I like to think of our longer trips as loops. Not so much breaking up long car drives, but doing a loop (usually south) to encompass some of the many wonderful spots Chile has to offer. Our first big loop was in December 2017-January 2018 with three children under 8 years old, a set of in-laws in their 70s and 1,300 km in one car. Did I mention we all get motion sick if we look at videos or books? So this trip was done 80s style with music, audiobooks (good thing we have the Roald Dahl collection!) and stories of our youth.
We had eight days over Christmas. Actually we celebrated Christmas December 23rd (shhhhh don’t tell the kids!!!) and had Dec 24-Jan 1 on the road. We left very early the morning of Christmas Eve and drove the eight hours to Huilo-Huilo. It was a great time to be on the road! We got slightly lost for the last bit to actually get into the reserve, but we were there around 3 p.m. Huilo-Huilo is a popular rain forest eco lodge south of Santiago. It’s known for it’s magical mushroom-like hotel and the bizarre and zany imagination of the architect. You do feel like a Tolkein book has come to life as a hotel resort! There is no denying the impish hotels and restaurants make you marvel at the craftsmanship and you feel like a woodland creature. The hotel rooms are very small and as we were seven people we booked one of the cabins. I think if you are smaller in number and you stay in the hotel you have more of a wonder-type experience. The cabin was done well with natural wood and quirky ways of using knots and sticks as part of the house. The upstairs was perfection. Really comfortable beds, wonderful linen and great bathroom. The main floor was tired, the furniture was really worn and the kitchen wasn’t as fully stocked as it could have been for having seven people staying there.
There are a lot of activities at Huilo-Huilo and we were really looking forward to be able to go on forest walks with the children as they are on all boardwalks. That way our youngest (who at the time was still having mobility issues) and our middle (who has Down syndrome and does tend to run or just full stop) would be safe and hopefully motivated to walk. But when we were there the boardwalks were under repair. So we went to see the feeding of the reindeer and the wild boar as the boardwalk around their enclosure was open. That was a delight! We all also really enjoyed the museum on site. The pool/spa wasn’t open when we were there. Again, I think this is a factor of our timing. We brought our own food as we were in the cabin. One night our family of five ate at the buffet and while there was a lot of selection we were disappointed in it. We also thought the pizza place was over priced and not really that good. In the end I think our sentiment was that it looks magical but the pricing and current standard of the facilities meant we felt the reputation was not deserving. Since our visit, the website has vastly improved making it much easier to figure out the activities on offer and how better to plan your visit.
After two nights in Huilo-Huilo we continued on to Chiloé Island which is about seven hours south from Huilo-Huilo. There are regular ferry departures from Pargua to Chacao on the island. There are toilets on board the ferry and the crossing is only 30-40 minutes long.
Chiloé is a tranquil island (actually it’s the biggest island in a group of islands) in the south of Chile known for scenic walks, sightings of penguins and blue whales, and numerous wooden churches built by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries.
We wanted to stay in a palafito house — a wooden, colourful house on the water’s edge held up by long wooden stilts. We couldn’t really find anything suitable for seven people and keeping in mind our younger two and they were pretty unstable on their feet at this time. We ended up booking an absolutely gorgeous Airbnb. I think it has been my favourite one yet. The bedrooms were perfectly set up for the configuration of couples and children and there were plenty of bathrooms. The decor was beautiful and we loved the wood stove. You are on the water’s edge as well. You aren’t in town so you have the quiet all around you. The owners have a neighbour who will greet you and take you through everything. They said if we wanted mussels or lamb to ask her as well. I’m from Nova Scotia and my friend is a mussel and scallop farmer but honestly, these mussels we had were massive! What a feast! We also asked for some lamb as it can be so hard to find in Santiago and we all love it. She said it would be ready in a day or two. When we drove up to her house they invited us in and we sat and chatted for almost an hour. Then they gave us the whole lamb in a bucket! We were really not entirely sure what to do, but my husband and father-in-law had a great time figuring out how to butcher it and grill it outside on the fire. Amazing.
The highlight of the island was driving around and getting lost on all the side roads. It was grey and rainy on and off every day. So we just meandered around and explored. We had fun, but driving around and looking at churches, graveyards and markets soon loses its appeal for young children.
We had had a few walks/hikes planned but we were pretty much rained out every day. Chiloé really reminded me of Nova Scotia in Canada and Wales, so it seemed very familiar for us. The markets have a great selection of wooden and woolen goods. Our favourite purchases were the wooden cutting boards for serving meat from the BBQ and our chilote slippers which are all our favourite slippers!
After Chiloé we headed the eight hours north to Pucon. Pucon is often recommended as a great active place to visit in Chile. It has a fairytale setting with a snow-capped volcano peering up above the lake and a bustling town. Which can be REALLY bustling in late January and February. Traffic to try and drive into town can be a nightmare during these months. When we were there the season was just kicking off and it was perfect in that there weren’t a lot of people, but everything was open.
I have to say, I think Pucon works really well if you have babes in arms and you can still do all the hiking you want to do. Or you have children 8 years and older. It was a bit tricky for us in the in-between-ages as we really wanted to be active, but it wasn’t realistic for us.
Our first day we did part of the crater hike around Villarica in the national park. Drive up Volcan road towards the CONAF office. Ask the park guides about the best hikes to do with your group. They were wonderful about suggesting realistic walks. We managed to go around the base, over the lava fields and into the woods. Then we had to turn around. It was a beautiful hike and we all (well, maybe not the younger two!) really enjoyed it. You can also hike to the top of the volcano and slide down which sounds like an amazing experience! There are many tour operators in town you can book different tours with, you can even do one where you go in the crater.
There is a nice strip of artensenia shops on the drive up to the volcano. We bought more cutting boards there and a cow hide rug of all things. Yes, my husband is very patient with me as I insisted we could fit it in the roof box between the wicker baskets from Chiloe and all our clothes. Good thing all seven of us pack light!
We also stopped at El Castillo restaurant outside of Villarrica national park on el Volcán road. You have a great view of the volcano and the food (and Pisco sours!) were delicious. We also enjoyed the burgers and food at Latitude 39. (note; as of 2019 I’m not sure if it’s still open.)
A popular activity is to access the Termas Geometricas from the Pucon side. But as it’s almost a two hour drive one way, and we were so tired of driving, so we decided not to go there. There are many Termas much closer to Pucon. (In the end we did go to Termas Geometricas on another loop trip and accessed it from Coñaripe which is only a 20 minute drive.) Instead we went to Termas Peumayen. Their outdoor termas are in rock pools on a rivers edge. A long walk down that is worth it. There is on pool that at the far end that has the best view and shape. The indoor pool is a swimming pool and in the end we spent the most time there. The food was superb with amazing crab. The restaurant is described as “Mapuche-infused French restaurant”I don’t know about that description, but everyone of all ages loved the food.
On our final day we did a short boardwalk hike that was the perfect length and ability of walk for our children called Saltos de Mariam Park. (The address is: S-923, Llafenco, Pucón, Región de la Araucanía) You walk in the woods and along a rushing river and waterfalls with gorgeous trees (all identified with sign posts as to what trees they are). The forest is beautiful and it was a great for families with young children.
I also thought I had booked an activity I was super excited about, but sadly we got our wires crossed and I hadn’t actually confirmed our dates. And that is riding with the huskies! You can do it year-round and friends who have done it loved it. We really disappointed that I messed up that one.
We didn’t try these activities as our youngest was too young, but they also looked good for the younger set.
Family float/rafting excursion
Horseback to Mapuche village for 6yrs+
We stayed at an Airbnb that was fine. Well, it ended up being full of bats and I am used to living in old houses, and murcielogo IS my favourite Spanish word. But let’s face it, I never want to actually have to use the word!! The owner was gracious and kind and didn’t charge us full fare and it all worked out.
Where we really wanted to stay was Parque Metreñehue but unfortunately our dates in the end didn’t work out. I found it really hard to find cabins for seven people that weren’t super expensive.
Our friends stayed at Mirador los Volcanes and loved it.
I think the trip we did was a great 8 day loop and we saw a variety of Chile — the dense forest of Huilo Huilo area, Chiloé Island living (which does feel completely different to the mainland, but very familiar to Eastern Canadians) and the snow-capped volcano and northern lake district. I do think Huilo Huilo is overrated and if you are short on time, it is not one I would put high on my list. I think Pucon would be great with older children and absolutely perfect with teenagers. Again, these are just how my husband and I felt about the trip and our in-laws agreed as well. It does make you realize that a perspective on a trip, or a place, can be very timing-dependent and also how engaged your entire family can be with where you are.