Villarica: Smoking Volcanoes and Lakeside Beauty

Volcan Villarica has been huffing and spewing smoke lately; so much so that treks to the volcano were suspended for a brief period. As luck would have it, this volcano roared to life again and has been creating dramatic photo ops just in time for our visit.

It is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile and its last eruption was in 2015, but none of the locals seem too fussed by this current activity.

Villarica is our last stop in the Lake District. We got off to a rocky start, as we had booked an Airbnb that turned out to be completely unacceptable. This is only the second time we have walked away from an Airbnb – they have mainly worked out really well.

Photos showed a condominium with a forest view, but we drove up to a massive Soviet-bloc complex of about 20 buildings. With sinking hearts, we found our place, parked the car and walked up to have a look.

The apartment was tiny and hot, with all shades drawn against the blazing sun. (Broke my own rule about looking at Airbnb photos – shades or curtains drawn to obstruct a view are always a bad sign). There was toilet paper in the toilet, crumbs on the counter, a wadded up dish towel on the dish rack and dirt on the floor. It would appear the cleaner had a little snack and used the bathroom before they left, without properly covering their tracks.

Long story short – we got out of there, lost half of our payment, but did not want to invest time and energy in a “we said-she said” situation. It all worked out well in the end – we found this delightful hotel with a view of the lake and the volcano and a bountiful breakfast where three kinds of kuchen (cake) are included on the buffet table.

Lake Villarica is large and deep – about 170 square kilometres and has two main towns – Villarica and Pucon. We chose to stay in Villarica because it was described as being picturesque and more authentically Chilean, whereas Pucon was far more touristy.

One of the big attractions in Villarica is a simply gorgeous boardwalk that runs for a few kilometres along the lake.

On our first day here, we stumbled upon field day heaven for Villarica’s students. First there was this race:

Then there were these students learning to paddle:

Chilean young people are really fun to watch – they tend to be very well-behaved and confident. Last night we tried not to look too obvious as we eavesdropped on a dad with his daughter and her friend. The girls were about eight or nine, all dolled up to go out for sushi. The one girl (I’m assuming the daughter) NEVER topped talking and dad was taking it all in; eating and nodding and asking questions. A sweet glimpse into family life in Chile.

We are so impressed with the courtesy of young people – if you make eye contact, they will always greet you with “Buenos Dias” in the most off-hand way. Apparently older people are still considered to be an important part of the landscape. Have a look at this sign on the beach, ” We care about our elders.”

Respect for elders is a very Latin American characteristic. You often see multi-generations together, with either a daughter or granddaughter holding the arm of the elder family member.

Even the airlines take this approach. We have flown a number of flights now with LATAM, an exemplary airline who has smiled benevolently upon us a few times. Once, we had poor seats and I went to the desk to see if there was any chance of getting a little closer to the front. She gave us seats in Row 5!!!

Another time, we were waiting in line to board and approached by an attendant, asked for our boarding passes and ushered over to the Preferential Boarding line. We felt slightly sheepish but much like the senior discount, we could get used to this. Now we just head to the first line and no-one bats an eye.
Air Canada, are you listening?

Everyone we have encountered in Villarica is so interested in us. Apparently most English-speaking tourists head to Pucon, so we’re a bit of a novelty. When we took our laundry in on our second day, the young woman giggled through our clumsy Spanish and when we returned to pick up our laundry, she gave me a gift of a lavender sachet.

I was quite tickled by this sign in the laundromat; proof of a global dilemma: “We’re looking for a partner – dirty or clean.”

I had read that this area was to be avoided due to civil unrest between the Mapuche indigenous people and the government, but we saw no signs of any issues. We did see this mural, whose wording I can’t entirely make out, but the gist is that everyone has Mapuche blood on their hands. Very sadly, this mirrors the case for most indigenous people worldwide, with little real change in evidence.

Villarica is not a city with lots of street art, but we were taken with this one:

Not so much for the quality of the art, but for the informal gym that has been developed on the beach. Men doing chin-ups is a common sight, but there were also weights made of poured concrete, which we did not see used once while we were there.

In addition to the black lava beach, there were a number of grassy areas to fish, launch a kayak or take a stroll.

And…the luscious contrast between purple mountain range, black rock and choppy turquoise water.

Or, the more pastoral retreat – a rowboat and a picnic with your sweetheart.

The nearby town of Pucon feels entirely different. It is much smaller and appears to exist on tourist dollars. The streets are lined with high-end shops and travel companies. It’s a pretty little town and although it does not have a waterfront malecon, we stopped near a beach and enjoyed walking along the path.

Pucon’s main plaza is an arboreal extravaganza that covers a number of blocks in the centre. It also features a playground, several wooden sculptures and an open area suitable for events.

From Pucon, we drove to Lago Caburgua, one of the many lakes or reserves in the area. The Lake District has a well-developed park system, with camping, hiking, trekking, horseback riding and more waterfalls than you can shake a stick at. You could spend weeks in this area of Chile alone and not cover it all. We tried to see as much as we could in our short time here.

Waterfalls and hot springs are a big feature in this area. We didn’t get to any of the hot springs, but we did go for many oxygenated forest walks; always with a waterfall as the end goal.

A lake with a dock – summer without the heat, or the boaters or the swimmers. The water was still a comfortable temperature – technically a swim could have happened.

So much of the scenery reminded us of Canada, in particular of British Columbia. The lakes, the mountains, the curvy leafy backroads.

Our road trip along the Seven Lakes Circuit was a lot more dramatic. We drove through splendid scenery for about half an hour, then began to climb and climb. We stopped at a few lookouts, with food kiosks manned by people in parkas and toques. Our car registered five degrees. I took this photo with gloves on.

We have no idea what the name of this mountain is, but this is end-of-summer snow. It must be stunning in a couple of months.

Another volcano view along the way.

The drive around the lakes would have been reward enough, but we had a park to visit – Salto Huilo-Huilo. This is a privately-owned park within a national reserve and it was one of the best parks we’ve visited, in terms of amenities.

There were two trails, both very well-marked, a lovely patio for a welcome coffee and snack after the hikes and then, almost as impressive as the waterfall, there was a dream bathroom.

Bathrooms in Latin America can be a lottery. Sometimes they are clean, often they are not. There may or may not be toilet paper or soap. Sometime you pay to use the toilet, other times it is free. So when you head to the bathroom in a park, your expectations are low.

Set back in the woods, this bathroom was a stylish low building with slat wood design and slate floors. Not only was it spotless, there was toilet paper, soap and this:

The advertised waterfalls were tall and skinny – a stream of water tumbling from a great height to the pools below. They were pretty enough to look at, but absolutely boring in a photograph.

This cliff, with its multi-hued rock formations and ultramarine pools, was way more interesting.

I haven’t talked about Chilean food too much – largely because we’ve been a bit confused over the meat/carb/sugar overloads that seem to be found on most menus.

Our first night in Villarica, our hotel host recommended a popular spot in town – we said we wanted a salad or sandwich. When we had a look at the menu, we asked our server what a “completo” was, and he raved on about it being a local tradition. I thought he said sausage, so we decided to go for it. I was thinking hearty German sausage, sauerkraut, spicy mustard, maybe a pickle.

What we got was a hot dog – a skinny, pallid one at that, smeared with avocado, mustard, onion and proudly served on a wooden platform. It was about as appetizing as it looks, but we had a good laugh and chalked it up as a local experience. (Beer was great).

And that’s it for the Lake District – still so much left to explore for another time. Tomorrow we fly to Santiago, where we’ll be for 10 days before heading home. Lots to see – street art, museums, art galleries, parks, and of course wine!

See you again in a few days.

6 thoughts on “Villarica: Smoking Volcanoes and Lakeside Beauty

  1. Loved this post! Yes it is similar to BC! I love your pics aa well. Especially the one of the cliff with all the colours. Interesting hot dog, haha! We really enjoyed Santiago, the fish market was so good to eat at. The night life is rocking & because they eat so late the partying goes on & on……& on, haha! Amazing murals every where. Enjoy!! Can hardly wait to see you guys when you get home!!!


    1. There hasn’t been one part of Chile that we haven’t loved, and now we’re in Santiago and raring to begin exploring tomorrow. That fish market is just a half-kilometre away from us and every corner brings another new adventure. We lucked out with with a wonderful Airbnb in centro, so we’ll be walking a lot.


  2. I have to agree with you, several of your photos reminded me of B.C. I was especially taken with your photo of a cliff’s multi- hued rock formations – stunning! Not so stunning were your hot dogs! I’m relived to hear the beer was good!


    1. Heather, I have to say – I don’t get the attraction to the hot dogs, but they are everywhere, and every photo is the same – swampy-looking avocado with a mustard or mayo swirl on top. Anyway, we’re hoping now we’re in Santiago we’ll find some great food.


  3. Still amazed at how ambitious you too are and what an unforgettable trip you are having. Never realized the diversity in South America. Looking forward to your next post 🙂


    1. Anne, when we first started this trip I thought my travel chops were gone. I was hesitant and nervous, and made a big deal out of small things (in my mind), but it came back! Catching buses, finding bathrooms, trying out strange food, realizing my Spanish is not improving one bit, etc. etc. – it’s all an adventure.
      Now – to hold that thought once we’re home again, and keep looking for the “new.”
      And yes, I had an image of South America as being a weird sort of collage – an Andean mountain, a llama, a woman in native dress and a perilous bus ride. All of that but so much more – it’s like saying Canada is cold.


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