Without enough money or time to reach Patagonia but needing a break from Chile’s urban triangle of Santiago, Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, we overnight bused it south to Pucón, in the heart of the Chilean ‘Lake District’.
The name Pucón means ‘entrance to the mountains’, in the language of the native Mapuche Indians. It’s a grand name for a town with a grand setting, dominated as it is by Lago Villarrica and a feisty volcano of the same name. However, faux indigenous ponchos and pan pipes seem not to be the reason for most visits. On the contrary, even the most cursory Web search of Pucón will reveal a litany of writers scrambling to call this place the Aspen, Colorado of Chile. Now, this means almost nothing to me, but if Aspen is an impeccably clean, laid back town that sits on the shores of a lake filled with water purer than a bottle of Evian, surrounded by delicious mountain peaks then, well, sign me up for a flight to the Rockies.
Aspen is not the only attempted comparison. The Swiss Alps also come up, and with names like Gudenschwager adorning the sides of buildings that look like they’ve been dropped in from St Moritz, it’s an easy one to make. In fact, in Pucón one can rightly expect to spend an après ski (or trek, or white-water raft or any number of outdoor pursuits) sharing apfelstrudel with radical Shaun White types.
We arrived mid-spring when the days are mild and the evenings crisp. The air was so fresh it would have had even the most committed smoker reaching for a nicotine patch and the whole area smelled of recently cut grass. Not the kind you might expect from a town popular with backpackers but the stuff you need a lawn mower for. It reminded me of being a kid.
We hiked trails and hung out on Lago Villarrica’s black sand beach to watch Chilean school trippers brave the freezing waters. It was the perfect antidote to big city smog and assorted Latin American mayhem.