Pucon is a twelve hour bus ride from Santiago. We took an overnight bus and arrived early on a Saturday while Pucon was still asleep. Tourists flock to Pucon to climb the Volcano named Villarica, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes. Because it is such a popular activity, you have to climb the volcano with a guide. It is not too dangerous or difficult to climb, but in the past people have died trying, so it’s better to go with a knowledgeable guide. The Volcano forms a spectacular backdrop for the city consisting of timber buildings and tourist companies selling tours to the volcano, kayaking trips and other expeditions to eager tourists.
After weighing up the different tour companies (you can just show up in Pucon and walk down the main street, Ave Bernardo O’Higgins, where all the tour companies are located), we selected Turismo Florencia to guide us up the Volcano at 40.000 CLP (80 USD) per person. This excludes the ski lift of 8.000 CLP (16 USD) which takes you to a point up the volcano and is highly recommendable in order to save energy for the climb.
Our Volcano Excursion began early on Sunday morning. We had to be at the tourism company office at 6:30 am to fit our waterproof clothes and heavy shoes suited for snow. Our two excursion companions (German and Ecuadorian) looked slightly agitated that we were five minutes late. We then piled into the company’s van ready for action…only to drive to another tour company office and wait for the other five tourists who would join our group and who were (very) late, much to our and the German/ Ecuadorian couple’s frustration. The driver of the van explained to us that the other group were Israeli’s and that Israeli’s were notorious latecomers. Eventually they showed up, not looking guilty enough in my opinion, and after about half an hour’s drive we got to the base of the Volcano at around 9am.
At the top of the skilift we had to put on our hard hats and take out our ice axes. We received a quick demonstration on how to use the ice axes and how to walk to prevent sliding down and so the accent started. We immediately started walking on snow, but it was not icy, so there was no need to use crampons (spikes on your shoes).
The accent is not difficult. In the winter it can take up to 7 or 8 hours to reach the top of the volcano, but our group only took 4 hours and 15 minutes in fantastic summer weather! The guides made us stop every now and the to drink water or to take pictures. At our first break there was a girl in another group who was yelling at her guide that she wanted to go slower and that it was too difficult for her. We all felt a bit sorry for the guide and in the end I don’t think the girl finished the climb. I would say any person with a reasonable level of fitness should be able to reach the top, weather permitting.
It was nice and warm when we started going up the volcano, but once we got over the ridge (picture below), an icy wind started blowing and we had to put on our windproof jackets.
The view gets better the higher you go up…
The last twenty minutes of the climb (more of a hike really) was the most difficult for me. I felt a shortness of breath and was eager to reach the top!
Villarica is a typical cone shaped volcano and it has a proper crater at the top! We weren’t allowed to walk all the way around the crater, but we could get close enough to take some amazing pictures!
Quick fact: Villarica is one of only five volcanoes worldwide known to have a active lava within it’s crater. We didn’t see the lava, but when it gets warmer you are apparently able to see it. Five years ago people could even see the lava bubbling! Around the crater you can smell the toxic gas coming from the volcano and people don’t spent a large amount of time at the top, because it is difficult to breathe and obviously not good to inhale too much of the gas.
After a few minutes at the top it was time to go down the volcano and this is an experience on its own!
In our bags we each had a paddle that we had to sit on after putting on a waterproof layer over our pants that was fastened in similar way a nappy is fastened, only this was over our pants! The paddle was to help us slide down the snow faster (not that it was necessary) and we had to control our speed by sticking the end of our ice axe in the snow. My fears of heights and speed of course made this downwards gliding business way too scary for me, but with a guide in front of me to stop me when I went to fast and to prevent me seeing the abyss of nothingness in front of me, it was actually a lot of fun in the end!
Here’s a video clip that I took from the top of the Volcano: