Thursday, 27 March 2014

Pucón, Chile: Climbing the Volcano

I was excited when I arrived in Pucón, not because it has a beautiful lake, hot springs, rafting or canyoning. I was excited because of its proximity to Volcán Villarrica. One of only 5 volcanoes in the world known to have a permanent lava lake in recent times. Although, it is the least impressive of the 5.

Volcano Villarrica, Pucón
Volcán Villarrica from Pucón

Pucón is very touristy little town with its streets lined with tour operators and hostels. It has a really cool feel and was my first well known destination that made me discover Google is not so high and mighty. Once you reach this far south in Chile and Argentina google maps will only show one street in some very established cities, although it still manages to show the location of businesses just not the streets to get there.

I was lucky enough to line up a couch with one of the very few active hosts in Pucón. My host, Katherine, also happened to work in a hostel and knew everyone and everything about this town. I met Katherine at her hostel along with her 2 children and another French guy that was also couchsurfing at her place. After grocery shopping for dinner and alcohol we were of to here place about 15km outside of the town, where an Israeli couchsurfer was also waiting.

The Volcano from Katherine's bedroom window

That night after an awesome dinner cooked by the Frenchie and many glasses of wine I was off to bed. Somehow I scored a queen bed to myself. This is a luxury to a traveller and my first in over a month.

The next day I was on a bus into Pucón to organise trekking the volcano and to have lunch with Katherine, the owner of the hostel and the other 2 surfers. That night the Frenchie and I spent the night at the hostel so we could conquer the volcano in the morning. We received "mates rates" for our stay.

The next day I awoke at 6am excited to reach the summit of this volcano. We left with our packed lunches, water and sunglasses. With a wind jacket, waterproof pants, boots, gaiters, ice axe, ass protector, helmet, gloves, crampons and backpack all being provided by the tour company.

After a 40 minute bus ride full of Israelis we were finally at the starting point of our trek. 800m up the base of the 2,850m volcano. Following 2.5 hours of hiking, including a couple of breaks, we had reached 2,000m metres in altitude and the start of the ice. The wind was incredibly strong and we received the bad news that it was too dangerous to continue in these conditions... I was incredibly disappointed.

The view from the starting point 800m

This sky lift can cut out the first hour, but that's not for me. 1,200m

That night we were back at Katherine's place where she was hosting a party with around 30 or 40 people. It was good fun but I was dead to world shortly after the BBQ. It had been a long day and I was the first to call it a night. I was back to life at 9am with people still going strong... Chilean parties!

The next couple of days involved hanging around new CSers, exploring the town, checking out the many second hand shops (1 with everything for 1 dollar) and meeting up with another local CSer, Carolina, who shouted me food and drinks at a cool little bar.

The Lake

The other activities were quite expensive here in comparison to other places so I gave them a miss. I did white water rafting for free in French Basque Country and Hot Springs in Galicia for only 5 Euro. However, the volcano was a must and I wasn't leaving until I had stood on top of this smoke breathing giant.

It was time for my second attempt! I changed tour companies due to some personal conflicts with one of the tour operators on my first attempt. This time the conditions were perfect and after 2.5 hours of hiking I was back at 2,000m of altitude. This time putting on the crampons (steal spikes for the boots) and pulling out the ice axe.

   After another 2.5 hours of a struggling hike on ice, passing deep ice crevasses and taking in amazing views of the landscapes below, I was on top of this smoke blowing volcano with a massive open crater. Unfortunately the lava is too deep to see on the angles available without being suicidal. It was still amazing and an accomplishment that I will remember for a long time.

Volcano Villarrica
Next to the crater of the smoking volcano, 2,850m

After an hour on the top the wind changed direction and I got to taste the toxic smoke... it actually smells terrible and really irritates the nostrils. I was coughing a little but not enough to wipe the smile from my face.

It was now time for the descent. This time sliding down the ice on our bums using the ice axe as a break. There were a series of 5 tracks that reminded me of bobsled runs. 1,000 metres in altitude in less than 30 mins. This beast that took 5 hours to conquer only took 1.5 hours to descend. There were beers waiting for us to celebrate.

1 of the 5 ice slides... those little dots are people
A Ski Lift Destroyed in the 1970 Eruption

I spent 2 more nights at Katherine's place before saying goodbye.

After a week in Pucón I was on a bus to Valdivia.

Lessons Learnt:
If there is something you really want to do then stay until it is done.
Chilean CS hosts are awesome.
A Chilean surfer told me "Chileans don't have big homes but they have big hearts"... very true!
Seeing lava will stay unticked for now on my imaginary bucket list.

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