When we arrived in Pucon all we could think of was that this sleepy Patagonian town belongs in British Columbia, Canada since it has the chalet/cabin-y homes, wood fire stoves and crisp mountain air you feel in Whistler, Golden and the Kootenays, and is complete with all those adventurous outdoor activities that come with those areas. The primary differences? The imposing volcano in the periphery of town. The spoken and written Spanish. And the loads of stray dogs.
But still, nowhere have we felt more welcomed in Chile than in Pucon. When we got off the bus a taxi driver explained how to walk to our hostel rather than scamming a short overpriced ride. The people walking past you in the streets smile and say hola. Cashiers at local marts give free candy when you buy a pop. It’s a gem of a town.
The volcano, Villarrica, rises in the backdrop, almost Mount Fuji-esque. It’s a volcano that you can climb, and being that Ewan loves volcanoes and that we’d already climbed volcanoes in Guatemala (San Pedro and Pacaya) it was without question that we sign up for the day trip to conquer Villarrica, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes which last erupted in 1971.
We’d previously rejoiced over our successful completion of the Inca Trail – something that was completely out of the ordinary for what we do. Villarricca blew that experience out of the water. It’s easily the hardest hike I have ever done.
The day of the tour started early; we met outside the tour operator’s office at 6:30 AM and then were shuffled inside to suit up (pants, boots, wind breakers) before we hopped in a van that drove 45 minutes to the base of Villarrica. While there were other tour groups arriving at the same time, the place was not inundated with people, which was nice. I did not want to be battling crowds on the trek up.
The climb started out with a steady but not too steep incline on old volcanic rock, at points hard-packed, at others loose and difficult to walk in. Our rented boots and the lack of walking poles made this portion of the hike a lot more taxing than I think it needs to be. Our group, with three guides, quickly divided up into three groups: a quick-paced head of the pack, a middle ground group and a slower group. It seemed all tour groups were on a rush to make it up the volcano, partly due to excitement, but also to take advantage of the daylight hours – at this time of year, autumn in Chile, the sun sets a lot earlier than in the summer.
It was amazing to see how quickly we seemed to ascend away from the parking lot and base of the volcano, and yet, looking up, the glacier capped top of the volcano seemed a disheartening distance away. The highlight of the first half of the hike was a break at an abandoned ski lift – apparently impacted by a previous eruption.
Soon we hit the glacier resting atop the volcano. It was here we took a rest to break out the crampons from our backpack and get a lesson from our guide on how to walk in them and use the ice-axe and also what to do if we fall or began sliding down. It was at this point I began feeling a bit uncomfortable. I had imagined a hike, albeit a tough one, to the top of the volcano. Using crampons and an ice-axe?? Um. I don’t do that kind of thing. Gulp.
But on we went. The first part of the glacier walk wasn’t so bad. A steady incline with some turns here and there. I felt a bit anxious and so did my darndest to not look down or get distracted by other groups, knowing it would easily knock me off balance, and I also avoided looking up, to avoid disappointment in how far up we still had to go. The ice-axe became my best friend, using it as a sturdy extra leg on the high side of the mountain as we switch-backed to and fro.
Because I had been one of the stragglers on the first part of the journey, in the rocky area, the lead guide had me walk behind him which I was thankful for. It allowed me to follow the self-assured steps of our guide, although I did feel the obligation to motor up a lot faster than I think I would normally go.
After a short break where I gobbled nearly half of my chocolate bar, we were up again and embarking on what I think was the toughest park of the climb, an incredibly steep ascent. This part was so steep that we were zigzagging back and forth constantly. I also felt quite nervous as we were no longer following a track that the other tour groups were following, but a new track made by our guide. I was person #2 walking on this path and several times had my heart jump up into my throat as the ice and foot print made by the guide just wasn’t as sturdy as I would’ve hoped. The near-vertical incline was dizzying and I refused to take in the view for fear I would tumble down. Despite this part being incredibly taxing, I went as fast as I could to keep up with the guide and get over this terrifying section.
I thanked my lucky stars when we had a rest and heard we had only 20 minutes more to go. For my sanity, and because all the rest of my group were young superstars who didn’t need to inquire, I asked whether the final part was as steep and tough as what we’d just experienced. The guide muttered that it wasn’t so bad and we were close, so I expected the worst. The good news is that the final part wasn’t as steep and scary as what we’d just done. But that didn’t mean it was a slice of cake. That final 20 minutes was cut up into two climbs, likely due to me who, at this point was tired, starting to get shaky and needed a breather every three paces. I bowed out of second place in our group to let the eager members of our group rush ahead to the summit while I slowly stepped my way up.
And then. I was there. Slightly light-headed, shaky, but at the top of the 2,860 metre volcano. Holy crap.
While many others went straight away to the volcano’s crater’s edge, I sat myself down and treated myself to a sandwich and some energy before exploring the volcano top and the epic points of view.
The day was bright and sunny. I could see tiny Pucon at the lake’s edge down below, and from points of the volcano even mountains/volcanoes as far away as Bariloche, Argentina.
The time at the top seemed like only a small break, even though we were up there for almost an hour.
With crampons still on, it was then time to start our descent. Our guide, who had warned us earlier that the top is just the halfway point and that we needed just as much energy going down, wasn’t lying. For the first 30 minutes I baby-stepped after the group in our zigzagging track, slipping here and there much to my terror. I was grateful when we took a break only to have a brief internal freak out when I found out we were now going to be sliding (my thought was that we were WAY too high up to be freewheeling and sliding down the volcano).
We took our crampons off and then wrapped an extra protective diaper-like layer on our butts to slide down the hill. I was calmed when we were told to keep the plastic sliders in our packs.
We were given a demonstration on how to slide down (knees bent, using your ice-axe at your side as a brake) and we had a mini hill to practice on before taking our first slide down. My heart was rapidly beating – while this part wasn’t as exerting, I did not want to get out of control. But it was actually quite pleasant, like you were in a kid-friendly luge track.
We hit about 5 different tracks that were surprisingly long (geesh – I climbed up all of that?!?!) and for those that were less steep we pulled out the plastic sliders to make it down with less breaks in momentum. Honestly, this sliding part was probably my favourite part of the day.
When we hit the end of the glacier we were back on our feet and making the walk to the bottom. The bulk of this part was reminiscent of walking down the Huacachina sand dunes – the loose rock acting as a sort of spring and taking you almost a metre per stride. The flat parts made me realize that the boots had not been so friendly on my shins – I was so happy to make it back to the van and rest my weary legs.
My Overall Thoughts
This hike was very challenging and really took me out of my comfort zone. Yes, this year of travelling is a year for us to step out of our norms, but I am definitely not one to go for extreme adventure activities. I love hiking and appreciating the outdoors, but would say that this sort of trip just isn’t my bag. The climb pushed me to my physical and mental brink. Had I not been well fed or rested, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. If I hadn’t pushed myself mentally, I would have not reached the top. Thoughts running through my head during the climb are definitely not swear-free. And seriously, my favourite part was sliding back down. I really felt pride and a sense of accomplishment when I (finally!) reached the top; I also felt pure exhaustion. But I did not have fun in the getting there. I know that this is likely sacrilege to those who have done this hike and enjoyed it, or to those who love these types of adventures. But it is the truth. I can honestly say I loved the challenges along the way of the Inca Trail, even the tough parts, and admit that I had fun and really enjoyed it. I can’t say I had fun on the way up Villarrica. I am glad I tackled it, but I know I wouldn’t do it again if given the choice.
What to know:
The hike is very strenuous. I would say that if you are fit and exercise regularly it should be no problem, but that you should really consider what you are getting into if you are seriously thinking about doing the climb. I really pushed myself to get to the top, and the use of crampons and an ice-axe are definitely something I was unfamiliar with.
- Choosing your tour company is important. We chose one that offered a weekend discount but thankfully they provided us with all the gear we needed. We saw some other groups where the patrons didn’t have all the gear we had. Gear included a backpack, windbreaker jacket, protective pants, shin protectors and a protective additional ‘diaper’ for sliding down the hill, a plastic seat to slide down, an ice-axe, crampons, mitts and boots.
- You are not provided with walking poles, which I had even asked about. True, later on in the hike the ice-axe is the most useful tool, but for the first two hours of the hike or so, I would have gladly taken poles – in fact after a while I asked for one of the guide’s (all the guides have these poles!!). It was supremely helpful.
- The boots fit ‘large’ and since our feet were unaccustomed to them, it felt awkward. I felt like a clown for the first part, tripping on stones I thought my foot had cleared. They felt very uncomfortable for the first part of the hike on the gravel. It became evident, both climbing up the glacier and then down in the snow and the rocks that the boots are necessary (as my shoes would have been soaked and filled up with rocks!) but my shins are now boasting deep purple bruises where the front of the boot hit them. I wore double-socks, but I think it may be luck of the draw whether you can find boots that are comfortable and don’t leave any marks afterwards.
- Food is not provided. Bring water, sandwiches, bananas and, based on my experience, more than just one chocolate bar!
- They only let you ascend in good weather (not rainy, cloudy or windy). As such you need sunglasses and sunscreen!
- Apparently you can sometimes have the option of taking a chairlift, for an extra cost, for the first hour of the journey. It wasn’t operating when we went but if it had, and knowing what I know now, I would highly suggest you take it!
- A major complaint would be that the guides didn’t let you go at your own pace, which is something we enjoyed on the Inca Trail. Even at a steady pace, it could be a bit more effort than we were accustomed to, and the guides seemed not to take as many breaks as we would have liked. I would’ve been a lot happier if I didn’t feel rushed and could take as many breaks as I wanted.
The hike up Volcan Villarrica is certainly rewarding, but I think I would only recommend it to those who enjoy arduous physical challenges.