Parque Nacional Huerquehue
My arrival in Pucon was on a cloudy, cheerless day and I would have had little idea that one of Chile's most active volcanoes was lurking just 15km to the south if my guidebook hadn't told me (though it's possible I might have figured it out from the many tour agencies around town offering volcano climbs). Smart cafes and a wealth of lodgings indicated a tourist hotspot, and some of the first voices I heard were American.
I somehow managed to pick a hostel that was both overpriced and underendowed with facilities, learning only after having checked in that strictly speaking they weren't lying when they said the place had wifi (it just didn't work), the "toasty" conditions that would apparently result from the wood-burning stove being fired up only extended about a metre away from the source, and the hot shower produced alternate minutes of hot then cold water. I would not recommend staying at Hostal Pucon at this time of year, pleasant though the owner, his family, and dogs are.
Pucon is certainly an excellent base for any number of outdoor activities in the appropriate season, the most popular being climbing the volcano (possible year round, eruptions
notwithstanding). There is also a beach at the edge of Lago Villarrica (only sunbathable in the summer), thermal springs within an hour's drive, horse riding on the volcano, whitewater rafting, etc. In winter, you can even ski and snowboard on the volcano.
I passed up all these options and instead went for a hike in nearby Parque Nacional Huerquehue, which happened to coincide with the most gloriously crisp, sunny weather I could have wished for. The only other guy still on the bus when it terminated at the park was another foreigner, and I was slightly alarmed to see he had a pair of snowshoes lashed to his backpack. As far as I know, he was the only other person in the park that day.
The landscape was impressive, with the main trail first skirting Lago Tinquilco before starting to climb through forests containing bamboo (I think the local name is colihue) and a mix of evergreens and deciduous, the ground hard and frosty. A couple of lookouts provided views of Volcan Villarrica back across Lago Tinquilco, and there were two side-trails to see waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside.
At a higher elevation, I encountered the snow
line. With only a pair of running shoes for grip, and a sense of balance that's imperfect at the best of times, from that point on my progress was slow and slippy. At the top of the trail the ground levelled out, and I was able to trudge to Lago Chico, Laguna El Toro, and Lago Verde without much further difficulty. The forests here were composed mainly of araucaria trees, known more commonly in the UK as monkey puzzles and which have been on the planet for millions of years - their spiky leaves apparently evolved as a protection against grazing dinosaurs. I'd only seen them as individuals in the UK so it was a spectacle to see entire forests covering the hills here. With the lake waters still and snowy ridges to left and right, it was a satisfying scene, the only downer being the unexpected rain shower caused by the bright sun melting snow on the trees' branches.
There was a further hiking loop but my footing was sufficiently poor that I knew I wouldn't be able to make it back to the park entrance for the last bus home if I tried it. I started back
down the trail, treading gingerly but still sliding occasionally on the snow until I was back below the snow line again and could make better time. I think I'd like to come back to this area in the future for some further walking either in better conditions or with better footwear.
Within Pucon, there were good views over the town from a monastery and open-air church on the hillside, but it was clear that the surrounding countryside was the reason to be there. With clouds making a reappearance after my one day of perfect hiking conditions, and a suspicion that rain was on its way, I packed up and continued heading north.
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