Date of Trip: January 2007
Southern Chile is a must-see on any trip to South America. After much discussion, we decided that with our limited time we would spend our time in the area of the Villarrica Lake and Volcano. At first, we planned on taking a night train or bus down to Temuco, with is an 8 to 10 hour trip, and renting a car from there. However, the cost of buses during the summer months (Dec. to Feb.) caused us to change plans and drive the whole way in a rental car. We have friends who take a two-hour flight from Santiago to Temuco, but we decided we preferred to see more of the country.
We are a family of five, with two seniors and a child, and wanted to go in “American” comfort and style, so after much research we rented a van from Alamo. We insisted on an American brand since there is a great difference in size and features between U.S. and Japanese vehicles. It was pricey, even by U.S. standards, but in the end we felt it was worth it to have the freedom and comfort. Our son was able to play and even take a nap during the trip.
However, due to some problems with Alamo, I would not recommend renting from them in Chile. They overcharged us, gave us false information, and refused to reimburse us for the expense of repairing a damaged tire rim on the trip (about $50), even though we got approval over the phone and presented the requested receipts and other documentation. They also didn’t seem the least bit concerned that the damaged tire could have caused us to have a serious accident, when we showed proof that the damage had to have been known before our trip because of evidence of an attempted repair job. So, AVOID ALAMO!
We left Santiago on a Tuesday taking the South Route 5, also known as the Pan-American Highway, but decided to stop in the smaller city of Talca, only a four-hour drive, to break up the trip. We stayed that night just off the main street of shopping at the Hotel Cordillera. We saw air conditioners for the first time at the hotel, and soon learned why! The rooms we were given had no windows so we couldn’t access the cool evening air. As a result, we had an uncomfortable night. One room’s AC worked too well and had no control so it was freezing. The other AC didn’t work well and it was sweltering. However, the bathrooms were nice and we parked in an interior courtyard area. The hotel has a definite European feel to it with lots of wood furnishings and a cozy dining room. Our rooms were very small, with just enough room for the queen bed and a tiny closet. This is fairly standard for Chile, though.
On our return trip through Talca we stayed at the Hostal Del Puente, at the street 1 Sur 407. It was much nicer with a cozier atmosphere. A restaurant serves dinner, but we did not eat there. The rooms were clean and cozy and the beds comfortable. We enjoyed a continental breakfast in their dining room the next morning.
While in Talca, we ate at Los Olivares, right on the River Claro, across the river from the main city park. We watched the sunset over the river from our table on the patio. The food was hearty fare – chicken, meat, salads, but great flavor. It is higher-priced than other places downtown, but we felt the atmosphere and view was worth it.
Continuing toward the south, we stopped for lunch at the town of Los Angeles and drove into the center of town. The parks were lovely and well-maintained. We ate a small restaurant off the main plaza, Restaurant Voule-Bar, across the plaza from the supermarket Lider. It was a typical Chilean restaurant, filled with locals. The fare was flavorful. They offered several traditional dishes. My husband, the Chilean, loved his “cazuela”, which was a popular dish at the restaurant. All the food was delicious and price was reasonable. In fact, we stopped there again on our return trip! The bathrooms were filthy, however, so we went took advantage of the modern Lider bathroom facilities before continuing our trip.
The highway was a pleasant experience. We stopped at the large, modern Copec stations for gas, snacks, etc… Many even feature a small playground for children, which nice for our son to stretch his legs. We could buy ice for a our small cooler, and got snacks at a reasonable rate. And clean, free bathrooms – obviously an important feature for us!
We passed through Temuco, 673 km. south of Santiago, the next afternoon, but didn’t stop because we were anxious to finally reach Villarrica. We left Route 5 in Freire, following signs for Villarrica, and took Highway 199, which is a two-lane road. The closer we got to Villarrica the traffic began to increase. However, the landscape was changing and we enjoyed going slower to see everything. It was only 34 miles to the town from the main freeway, and we soon found ourselves at our cabins, Quimey Gnechen, which in the language of the Mapuche means “God is Good.” The cabins are located on Isabel Riquelme, a turn to the right just as you come into the town after passing over the bridge of the River Tolten. Our hostess, Carmen Cortez, lives in a large house at the front of the property, which stretches back from the road in a narrow corridor. Along this way are several beautiful, large cabins, with parking and a garden at the back.
Flowers were abundant along the fence bordering the property, and a bouquet of freshly-picked flowers were waiting in our cabin. The property has four fully-furnished cabins, all include cable TV. The one we were given is the only one with queen beds in both rooms. One room had a queen and twin, the other a queen and a bunkbed. All the cabins could sleep up to ten if needed. The cabins have the standard small living area combined with dining area, but with an ample dining table. A small kitchen is off the dining area. Our cabin also had a full-size refrigerator, while the others had smaller ones. The bathrooms were roomy, with showers only, but plenty of hot water when we needed it using a “califont” water heater, which was turned on in the kitchen. The stove was gas, and worked beautifully the times we used it, which was mostly for breakfast.
Even though we usually drove anywhere we went, being good Texans, we soon learned that within walking distance were many amenities. Just two blocks away were small shops, including an internet access business, fresh vegetables and fruit, a small convenience store with basics, fresh flowers, etc…. We purchased large, juicy watermelons there, as well as fresh flowers. Also within walking distance were a nightclub, a bar, access to the river Triton, and a very nice restaurant. However, taxis abound and were very economical to get to other areas of Villarrica since it is a small town.
Carmen Cortez, the owner of Quimey Gnechen, was extremely hospitable. Laundry services were available at a reasonable rate. And just the mention of interest in any kind of activity was met with an immediate phone call and the appearance of a local who offered the services! For example, we mentioned that my mother loved to fish and wondered what fishing was available, and a gentleman soon appeared who had boats and guides for fishing trips on the River Tolten. We asked about tours of the area, and within an hour a tour guide appeared complete with his brochure of offered tours and prices.
One evening we had a cookout in the back garden, which has multiple fruit trees. Carmen also offers homemade fruit compotes and jams made with her own fruit. A grill was available and a large picnic table. It was relaxing and private. A large family group came while we were there and had a party in the garden, but it is far back enough that we could only barely hear guitar music. We found this to be an excellent feature of the locale.
We decided to take a tour and were glad we did. The terrain and roads in and around the area are not always good, and the locals are not easy to find. Our guide was Hugo Ulloa, a native of the area and of native descent. He was very knowledgeable about the region. Our tour began early at 9:30 a.m. and our first site was the Ojos de Cabergua, a group of natural pools surrounded by forests, where an enormous convergence of springs occurs. Its waters are clear and a deep blue. We even spied a copihue, the national flower, which only grows in the forests of Chile. The springs area has not been greatly developed, but there were paths to follow and even our seniors were able to get close enough to take photos. Mr. Ulloa took us to the side that was easiest to walk and observe the springs. He said another road arrives on the opposite side, and we could see a narrow bridge that could be traversed right above the springs waterfall, but we agreed ours was more appropriate for having young children and seniors. Mr. Ulloa was able to identify the flora of the area, which pleased my gardening parents. The area does not have decent bathrooms at this site, and only offers snacks at a kiosk.
From there we visited two different waterfalls, one which we viewed from the road itself, and the other was a short walking distance into natural forest. We truly felt surrounded by nature and its beauty.
Finally, we went to one of the many hot springs in the area of the volcano that have been developed to different degrees. You can find from the luxurious and expensive to the rustic and cheap. The Trancura hot springs was a moderate location. Well-developed but not at the high end. Our clothing, cameras and other valuables were placed in boxes and supervised during our visit. Once we were in swimming suits and equipped with towels and flip-flops, we followed an enclosed pathway to the pools. The view was beautiful, with the volcano just in the distance and forest all around.
Trancura has three outdoor pools that are all cool water, nice during the warm summer days. A water slide was at the largest, but was not open the day we went. It also has three enclosed hot springs baths, with one being very hot, and an enclosed cold pool. Several mud bath pools were also available, with outdoor showers beside them. They ask patrons not to enter the other pools after the mud bath, so usually it is the last thing before going inside to shower and dress. The decor was nice, but not new. Some wear was visible everywhere.
It has a very family-oriented atmosphere, with all ages present and enjoying themselves. We noticed a restaurant as well, and apparently many other activities are available at Trancura, including massage. We only spent three hours, but it would easily have been a day trip in itself.
Of course, Villarrica itself is beautiful with a the large lake with the same name, and many lakeside beaches to enjoy. We went to the “Playa Blanca” one day, just outside of town, and one of the more popular because it is accessible by public transportation. Many locals took a taxi and were dropped off at a pathway leading down to the lake. Others walked from the main road, about a mile down to the path. A parking area also was available and we decided to pay the $5 fee and park in the shade and off the road. Parking on the dusty roadway is free. It was a short walk from the unpaved, grassy parking area down to the lake.
The beach was clean, but rocky at the shoreline until we walked further into the lake. We hadn’t worn any shoes and wished we had! The surroundings were fantastic – the sapphire blue lake with the hills and volcano in the background. The water was cold until we acclimated to it. But the sun was warm by early afternoon. Most people were arriving when we left at about 3 p.m. Later we learned there were many beaches in the area, but not very many with a parking area.
My mother and husband took a fishing trip with Segundo Cea fishing services, starting very early in the morning until early afternoon. The launching point is located down the street from the main Plaza Villarrica. They had a boat with a guide, with tackle provided, but hooks and bait were purchased separately. Mother was successful at catching about 10 lbs of fish, a mix of river salmon and trout. She chose to keep the fish and we had a fish fry at the cabin! She said it was the best birthday she could remember. However, in typical Chilean fashion, they returned much later than the time that had been stated, which had my father worrying and would have caused problems if we had been trying to keep any kind of schedule. But even though my husband didn’t catch any fish, he said the beauty of the River Tolten and the peaceful boat trip was worth it.
While they were fishing, I visited the main plaza with my father and son. It was hosting an international arts and handicraft fair, which kept me entertained with textile handicrafts, jewelry, even herbology from Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. John kept busy riding “little cars” – a push-pedal metal car rented for about a quarter for fifteen minutes.
At this fair we bought lapis jewelry designed by the seller. It was unique and a good price. Later, a friend in Santiago in the jewelry business verified that it was high quality lapis lazuli and silver.
As far as eating, we stocked our kitchen for the traditional breakfast items we enjoy and ate breakfast in the cabin. Lunch depended on where we were and what we were doing. However, we sometimes placed an order with Carmen for traditional Chilean food, or if she was preparing she let us know in the morning and we placed an order. She is a wonderful cook and had a well-equipped kitchen.
One evening we walked down Isabel Riquelme to the restaurant El Yugo, off the beaten path normally, but with a wonderful atmosphere, great food (specializing in grilled meats), and a fantastic view of the river.
We also went to the plaza at the Municipalidad de Villarrica and viewed wooden handcrafts sold there. This region of Chile is famous for its wood crafts. A festival was going on, with musicians playing andean pipe music. A trolley car was giving short tours of the town, and we got a nice ride, with a gorgeous view of the lake. It was fun to see Chileans enjoying their summer evening. We were treated that evening to a full moon shining above the volcano and reflected in the lake. An almost magical sight never to be forgotten.
We also visited the Mapuche Cultural Center with authentic replicas of traditional homes of the time of the Spanish conquest. A large handicraft mall next to the cultural center had a variety of handicrafts, mostly in wood of course. We purchased quite a few souvenirs and gift items to take home. We found all of the souvenirs to be cheaper than in Santiago. If you have the money to ship extra items home, the wooden furniture is wonderful and unique.
Our few days in Villarrica did not do the area justice. We could have been there two weeks and still not seen or done everything there is to do. The lake was gorgeous and cool for hot summer days, fishing, hiking, thermal baths, horseback riding, etc…
We did pass through Pucon on one excursion and found it to be high-priced and mostly a tourist trap, albeit quaint. We agreed that Villarrica was a more authentic Chilean experience and infused with the warm hospitality of the townspeople. We enjoyed just walking down the main street Pedro de Valdivia shopping, eating ice cream, etc… We felt extremely safe because of a visible police presence. We learned that the town doubles their police force for the tourist season. The town is also very clean and maintained.
My husband and I have both travelled further south to Puerto Montt and even Chiloe, and of course the beauty of the area is overwhelming. However, Villarrica offers a little of everything within a small area. We were very happy with our choice since we had only one week. It was relaxing and wonderful for the whole family, with swimming, thermal baths, fishing, hiking, and more available within a short distance.