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In the middle of Chile’s lake district, at the foot of the ever-smoldering Villarrica Volcano, lies Pucón, a little town whose primary purpose seems to be to cater to the every whim of the backpackers and other adventurous types who flock there.  They arrive in droves every summer and fall1 to sample some of the many offerings of this extreme sports mecca.   Once they’ve fully exhausted themselves in Pucón’s outdoor playgrounds, they head to its many excellent bars and restaurants to rest up and refuel for the next day’s adventure.
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We arrived in Pucón with two goals: to improve our Spanish and to spend as much time as possible in Pucón’s Great Outdoors.  Check and check.  We each signed up for two hours a day with a private Spanish tutor at Language Pucón, a wonderful little backpacker-oriented school.  I’m happy to report that, by our last day of class, Derek’s already-decent Spanish had greatly improved and my non-existent skills had sharpened to the point where basic communication was at least within reach.   (I can now spit out such marvels as “My backpack is black” and “I need to buy a bus ticket.”) 
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When we weren’t in class or doing our homework (Shanna)/making fun of those who do their homework (Derek), we were busy rafting the class IV rapids of the Trancura River and riding horses through the nearby Cañi forest in the company of Rodolfo, a true Argentine cowboy who was brimming with excitement about the weekend’s upcoming rodeo.   Both rafting and riding felt like the best-possible versions of themselves.  The river was cold and clear, and its rapids were dangerous enough to be exciting but not so dangerous as to make us fear for our safety.  The forested hills were astounding, the horses beautiful and patient, and Rodolfo everything I could have pictured an Argentine cowboy to be (complete with a hat, chaps, spurs and a horse-loving dog named Stella). 

In the language of the Mapuche-Pehuenche Indians who dominated the region before the first European settlers arrived in 1883, Pucón means “entrance to the mountains.” Indeed, mountains seem to surround the little hamlet. Look out of pretty much any window in town and you’ll see an amazing landscape behind which the Andes tower.

Pucón has been described as “an Andean version of Aspen,” and, other than the fact that Pucón is more geared to backpackers than it is to the jet set, that’s pretty much what it feels like. Pucón’s streets, like Aspen’s, are lined with upscale restaurants and the occasional boutique. (The ones in Pucón, however, are interspersed with empañaderias and are considerably more affordable than their Colorado counterparts.) In the winter, its slopes are filled with skiers and its cafes packed with those in search of hot chocolate. While the flight to Pucón may be a little longer than the one to Aspen, we’d say that it’s definitely worth the trip!

  1. Chile is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means, of course, that its seasons are the opposite of ours.  So right now, summer is over and we’re well into fall.  I cannot get over the fact that, for Chileans, Christmas comes at the warmest time of year.  How does Santa operate his sleigh? []