We awoke in the space between clouds. Fog had settled into the valley below, merging seamlessly with the lake, creating a continuous silvery landscape
High above us, the top of the volcano was shrouded in thick grey cloud. Our camp for the night, in a protected alcove on a ridge between the two, sat right in the clean clear dawn of the space between.
As I sipped my tea, perched on a rock overlooking the world, I felt peaceful for one of the odd moments when nothing and nobody else is around. I breathed in the crisp morning mountain air and drank in the realisation that this was a moment I had dreamed about, hoped for, and imagined. We came all this way for this…and it was totally worth it.
Pucon is a little mountain town in the northern reaches of Southern Chile. A gateway to the lakes district, summer hiking and winter skiing, it is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts almost the year round. In the Autumn, it was nearly deserted, and many of the hundreds of hotels, guest houses and cabanas were closed for the season between the seasons. Ski season wouldn’t open for another few weeks, and it was too wet and cold for summer activities.
But we were there anyway, and made the most of it.
We had arrived in Pucon by mid afternoon, and started our search for somewhere to stay. After three nights of sleeping in the car, we were still happy, but thought it would be nice to sleep in a proper bed for a few nights while we explored the volcanoes, hot springs and gorgeous lake. Best laid plans, right?
May is possibly the nastiest part of Fall in South America, and everything was either closed up tight or inexplicably expensive. As we tried one place after another who wanted upwards of £100 per night for a basic cabin, we resigned ourselves to camping in the car another night, and trying again in the light of day. It was getting dark, and we learned our lesson on the first night not to try to set up camp after the sun goes down.
However, Pucon had other plans, and every camping site listed on iOverlander, or other likely candidates we found, either didn’t fit the bill for us, or had brand new signs or gates posted stating “no acampar”. We were starting to feel stuck.
We were defeated. The sun was starting to set, and we had nowhere to go. We were tired, hungry and completely drained.
Earlier in the day, when we were still feeling optimistic, Mark and Austin had looked at a little guesthouse run by a little old couple. The scouting reports from my two boys couldn’t have been more different. Austin thought it was amazing and started extolling the virtues of the kitchen, the living room and the fire. Mark thought we’d be renting a bedroom in “grandma and grandpa’s flat”.
Completely out of other options, we went back there one last time for me to take a look at it. I was too drained to even want to do that, and the prospect of trying to have yet another conversation in Spanish where I had to concentrate was just too much. But eventually, Mark coaxed me out of the car, and introduced me to the delightful Carlos, aka “Grandpa”.
First of all, I don’t know what goes through Mark’s head when he looks at a place, but I should learn to listen to Austin. The little “Hostal Sofia” was perfect. There were four bedrooms situated around a large living room with a roaring gas fire and a full kitchen that had a perfectly framed view of the volcano.
For several hours we were the only ones there, and I made steaks, asparagus and carrots for dinner, and downed half a bottle of Malbec while we played a British trivia game that we found in the flat.
It was just what our tired and defeated souls needed. Little did we know, it was really what we needed physically as well. That night, the rain started. Heavy rain, gusty winds, and generally cold, sideways rain continued for the next three days. Camping in that would have been miserable. We had no idea the rain was coming – but Carlos certainly did.
He kept the wood burning furnace roaring for us, and never once asked “aren’t you people going to leave the house?”
We holed up there until the rain eventually stopped, revealing clear blue skies and a deep layer of fresh powdery snow covering the volcano.
You could feel the excitement in the air of the wooden mountain town. Even though it was pleasant in Pucon, people had donned their ski gear, and headed up to the snow on four wheelers with their snowboards attached to the back.
We packed up to head out into the national park and explore the area. By the way – it was fairly obvious that we weren’t staying in “grandma and grandpa’s flat” – They lived downstairs, in a totally separate flat. It wouldn’t have mattered either way. They were lovely.
The Villarica Volcan
We made it as far as the Villarica Volcan on our first day of sunshine. Only a few miles from town, but a world away. We climbed up a little dirt track in our 4WD until we reached Las Cuevas — lava tubes so big that they’ve formed sizeable caves that run down the mountain.
The volcano is relatively young, geologically – only about 100,000 years old. It last erupted in 2015, sending molten lava way up into the air, and back down into its lake of lava inside. The entire landscape is covered in lava rock and solidified lava floes. Those who climb to the crater (using crampons and ice picks) report that it’s like looking into the depths of hell down there. When it’s not cloudy, you can see smoke wafting out of the top.
At the caves, we were given hard hats and an interesting lecture on plate tectonics. The caves were much bigger than you might expect for something that formed as the outer layers of lava cooled, and the inner layers kept running down the hills until it became too thick to continue moving.
It was amazing to see the different lava formations – from twisted ‘rope” lava, to shiny grey lava, lava that looked as though it were chocolate that had been spread on the walls, and the millions of lava stalactites that dripped down from the ceiling. The force of earth that would have been flowing through that space was immense and difficult to imagine. Visiting the lava caves was a fantastic introduction to the area.
As we played around the park for the next couple of days, we came to recognise the different lava related phonemena that we might not have noticed before.
That night, we parked a little way up the mountain, at 1200m elevation, in a little space of flat ground that had been carved out of the rock. To our backs was the volcano in all its splendour. The valley and the lake stretched out below us. We lit a little fire and kept each other warm telling G rated ghost stories.
We were doing just exactly what we had set out to do – bonding as a family, getting out in nature, and experiencing the world…in the world.