Story by Kate Stepan

"Just show up around noon," shrugs English-born Ben May, owner of the Kayak Chile paddle shop on the main street of Pucon, an adventure-touristy town in southern Chile known mostly for the 2,847-meter volcano Villarrica looming a few kilometers to the south. "We'll get you on the river."

Though we're here to ski off of Villarrica's snow-covered crater, everything in Pucon has made sense, like it usually does while traveling, since we poked our heads in the kayak shop. Ben was even able to point us toward the cheapest crampon rentals in Pucon and offer some tips on how to ditch the forest rangers who require guides for hikers wishing to summit the volcano. Plus, since we're in South America sans-kayaking gear, he rents a full equipment kit for 20,000 pesos (about $40) and promises to squeeze us on the day's lesson shuttle.

After an epic ski (and climb), we soothe our aching bodies in hot springs next to a few enticing, if a little bony, drops on the upper Rio Liucura, and plan to paddle some of the Class III rapids downstream the next day. From what I've heard and read, we're to expect a straightforward run on about 2,000 cfs of early season flow, with a few big wave trains thrown in for spice—the perfect run for my boyfriend, Anton, a novice paddler, and me to sample a bit of the abundant whitewater Chilean Patagonia has to offer.

We arrive at the crack of 12 p.m. as promised, and I'm wrestling with the bulkhead in the shop's medium Pyranha Burn when I overhear Ben tell his student that after lunch they'll hit the Class III/IV. I pause for a moment (being a former raft guide and kayak instructor, I know the tendency of outfitters to exaggerate a river's difficulty), then look up and casually ask him about the harder rapids. Though I was looking forward to a read-and-run adventure, I have to admit I'm relieved when he says we can all paddle together.

After Ben and his staff deftly tie six creekboats to the roof of the Kayak Chile pickup, we roll to the put-in about 20 minutes outside of town.

Drifting in the languid current and turquoise pools, I remark that the river, which drains the snowmelt from three nearby volcanoes, may be floating us on the very same water molecules we skied in their frozen state two days ago.

Turns out, having a guide makes a huge difference—and not just because Ben could lead us around the monster hole in the first rapid. At the confluence with the Rio Trancura, the river's flow doubles and forms two huge, surging wave trains—a preview, I can only imagine, of the region's big-water classics like the Futaleufu and Bio Bio. These rapids are easy to sneak, but Ben points me down the gut—there's nothing quite like scouting your next move from the top of an 8-foot wave—while Anton follows him and his student around.