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The ultimate Pucon experience: A perfect day to climb Villarica Volcano

There were several companies organizing treks up the mountain, and of course they would all be out that day. In fact the streets were deserted except for here and there a hiker reporting for transport to the base of the mountain. There was no one at Sol Y Nieve when I arrived, though our guide Jorge showed up with a youth in training who started getting out our shoes and manchillas, or packs. Soon a pair of Brazilians appeared, one healthy with short cropped hair and the other quite gordo, but friendly and English-speaking. A young Chilean appeared puffing a cigarette, followed by a British couple about my age and unlike me, looking it, friendly enough but reservedly British. Finally, a pair of Philippine looking middle-aged Brazilian ladies turned up in a hotel van and exchanged stylish pumps for hiking snow-boots. Jorge barked instructions in Spanish to get everyone to sort out their packs and pile in the van for an efficient start.

We headed out of town for the short ride to the national park. At the entrance, we had to pull someone out of bed or away from coffee to pay the entrance fees. We drove to an area of old lava flows at the base of the volcano and suited up for the climb, which would start with a slog the length of a ski lift to the upper part of what in winter would be a ski resort. On that short walk, you could tell pretty much who was going to complete the hike. The Brazilian ladies lagged far behind and I can't remember when I noticed them missing later on up the mountain, nor do I know what they did all day, though they were waiting for us back in the van. Their countryman, the fat personable character who spoke English, was puffing at that point but hoping to bluster through.

There would be less tolerance for bluster further on. In the walk in dirt to the top of the ski lift it was warm enough for T-shirts and there was no need to add more clothes as we set off into the snow. Once into the snow, we had to line up and walk single file, each in the footprint of the person before to avoid slipping in the ice. Should that happen, Jorge instructed us in use of the ice pick, which was always held in the uphill hand, and should be dug into the snow with both hands to brake a slide, and to ensure that if one hand should slip off the handle, the other would keep the grip.

There followed a few hours of tedious traversing up the snowy slope. In all it took five hours to reach the top, step by deliberate step. So focused were we on footprints and on the progress of the others in our line, it was easy to neglect the beauty of the whiteness all about, but now and then we would look around and take in the views. There was nothing blocking a view of the entire area, which looked exactly like Hans's huge relief map. There was lake Villarica, with the town of Villarica at one end and the smaller town of Pucon nestled in the other. There was the Rio Trancura, with a bridge over it that someone had recommended I take to find a certain hiking trail, and the road leading up to Lake Caburgua, which again could be seen laid out like a map, with the park of Huequerhue rising behind in snow brushed mountains. Crowning the mountain skyline to the north of the park was a sister volcano to the one we were on, the smoke at its snow-covered top wisping too into clear skies.. At just under 3000 meters, it was only slightly higher than the Villarica volcano, and it marked the border with Argentina. Into those mountains poked the several valleys where the thermas were located. In other directions, other lakes in the region dotted the terrain. All this was constantly visible beyond a foreground of white slopes and rocky outcroppings coated with crystallized ice.

As we progressed slowly up those fields of ice and snow, gordo began to lag, and eventually he found a knoll of earth where he stayed as we moved on, and we found him there when we returned two hours later. The rest of us pushed on, reaching one false summit only to see another beyond still to climb. As it began to get colder and windier, we added clothes accordingly. Even in a tropical climate a mountain of only 2800 meters can be bitterly cold at the top, and there we needed all the gear in our packs except the crampons.

At the summit, the smoke from the crater was choking when the wind blew it our way. With the first whiff of H2SO4 it became apparent what the gas masks were for, because one breath too many of that could be crippling. It was possible to walk around the rim to where we could peer some distance into the crater, but all we could really see from there was smoke, no bubbling lava. The old lava flows from the mountain were easy to track from there all the way to the base. Pucon itself was just barely protected by a small hill or cerro that lava could conceivably flow around, but hadn't so far.

We stayed on the mountain for half an hour or so and then began the fun walk down. Unlike the tedious trip up, it was possible to practically run down the snow on the backs of our heels, though we had to be restrained to allow the slowest in the group to keep up. As we got the hang of this we even tried skiing on our snow boots, which was only just possible. There were probably over a hundred people at the summit on that beautiful day, and probably 20 who started out but didn't finish. And a lot of tourists back in Pucon who wouldn't consider starting the trip.

When I got back to town, I found another place to stay and arranged my bus ticket back to Santiago the next evening, and then I went to the Hospetaje Arrienda and told them I liked them as a family but I couldn't sleep there, and they nodded and said ok and watched me go. My new digs were in the Hospetaje Ecole, right next to the Tetera where I got my breakfasts and daily hit of caffeine. My room had three beds but I was guaranteed the whole room for the price of one bed, $10. From my window I could see the peak of the volcano I had just climbed rising over the rooftops, or I could sit outside on my terrace for a much clearer view.

I liked the new place. It turned out to be run by a guy from Seattle named Alan who had lived in the bay area and had spent his Sunday kayaking, and I got him to write down a page full of white water info for northern California. The restaurant there served vegetarian food, and I barely kept awake through a meal of Mexican salad and wine. I went from the restaurant straight to bed and slept like a baby until 8:00 the next morning.

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Last updated: November 12, 1997