I arrived in Santiago in the late afternoon and stayed only a single night, not wandering anymore than a few blocks from my hostel. Shortly after arriving in Chile, I learned that a break in the weather was making climbing Volcán Villarrica possible. When forced to decide, I’ll choose outdoor adventure over city tours. I was in Santiago for only 12 hours before departing for Pucón, a center for adventure sports in the Chilean Lake District.
The smoking Volcán Villarrica is one of Chile’s most active volcanos, last erupting in 2015 with occasional high alerts since. Climbing to the mountain’s 9,380-foot summit is dependent on the volcanic activity and weather conditions. Some travelers stay in Pucón for days or weeks for the chance to climb Volcán Villarrica. By cutting my time in Santiago short, I arrived in Pucón the night before the climbing operator was predicting a one-day break in the weather. I paid the operator for a spot on the climbing tour and returned early the next morning, eager to climb a snow-covered volcano. After outfitting us with ice axes, crampons, and Gortex-lined snow gear, the guides drove us to Parque Nacional Villarrica.
Upon arriving at the base of Volcán Villarrica, I was disappointed to see a chairlift running part way up the volcano. The guides encouraged us to ride the chairlift, explaining how shortening the climb would increase our chances of reaching the summit. In my favorite Patagonia documentary, Mountain of Storms, the skiers climbed Volcán Llaima for eight hours for a single run down the mountain. In my mind, riding the chairlift would be cheating–I informed the guides that I wanted to climb the entire volcano. Surprisingly, some of the others in the group followed my lead and also opted to forgo the chairlift. After strapping on our crampons, the guides taught us how to use our ice axes both as a climbing aid and as a means of self-arrest in the event of a downhill slip. We then began zigzagging across the slopes of Volcán Villarrica as our fellow “climbers” flew by us on the chairlift.
When describing the climb up Volcán Villarrica, the author of my Lonely Planet guidebook wrote: “it’s no Sunday stroll and can challenge even seasoned trekkers.” At the risk of sounding boastful, I didn’t find the climb too strenuous. I was mildly disappointed that I didn’t have to push myself harder. Despite moving at a snail’s pace, some of the members of our group were struggling. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that a couple of French-speaking women were blaming me for not taking the chairlift. They turned back before we reached the summit. I was expecting to be cold, but the sunny, wind-shielded segments of the climb were outright pleasant, requiring only a baselayer. The (too) frequent rest stops provided ample opportunity for me to admire scenery below us, including the incredible view of Lago Villarrica underneath a cloudless sky.
Upon reaching the summit, we donned our gas masks to protect ourselves from the toxic gases rising from the volcano’s crater. Volcán Villarrica is one of a small number of volcanoes worldwide with a lava lake within its crater. I tried peering into the crater to see the lava, but I couldn’t see past the thick cloud of gases. We didn’t linger long on the summit before heading down.
The trip down the volcano was fast and exhilarating. After sitting down on a small, round piece of plastic, I leaned back and let gravity carry me down the steep volcano. To slow down, I sat up and used my ice ax as a break. Occasionally I lost control and tumbled down the hill until reaching a relatively flat section. When sliding too fast, dips in the snow and ice sent me airborne. It was the longest, craziest sled ride of my life.
The next morning I awoke to rain. I felt fortunate to have summited Volcán Villarrica the prior day when there was a break in the weather. Others in the hostel wanted to stay inside, but I didn’t travel all the way to Patagonia to remain indoors. I left in the morning for a day of hiking in Parque Nacional Huerquehue, a preserve with old-growth forests, waterfalls, and aquamarine lakes. My Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes guidebook recommended bringing a swimsuit for swimming in the lakes, but I brought a rain jacket instead. I hiked the Los Lagos trail, which was muddy in some sections but not too wet or slippery when wearing hiking boots. The hike was peaceful, without many other trekkers on the trail.
In the evening after dinner, we relaxed our bodies at Termas Los Pozones, a facility with six natural hot springs. The temperatures of the outdoor pools ranged from lukewarm to scorching. I didn’t think that I’d be able to soak in the hottest pool, but I managed to stay in the hot spring for a couple of minutes. The hot springs were a fitting end to my active stay in Pucón.