Climbing the Villarrica Volcano in Pucon-Chile(Well… almost)
I visited Chile for the first time in 2008, and one day, while I was chilling in my hostel, I met a traveler who had just arrived from Pucon. He’s name was Pablo and he told me all about the amazing time he had in the city and his attempt to reach the Villarrica Volcano summit. Ever since then, it has been my dream to see the big crate at the top of the second most active volcano in the country.
A few years later, I finally got my chance to fulfill this dream. Now I’m gonna share with you my story, the same way Pablo shared his.
I’ve planned this trip with my goal in mind, climbing Villarrica Volcano. But I was going with two friends of mine and they had never been in Chile, so I decided to spend a few days in Santiago, just so they would get to know what an amazing city it is. We stayed there for 3 days, and saw the most famous sites, like Cerro Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal, Pablo Neruda’s house and all the others places you have to visit while in the city.
Leaving to Pucon
In the fourth day of our travel we finally went to the terminal and bought tickets for the bus heading to Pucon, unknown so far to any of us. As you would expect, it was full of tourists, most Europeans, going to Pucon for the great volcano and also because the ski season was about to begin. The journey was supposed to last 10 hours, more or less, with no stops, except for picking up a few people along the way. And as soon as we hit the first hour mark I realized I had made a stupid mistake, we brought no food or water with us on the bus. Where I come from it’s an usual practice to have bottle water available to all passengers, so it was quite an unpleasant surprise. Still I consider Chilean bus services extremely good, comfortable and safe and I would recommend it to anyone. And after about 9 hours, really thirsty hours, we arrive in our destiny, a few minutes after sun dawn.
Arriving in Pucon and the search for the hostel begins
The first impressions couldn’t be better. The weather was rainy, extremely cold(an attraction by itself for Brazilians like us) and it had that small town feeling about it. It seemed like we could walk the whole city without ever had to resort to a cab. Another quite spectacular aspect of the city is that pretty much anywhere you are standing, you may see the hauntingly beautiful Villarrica volcano and its smoking crate way up there.
After a long time walking in search of our hostel, we realized that the city is not that small actually, at least it was big enough to work up a sweat on us. But actually we managed to spend the whole time we were there without using any sort of motorized transportation.
An speaking of hostels, this was the first huge surprise of the trip. When we finally arrived at our hostel, it was closed for the winter. As we found out, many of the accommodations were closed, so we were homeless for a few moments. This is a important tip right here, if you are coming to Pucon and it’s not high season(summer) always contact the place you made your reservations and check to see if they are open. But everything turned out fine, cause after about one hour walking the streets in search of a nice, affordable and of course, open hostel, we found the awesome Paradise Pucon, a simple, yet cosy hostel, where the owners and employees immediately made us feel at home. And also, they had quite an affordable price.
What to do besides the trek up the volcano
After setting in we start booking some attractions right in the hostel. The first day we went to the amazing Huerquehue National Park, with it’s nice trails and exuberant waterfalls and by night we went to Los Pozones, which are hot springs, extremely hot springs. It was the best way to relax after the busy afternoon we had. On the second day the ski season started and of course, we went to get our faces in the snow by falling, oh so many times… At nigh the hostel threw a barbecue(with more wine than meat) which was an nice way to get to know the other tourists.
On the third day we did the rafting on rio Trancura. Great attraction, specially if you are into kayaking, rafting and sports like that. It is specially fun when the guides try to throw you in the freezing cold water at the end of the river. Thankfully I escaped this attempt, but not everyone in our group had the same lucky.
Booking the climb up the volcano
As we returned from river Trancura, we went to Aguaventura(recommended by the hostel owner) agency and booked our climb for the day after. As it was winter, we managed to get the spot in the group heading there the next day, but here is another important tip, in the summer the search for this is so intense that you should book it as soon as you arrive in the city, or risk losing your chance. So, while we made the reservations we were also briefed a bit about what we would need for the ascent to Villarrica, like bringing or renting sunglasses , wearing sunscreen and avoid heavy foods because it was quite a physically demanding trek.
The price for the whole package was a little more than I expected. It is around 85000 Pesos(prices change every year of course), which sums up to about 126 dollars(exchange rate for May 2016). But it includes the whole thing: Equipment, transfer, entrance to the park, the guide and the mandatory insurance fee. If you have any more question about this try visiting the company website
Getting read for the trek
The agency told us that the weather forecast for the next day wasn’t exactly the best, so there was chance that the trip could get cancelled before it even started. But unfortunately that is a pretty usual condition in the region, weather is pretty crazy around this parts and changes in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless we confirmed the reservation, and formed a group with 5 guys from our hostel, plus some people that were in the agency. After that we headed to an Italian restaurant and ate some lasagnas to get the energy we needed for the next day. Then we returned to the hostel and starting preparing our gear for the ascent.
Finally the day arrives
As expected we woke up before the sun dawn to prepare and head to the agency. The van arrived exactly as scheduled the day before and there we went to the agency store. When we got there we received the great news: The weather was good enough to start the trek. But since the night before we had a pretty bad weather, they could not promise we would get to the top. So if the weather changes we would have to abort the mission. In spite of that, no one gave up and we started testing the equipment and receiving instructions about how to use the shoes crampons and the pickaxes. This preparation lasted for around one hour.
Start the climb up the Villarrica
Inside the van everyone was excited, and a bit anxious too. As we advanced on the road, we started seeing snow surrounding us from every side. And after about 15 minutes we reached the starting point of our ascent. So we stepped of the van, and stepped on the trail.
It is worth mentioning one thing. You can choose to do the first hour of the trail using the ski lifts(expending more money, but saving a lot of energy). This makes the ascent way easier. If I had to choose again, I think I would pick the ski lifts, because the difficult of the climb surprised me a little. The trail in itself is not hard at all, but walking uphill no stop, on the soft snow and that steep inclination, really takes a toll on you…
I have always been a thin person, so I don’t consider I was in bad shape back then, but I certainly wasn’t athletic either so I have to admit that I suffered from the beginning of the trek. However, with extreme determination, I manage to keep up with the guides, step by step. The others in the group also seemed a bit shaken by how demanding walking up the snow was.
And we went on, for over an hour, until the vision of the ski lifts started to fade in the distance. That’s when the most difficult part of the trek starts. At this point, the soft snow turns into almost solid rock ice, and it was necessary to apply the ice crampons on our shoes and grabbing the pickaxes. Once again the guides gave us instruction on how to act if we tripped and started going down the ice. After that we rose up the hill for what it seemed like an hour, walking slowly and against the wind that started to blow violently against us. Here a couple from our group gave up and started descending the volcano. You could see how sad they were with the situation, but it was hard to judge their decision since I was barely able to keep on going myself.
When things started going downhill(yes, pun intended)
The sight of the summit motivated us to keep on moving against all obstacles. I was feeling shortage of air, my legs started to fail. In spite of that, I kept on going, step by step, following the guides. But about 30 minutes after the couple gave up, I was getting close to physical exhaustion, though I was still not ready to give up, not after the money and the time I spent making that happen. Sadly, a little further up the hill, the choice was taken from me. The guides stopped in front of the group, and had a little chat for a few minutes. Then they turned to us, and gave their verdict: There was just too much ice and the wind was blowing too strong, making the way to the summit too dangerous to keep going. Some of the members of the group tried to convince them to try a little more, but they didn’t accept their pleas. And there it was, the final point of our little expedition. Being totally sincere, part of me was relieved, because I didn’t think I would be able to walk even 30 minutes more, even if the group kept going.
And so my dream ended, the Villarrica had beaten me. I looked up at it once again, closer than ever, but more unreachable than ever. We started going down the hill(which is always a lot easier than going up) and after 15 minutes we stopped to have a little snack on the face of an active volcano(which was a first for almost everyone there). At this point, I guess everyone was a little more resigned, so we were actually able to enjoy that moment, share those sandwiches and relax amidst all that snow and clouds. I couldn’t help but gaze at the beautiful landscape of Pucon and the lake district. You could actually see another huge volcano, the lake, an infinity of mountains, endless beauty everywhere you looked. That was when I realized, that although we didn’t get to the top, the experience was worth it. More than worth it, it was actually a memorable day that I would never forget. And after that I actually enjoyed the feeling of exhaustion, knowing that I had put all my strength trying to reach that goal. And if I haven’t succeeded yet, I would someday, without a doubt.
Back at the agency, they offered some drinks to fight away the cold and the frustration. And in fact, it did help(a drink always does, right?). Another thing that managed to easy our hearts a bit, was the fact that Aguaventura gave us back almost 50% of the value we payed for, since we couldn’t reach the summit(not sure if they do this every time).
Unfortunately that was my last day in the city and I wasn’t able to try the ascent again, not yet at least. Later that day I took the bus, and left the charming streets of Pucon behind me.
By the way, Villarrica seems to have placed a curse on me that day, because when I got to Santiago I learned that Pluna(Air company from Uruguay), the company that would fly me back to Brazil, had filed for bankruptcy and all flights were cancelled, which made me spend a huge amount of money on a ticket from some other company.
In spite of all that, this trip was one of the best I’ve ever had, and I most certainly will return some day and fulfill my dream of rising all the way up to the top of the Villarrica volcano.