our money, and nobody to tell us we were a bit loco for going to see waterfalls in the rain. But, we had brought rain gear, and what good is that if you don’t use it, right? I should say, in the spirit of full disclosure, that Mark and Austin were much less keen to be out in the rain than I was, but they obliged anyway.
The falls were really very pretty, and I’m fairly certain one long one set at the back of a canyon was the one my friend, Beverley had rappelled down when she visited Chile 15 years ago. We were in Pucon on her recommendation, and she did not disappoint.
I can sit and watch water tumble down rocks for hours. I find it soothing, and often stand in awe at the power of gravity and fluid dynamics, as the path of the water relentlessly hurls downward.
But there was only so much walking in the rain that I can convince my guys to do, and they were DONE. So we went back to the truck to try to figure out what to do next. It was getting on toward evening, and we had learned that cooking in the dark at a campsite was something we wanted to avoid having to do. So we set off in search of a place to camp for the night.
We’re still novices at this living in our car / overlanding / camping thing, and hindsight tells us that we should have just checked into a hotel for the night. But we brazenly thought, “sometimes it rains”, so we’ll have to sleep in the rain at some point. No time like the present to start now, then, right? (NB: three months later, as I edit this, that is the one and only night we ever have spent camping in the rain.)
We picked a secluded little site at the base of a cliff, and sat in the car, listening as the rain pounded harder and harder, and the wind howled around us. We ate sausage, cheese and crackers for our dinner while sitting in the car, drinking wine straight from the bottle. We then quickly made up the bed to go to sleep. It was only like 6:30 pm, but there was genuinely nothing else to do but sit in the car and listen to the rain.
It heaved down that night, and we woke up to find that the door near where I was sleeping hadn’t been shut all the way, and my side of the car was soaked. The rain had gotten in a few other places as well, and basically everything was wet. You can live in a car if its dry, but a wet car, wet mattress, wet sleeping bags, wet everything is just nasty.
We were all more than a bit grumpy, and after tears, a big family grumpus, and a big piece of apple pie in a cafe with a roaring fire, we checked into a cabin to dry out for the next couple of days.
The cabin was rustic, to say the least. Only one step up from camping. But we had a roof over our heads, hot water, and dry beds to sleep on. We hauled all of our stuff out of the car and strung it around the room to dry out. We then sprinkled down the car and mattress with baking soda, and waited out the rain.
As luck would have it, the next day was gorgeous, so we set out again to enjoy the outdoors.
Getting out of town
We wanted to go to a nearby glacier we had read about, and asked for a map from the local tourist office. They told us that we’d have to drive along a 4WD track for several km, just to see whether the park rangers had the roads open or not. It was worth a try, so we set out to find our glacier.
Austin had insisted we would have a picnic lunch, so along the dirt road in the forest leading to the ranger station, we stopped in a little clearing next to a rocky river, with a roaring waterfall nearby. It was an idyllic little setting with trees in all shades of autumn colouring towering above us, and the little river rushing along it’s gray lava stones right beside us.
After our picnic, we played for an hour along that little river. Austin made a boat out of found materials, and we watched as it floated over the little rapids down the stream. It was such a sweet little spot, but I noticed that there was a bit of rubbish strewn about.
Chile has been by and large free of rubbish. We hadn’t seen anything that was washing up on the shores, and the rivers and streams were clean. There was no rubbish along the side of the roads, and the city streets were clean. But anywhere that people had gathered to drink beers, energy drinks, smoke a pack of cigarettes, or stop for some late night loving, the evidence of their leisure was left right where it fell.
This was true of the beaches we had visited, riversides, and other outdoor beauty spots. Why not just take your empty cans with you? Why leave them there in nature – in the spot you chose because it was so pretty. Why trash up the pretty place? So we picked up the stray rubbish, just as we had done at all of our camping spots, and deposited it at the recycling centre in the next town we came to.
A few more km up a winding dirt road, we found the ranger station. It was deserted, but the gates across the road were open, so we carried on into the forest, toward the glacier.
Engage 4 wheel drive
It wasn’t a mystery to see why the tourist office told us that we’d have to ask the rangers whether the road was passable. It was deeply rutted, steep in places, and wet everywhere. It gave us the chance to thoroughly test our 4WD capabilities, and happily it passed the test.
The autumn leaves along the way were brilliant shades of reds, yellows, oranges and deep maroon that stood out among the dark trunks of the towering trees around us. At one little clearing, we stopped to let Austin play, and do his favourite thing…build in the forest with natural materials.
Mark and Austin set about making a little shelter while I snapped photos and tried to find a waterfall that I could hear, but never found. We were surrounded by enormous stands of bamboo that creaked and rattled in the wind, sounding as though they would fall at any moment. We were all alone on the track – we were quite sure of that – and the sounds of the forest swallowed us up.
The black glacier
We eventually reached the start of the sendero (trail) to the glacier. This particular glacier is known as a black glacier, because it’s covered in ash from the most recent eruption in 2015. The rocks and gravelly lava rock covering made it look as though we were walking on land, but the lack of any life growing out of it made it clear we were on the glacier. We picked our way around streams through lava floes, around boulders big and small, and through snowbanks dotted with puma tracks.
The views up toward the volcano were almost blinding, and behind us, the red, yellow and green mountains were mesmerising. The trail was a 4km hike round trip down through the forest that is slowly being taken over by the glacier, and we all three had a family race back to the truck. Austin won…by a hair. It’s not hard to see that the boy has inherited the competitive gene (You’re welcome, and I am sorry, mi hijo.)
From there, we continued on through the hills and forest to the Termas Geometricas, a stylish hot springs facility set within an ethereal canyon. Protected on all sides by steep rock walls covered in greenery, and shrouded in steam, the succession of more than a dozen pools are connected by brightly painted red walkways.
The stone pools, waterfalls and steam take you to another world – another planet almost. We spent the entire day basting ourselves in hot water. Some pools were as cool as 37*C (98.6F), others were in excess of 40*C (over 103*F). One pool was 7*C, the same temperature as outdoors, and while it seemed like a good idea to take a cold plunge, my legs were the only part of me brave enough to venture into the frigid water.
Believe it or not, you truly can get enough of hot springs, so we dried off and enjoyed a cup of tea and a piece of cinnamon cake in the lodge, while trying to see out of the huge steamy windows.
The Lakes District
You reach Patagonia in Chile first via the Riverland region and then by the lakes region. As the land climbs higher, it forms deep navy blue alpine lakes, surrounded by hills, mountains, trees in every shade of autumn splendour, and the occasional perfectly comical volcano.
As we wound our way south, we found more and more remote campsites to choose from, and spent some beautiful, if not cold nights near lakes and in forests.
The most memorable was a clearing high up in a Eucalyptus forest that had been planted for logging. From our perch that had been dug into the side of the hill, we could see across ridges and valleys. The towns and villages below were totally obscured by the trees. We were seemingly alone in the world.
As you can imagine, the sunset was brilliant from that spot, but what made it truly special was the thick blanket of stars that came out on the clear nearly moonless night. We pulled out SkyGuide, one of the best apps I’ve ever downloaded, and quickly identified Jupiter as our waypoint and then dozens of other stars and constellations after that.
SkyGuide is one of Austin’s favourite apps day or night. I highly recommend checking it out.
We loved that spot so much we spent a second night there after visiting the nearby city where we happened upon a military parade on Chile’s national Navy Day.
From there, we were headed to Entre Lagos and a different type of experience – volunteering at an eco retreat / permaculture farm.