The question is rather simple: do you want to be near the main tourist attractions, where all the infrastructure is, but also amongst the tourist masses? Or in a quiet industrial town at the same lake, much smaller and with not much to do? The answer is Pucon for the first option and Villarrica for the second.
Both located in the northern part of the lake district, along the borders of Lago Villarrica and the volcano of the same name. I chose to go for the smaller and quieter option.
The lake district attracts touists by the tens of thousands, also many locals. It can still get decently (25 degrees) warm in summer, and is maybe a one day drive from Santiago. Which, for Chile, is quite close.
The big attractions in the area here are of course the volcano and the national reserve of the same name. These are both guarantees for proper adrenaline sports. But they are also very close to Pucon.
From Villarrica you can do the same stuff. But there are less options (=less agencies) to choose from, and in the worst case you need to take a bus for one hour to Pucon. But if, like me, you don’t have the ambition to go volcano climbing, Villarrica makes perfect sense.
The village is laid out in a grid pattern along the lake. Since 2010 there is a Costanera, a waterside boardwalk with a black-sanded beach.
Food and drinks
Plenty of choice here, except on sundays where it is a bit of a struggle. The slightly more expensive options are near the Embarcadero, where tourists can take small boatrides on the lake. But prices are still reasonable compared to for example Patagonia.
For some down-to-earth fare, go to La Pica de la Terra, a sort of sports bar with the standard Chilean cheap food (burgers, completos, etc). Around the corner is Travellers, a gay-friendly place. And cafe bar 2001 is a local institution with decent portions.
Lunchwise coffee can be had at 2001 as well. Personally I loved Bimbalu which has sandwiches and waffles and more. El Arrayan is good for coffee as well.
Activities / things to do
- you can of course make an excursion to the volcano. You need to be thoroughly prepared (agencies will provide you with the required gear for in the snow high up), and you need to be flexible. Weather conditions change quickly up the mountains and tours only leave with proper visibility. The prices for excursions are high and do not include the ski lift up the volcano. It is tough, expensive, but beautiful
- in and around the lake (especially near the Costanera) you can do watersports. Rent a kayak for instance, or join a group boatride
- at the northern edge is a small mirador (lookout) called Canela with excellent views over Villarrica and the volcano
- sometimes there are exhibitions in the cultural centre Liquen
- for a taste of local Mapuche culture, go to the mercado Fritz and its immediate surroundings for fine wood carvings and more handcrafts
- interesting to do closer to Pucon as well: the national park Villarrica, national park Huerquehue (east of Pucon) and the Vergara thermal baths
Getting to Villarrica and getting around
- bus: there are several buses (JAC, TurBus) serving Villarrica. To/from Santiago are usually night buses. If there are no convenient connections, go to Temuco one hour away which is a big transport hub towards the lake district. From Villarrica are also several connections southbound to Puerto Montt, some of them also stopping in Puerto Varas. They usually pass through Osorno as well, another transport hub
- within the city: you can walk everything easily. Only if you stay in La Puntilla or surroundings (the higher apartment buildings on the other side of the water, towards the volcano) you might want to take a cab
- Weather: mild. Villarrica in summer has the best of both worlds without the extremes. Which means a pleasant heat (but not the furnace of the wine district around Talca for example), and some Patagonian rain but not in similar quantities and without the wind