With its staggering landscapes, Chile’s Lake District is ideal for an adventurous family break.
I’ve always preferred a lake to the sea I and at first this one seems similar to the others – the water is cool, crystal clear and surrounded by mountains.
Once I’ve plunged in, swum out and looked back, however, I realise this lake is anything but normal.
Towering behind its black-sand beach is a whopping snow-capped volcano.
I’m in the town of Pucon, Chile, and this lake is named after the volcano gazing over it: Villarrica. It’s an hour’s flight south of Santiago in the country’s Lake District.
Pucon is also the very spot where, on 14 December this year, there’ll be a total solar eclipse.
While the upcoming eclipse is great news for hoteliers, explains Journey Latin America’s product manager David Nichols, it’s tricky for visitors.
“As with all eclipses, most hotels in the zone of 100% totality were fully booked up several years ago, so beds in places like Pucon and San Martin de los Andes are like gold dust.
But holidaymakers content to enjoy the spectacle outside the 100% zone may still be able to pick up a room in Valdivia, Puerto Varas or Bariloche,” he advises.
Eclipse or not, December is a great month to visit weather-wise, he adds. “The Lake District is one of the most dazzlingly beautiful parts of Chile and Argentina. Think deep-blue lakes framed by perfect volcanoes; hiking trails through temperate rainforest; and rivers made for rafting.”
While that night my eyes are drawn to the brightest Venus and crescent moon I’ve ever seen, it’s not an astro-adventure I’ve come for, but a family one.
It started in Santiago where we ate empanadas, explored hillside parks and luxuriated at the new Mandarin Oriental, whose views over the Andes are top notch.
Then we flew to Pucon whose landscape – and skyscape – is bigger, wilder and more dramatic than the capital’s, and whose volcano constantly puffs out clouds of smoke.
It’s tempting to laze on the beach and gawp at the scenery but this is considered the adventure capital of Chile and your clients might, like me, choose to juxtapose their R&R with the occasional adrenaline fix.
Our first activity is an all-day hike in nature reserve El Cani. Six kilometres, says guide Paulina as she hands us bamboo walking sticks.
Sounds simple, but we hadn’t appreciated the first half would be uphill. And steep. “Take short steps and don’t stop,” she advises.
I hear a cascading stream. I hear birdsong. But mostly I’m aware of my and my family’s staccato exhalations: husband Marc, twins Nathalie and Gabriel (17) and Hannah (14).
A constantly changing vista spurs us on. At first the trail winds past redwoods, orchids and orange calafate flowers used to make a Chilean pisco sour.
Then it opens onto lagoons. And finally it enters the Andean Patagonian rainforest, packed with monkey puzzle trees, some more than two thousand years old. They’re bewitching.
The sheerest push comes towards the summit, but it’s worth the slog because the view from the top is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
It’s not just of one, or two, or even three. It’s of four majestic snow-capped volcanoes. Ever-puffing Villarrica is queen of the crop and, from a height, appears more ominous.
Wherever we are, we’re aware of Villarrica. That night while dining on rib-eye steaks grilled to perfection at restaurant El Fogon (most beef is organic here), what do I spy through the window?
The volcano! The following evening, while sipping Merlot on Trawen Restaurant’s terrace, what’s ahead? The volcano! We see a road of lava that flowed from it.
We visit Geometric Thermal Springs heated by it. And while hopping between the 20 or so steaming pools, we’re thankful for it for giving the water such warmth and healing properties.
"It’s a place to come any time, with anyone, anyhow."
I’m so relaxed I don’t want that aura broken. The kids, however, crave one final thrill and white-water rafting is the big draw here.
That’s how we end up being sprayed and splashed by the river Trancura. We shout, we holler and we squeal while negotiating rapids called Lioness and Killer Rock, but despite a constant fear of capsizing, we never do.
“[Did you] have fun?” asks guide Tito once we’ve finished the 16km paddle.
It wasn’t just fun – we loved it. It was an exhilarating sport in extraordinary scenery. How many places can you paddle past three volcanoes?
Pucon is special, and it was a mistake to ever consider its lake “normal”. Every adventure felt wilder, more dramatic and on a bigger scale than anything we’ve ever experienced.
And while some travellers will come here just for the total eclipse, in truth it’s a place to come any time, with anyone, anyhow.
Journey Latin America offers a seven-night holiday to Santiago and Pucon in the Lake District from £2,556pp including all flights, B&B accommodation at the Mandarin Oriental, premium accommodation in Pucon, excursions and private transfers.
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Getting there: British Airways has recently increased its number of daily direct flights to Santiago. Flight time is about 14 hours.
Time difference: -3GMT.
When to go: The warmest months are October to March. December tends to be the quietest.
What to pack: Recommend clients take hiking boots, flip-flops and a swimsuit.