The town of Pucón is a good ten-hour bus ride south of Santiago, nestled between lakes and volcanoes in the Araucanía region of Chile. All the guidebooks make it sound like a bit of a tourist disaster from Christmas through to February, but our week there at the end of November was very peaceful and quiet.
Double-decker sleeper bus, pictured in the oh-so salubrious Terminal San Borja, and Volcán Villarica looming over the suburbs
We stayed at the lovely Okori Hostel. It's a wooden building that reminded me a little bit of a ski lodge, nestled in the forest outside town. There's a big communal kitchen/dining room with a proper cooker and an amazing bar-table that's made from a single piece of wood that must be a good 5 meters long. The only thing I'd complain about is that they make you wear Crocs indoors. We cooked a lot there, and sat around the table talking with the other guests most evenings - that is, when we weren't trying to talk to the grandmother (who understands English better than she can talk; about on a level with our Spanish) or the evening when 30 Mapuches descended on the hostel (precisely why, we never found out) and barbecued, sang and danced until well into the night. That evening we were invited to Samuel and Karin's BBQ, so that we didn't get in the way in the kitchen, so we ate crispy pork and tried to persuade Abuela to help us finish off the bottle of Fernet that I'd bought earlier that week.
We had a ten-hour overnight bus ride there, from the San Borja terminal in Santiago. We managed to navigate the websites in Spanish to book the tickets without any problem, but then realised that we had to print out the tickets to get on the bus. [This was recorrido.cl, booking for Pullman Bus: I think that they have an app for the other bus lines - but the Pullman station in Pucón is much more convenient than the Turbus one, so it sort of balances out].
We went for Salón Cama on the bus both ways: this gets you big business-class style reclining seats, no champagne, and a big sign in the loo saying it's solo para orinar. There's a large LED sign to tell you how fast the driver's going (about 1 km/h under the limit at all times) and how long he's been driving, and they give you a small box with a wafer and a juice box in the morning half an hour or so before arriving. Ten hours on a bus is clearly merely a short jaunt for Chileans, but it was enough for us.
From the Pullman terminal (the Turbus one is half a mile out of the middle of town) we went across the street for breakfast and then to the local bus terminal next door, and climbed onto a minibus that we were fairly sure was going in the right direction. Thankfully, a combination of good signposting and watching our journey on Google Maps like a hawk meant we could tell the driver to stop at the right place, and we jumped off the bus for the long walk down the gravel road to the hostel. Not terribly fun with roller-bags, but we managed it.
After we'd checked in and figured out our bearings, we realised that Okori is a bit (well, 5 km or so) further out into the wilderness than we'd thought while booking it, so we flagged down the next minibus back into town and scored a remarkable deal on the smallest car I've ever rented: a little white Japanese thing that it took me three days to stop banging my elbows on the door when steering around corners. It turned out to be an excellent idea: it was technically possible to do some of the things we did by public transport, but it would have involved getting the bus timing exactly right. It also meant we could drive to the shops to buy supplies: the Okori website suggests you buy food in town before coming, and they're absolutely right.
Driving is quite interesting: the main roads are paved, and mostly well-maintained, in that almost every journey we took involved at least one wait of 5-20 minutes to get through big sections of roadworks. We did quite a lot of driving on dirt roads too, especially up in the mountains. The tiny car managed everything we threw it at remarkably well, although we definitely weren't the fastest thing on the roads. I'm very thankful that my driving instructor years ago taught me how to do hill starts (as much as one can in Cambridge, which isn't known for its hills), and even more thankful that I'm not going to be paying to replace its clutch.
We did a lot of spectacular walking: up to Lake Caburgua (north-east of the marker on the map - almost empty when we were there but it looks as though it'd be full of jetskiers in summer) and then to the waterfalls at Les Ojos de Caburgua; to Huerquehue National Park (which should really be easier to pronounce, and where I got extremely excited because I remembered I could use my iPhone to get altitude readings: you go from around 800m above sea level at the car park to just under 1300m in a couple of hours' hard climb, then there's a kind of plateau with some lovely lakes nestled in trees); and up the awesome Mirador Los Cráteres walking trail (go out of Pucón on the way to Villarrica, turn left to the volcano, and then be happy you're driving a rental car until the end of the track several km later (and about 800m higher), where we had fantastic views and saw only three people (one of whom was hiking with some kind of loudspeaker-equipped rucksack, alas).
Lake Caburgua, waterfalls at Les Ojos de Caburgua, and that volcano again
Where there's volcanic activity, there's often hot water. The Termas Geometricas are the biggest thing in the local hot spring scene. There are seventeen pools, varying in size and temperature, connected with an "asian-inspired" walkway (by which I think they mean it's painted red). All the pools have their nominal temperature posted on a little wooden sign, but it rarely seems to be accurate. It's quite interesting, too, to see how the hot water gets fed in from where it gushes up in (well fenced-off) pools, and mixed with the cold stream water. If you get there before noon or after 6 pm it's slightly cheaper to get in, but it's a 2-hour drive from Pucón with the last 17 km over a pretty battered dirt track. Oddly, it seemed to be most crowded at around 5 pm: I think that several tour buses arrived together.
There's a wide variety of adventure activities that we didn't do, like white-water rafting or climbing the volcano. A woman from Colorado, who was also staying at our hostel, went up and down with guides, and said that they only had to take two of the group back down early, one for some unspecified medical reason and one for a panic attack. She was clearly a hardcore climber, though, and had done many mountains all over the world.