Visiting an old flame
Located 32km from the popular Chilean lakeside resort town of Pucon, the steep, snowy slopes of Villarica volcano have become a hiking must-do for energetic visitors.
The Pucon area is cabin country, located in a delightful lake district popular with Chileans for fishing, rafting and its thermal hot springs. The volcano, on the other hand, draws international travellers like moths to a flame.
'The Chileans come for the lake, the gringos for the volcano, and neither seem to want the other,' says William Hatcher, who founded the first company to offer guided volcano tours about 20 years ago. At 2,860 metres, Villarica is still active, but has seriously grumbled only three times during the past 50 years.
For my visit the cone is smoking, forcing a few cancellations. I decide to take my chances, although my heart stops every time a truck backfires outside my hotel window.
My small group leaves early in the morning, supplied with waterproofs, razor-sharp crampons, backpacks, ice picks and helmets in case hot ash and rock start to rain down. We're in capable hands: our guide Oscar was a member of the Chilean National Rescue Team. The bus drops us off at the bottom of the peak, from where we hitch a ride on an old ski lift, taking an hour off the ascent.
But it's still two hours of hard uphill trekking over ash and granite before we reach the snowline. A magnificent view spreads before us: mountains, lakes and, in the distance, another volcano in nearby Patagonia. As the mid-morning sun burns away the clouds I strap on my crampons and start the real, and physically exhausting, ascent.
When I finally reach the top, the sound that emerges from the crater rattles me to my toes. With a tremendous roar it spits drops of lava and ash 50 metres into the air. The crater then cools off for a few seconds. I take a few photos and beat a hasty retreat.
Fortunately, descending the Villarica is the most fun you can have on two cheeks. Narrow channels have been carved out, creating a bum bobsleigh run in the ice. With my ice pick acting as a brake, it takes about 20 minutes for this frozen water slide to deliver me to the bottom: I arrive safely at the rocks below without impaling myself on the pick. The view, the hike, the crater and the company of my fellow hikers makes for an unforgettable day at the hottest edge of adventure tourism.
Guided trips to Villarica run daily from Pucon, depending on the weather. You must be in good physical shape to attempt the ascent. The trip costs about US$60 and all equipment is provided. Pucon is 780km from Santiago and accessible by bus, train and plane. Go to www.chile-travel.com/solnieve.htm for details.