Climbing to the Top of Villarrica: one of SA’s most active volcanoes

I wish that summit was higher up… said no one ever, except for perhaps Tom, but who cares about that elf anyway? I would have called him a hobbit but he is too tall and would probably need a bucket if Samwise Gamgee tried to hug him. In fact, his constant rambling advocating for the environment is the hippiest thing you’ll ever hear him say.

But enough of him already. We are here to talk about me and how I made it to the summit of one of Chile’s most active volcanoes (2,847m) and didn’t fall into the crater. Some people have asked me what kind of idiot suggested a disaster magnet like me should be allowed anywhere flammable and I couldn’t agree more with them. It was me. Just for the record, I never slipped and grabbed somebody’s arm, causing said person to fall in the crater either. Those are vile rumours spread out by a lying lawyer with impressive photoshop skills.

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Even though Villarrica is not Chile’s most active volcano, what makes it stand out on a global scale is being one of the few volcanos in the world with an active lava lake within its crater. To climb the volcano, you need proper gear and a certified guide. As we set out from Pucón, we booked our adventure with an agency named Sierra Nevada. The tour costs 75,000 pesos (US$112) – meals not included – and you have the option of taking a ski lift for 10,000 Chilean pesos (US$15).

Ski Chairlift: your last hope

The ski lift allows you to skip over one hour of trekking at the bottom of the volcano so you can save your energy for what comes next. While some people prefer to climb from the start, who are we kidding? I’m not fit enough to start from the bottom and then make it to the summit, and I was betting there was no ski lift at the top. I didn’t want to be one of those people who features on the front page of a newspaper as MISSING and then is miraculously found by a hipster at a Swiss ice cream parlour. There’s nothing more embarrassing than going from the cover of a news outlet to what’s trending on Instagram. 


Although we missed out on the start of the hike, the ski lift was a fun, exhilarating experience. The views from there are breathtaking and it can also be a high-risk activity when you try to take a panoramic photo. As I rose above the hill sitting on the chairlift and watched the poor determined trekkers making their way from the start, I made the most of the one time I’d be overtaking people to shout out words of encouragement: “You can do it. Come on, people. Only six hours left. ROCK! Watch out… Sorry.”

Climbing Villarrica Volcano

Once the ski lift ride was over, we were gathered as a group to start the hike. Our guides went around to make sure that we had everything we needed and they even took the time to answer my stupid questions whilst never taking me for an idiot… out loud. A big shout out to our tour guides, Richard, Diego and Mauricio for not letting me fall into the crater and make it look like an accident.


As we set out on our journey, Richard announced that we’d be hiking slowly but nonstop for 45 minutes. That was an enlightening experience: I learnt that time doesn’t run at the same pace across the Atlantic. Poor Swiss hikers started smacking their watches to no avail. Apparently, nobody explained it to them, either. After an hour and a half (European time) of climbing, we took a break. Here’s the best tip I will ever give you: don’t make yourself a sandwich with Chilean bread. While it’s soft and tasty, it’s also treacherous and heavy. It will drain your energy from the inside – just like a baby – and it has no nutritional value; as a matter of fact, it’s only useful to enrich personal trainers. Opt for whole grain wraps and protein bars instead. 


Once we resumed ascending, I followed close behind my sister in case she should fall, I’d be able to catch her. It’s not that I’m particularly fond of her, to be honest, I’m just dead scared of my mum. Regardless of how old you are, mothers have a green light to smack your head anytime they want, and mine is a latina, so the smacking will probably be paired with a tear bomb. Although I’m a strong woman who can take a smacking now and then, itchy eyes are the worst.

It wasn’t until I realised that the real danger lay in me tripping over, holding onto my sister to keep my balance and propelling her into the abyss that I decided to get ahead of her. That is when she started asking me if I was tired and needed to rest. How nice and selfless of her, I thought, to care so much about my well-being. Upon repeatedly rejecting her offer, she said she was exhausted and needed to stop. Aw, SNAP! Rather than worrying about me, she was just encouraging me to be the one responsible for slowing down the group because she needed a rest. See? That is exactly why there’s no South American version of The Godfather.

Fortunately, Richard, one of the guides, was nice enough to part from the main group so we could take a break. Then and there, I realised that I wasn’t breathing properly, which was wearing me down. While it’s a common mistake to believe that the air near a volcano is contaminated, it’s actually filled with oxygen, not helium, so please don’t hold your breath.

With the help of Richard and Mauricio, we were able to keep up the pace and eventually catch up with the rest of the group after they had an extra break. And when I say help, I mean, they practically did everything for us. While Mauricio kept cheering me up, Richard was carrying my sister’s backpack and pulling her from her hand. Far from struggling with that extra load that probably collectively weighed more than him, Richard conquered that volcano like a boss. With his one free hand he was on his phone, probably updating his status on social media: “Slow morning walk #hipposbetrippin'” along with a snap of us unwillingly sticking out our tongues. Sexy.

Naked Hikers, Party of One

The tour guides communicated with each other via walkie-talkies and the volume was high enough you could hear everything from 5 metres away. That’s how we were able to listen to the other guide telling Richard about a German girl who had impressed everyone by how awesome she is. German? Girl? Awesome? Do you guys remember my last blog post “Pucón: Southbound Train and Quakes?

“Is that Anna?” I asked.

“Yes!”

Damn Germans, always making difficult activities look easy, just like they do with cycling, recycling and stripping in public.

In all fairness, if I looked like a German traveller, I wouldn’t be ashamed to strip but, with the state of things, I’d probably end up in jail and that’s not a nice place to be with no clothes on.

When we finally reached the rest of the group, we became better acquainted with another funny and incredibly nice tour guide: Diego. By then, we were already famous for monopolising 2 out of 4 tour guides for a group of 12. Probably fascinated by how slow we were, he tried to cheer us up by saying: “We fill your backpacks with stuff you don’t need to ensure we have a head start on tourists.” What! How mean! 

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Our friendship with the tour guides allowed us to learn that it’s easier to climb the volcano when it’s snowed in. Unfortunately, we went there in autumn so there was snow only on the upper slopes. According to our guides, the best time to climb up Villarrica is in December by the end of spring when the snow starts to melt. You’re welcome.

While climbing a glacier near the top, we saw a bunch of hikers sitting a bit higher up taking a break. As heads turned and people fell silent, I was hoping the guy who took his shirt off wasn’t Venezuelan. By the time he started doing yoga, however, I knew he was Colombian. How? I felt a disturbance in the force. Richard picked up his walkie-talkie and told Diego I wanted the exhibitionist’s phone number.

For me? Tell him to put his shirt back on,” I said outraged. “He is reflecting light.”

And one slip, you die.

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Volcano Villarrica Summit

Making it to the summit was one of the most exhilarating experiences ever. From there you don’t only have a window to the immensity of the mountains, lakes, volcanoes and clouds, but you also have a unique view into the crater. That was my first time ever seeing lava in real life and so close to me. As you gaze into the crater and watch the lake of lava live and electric, a whole new world opens up inside of you. What an adrenaline-pumping experience it is to see the forces of nature at its finest!

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To keep us from inhaling the deadly gaseous fumes the lava was emanating, we were given gas masks which paired with my GoPro camera strapped to my head made me look like a disoriented miner. Despite my appearance and the opium-like effect the gas was having on me when I took the mask off, I felt increasingly elated I had made it to the crater of such a highly active volcano and lived to tell the story. And I’m aware perhaps part of that happiness was due to how intoxicated I got every time I took the mask off for a photo but still…

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Sledding Down the Volcano

The way back down was filled with extreme yet fun activities. We started out by sledding down the snowy top of the volcano. That was a first for me and my excitement was such I decided to document the whole experience with my GoPro. Before sliding down, Richard taught us the correct position, which if you don’t do it properly, you might die… that’s what he said. I followed in the queue until it was my turn, then Diego asked me to show him the position. I did but when he let go of me, I was in the middle of switching my GoPro on because who cares about surviving if I don’t get it on film. Right before the speed made me lose control, Richard caught me and told me it was important to stay focused. I should thank him for keeping me alive. It’s no easy task. Ask my parents.

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Richard, our hero!

I went down four slides. It was incredible. The first one was so fast I almost lost my grip. Of course I’ve got no proof because the SD card turned out to be corrupted. I should have known when I bought it from that street vendor in Thailand. She just kept bringing the price down. I know bartering is common in Thailand, but Phuket is the Monaco of southeast Asia; they see tourists as walking slot machines.

Staying Alive on the Way Down

Carrying the GoPro strapped to my head all day did serve a purpose: the guides gave me the pet name of GoPro girl. As a child of capitalism, that reminded me of the GoPro ad and, mostly of its slogan Be a hero. Hah! Irony.

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Descending the volcano was no easy task either. I kept slipping and falling down. The real issue wasn’t the instability of the ground, but the steepness of the hill. If you slipped at the wrong place, you were in for an extremely painful and deadly fall, tumbling down like a snowball but made of debris and over rocks.

Mauricio had a blast discovering how clumsy I am. He even started calling me Eugene from Hey Arnold! after I couldn’t stop in time while sledding down and ended up crash landing at his feet. If he hadn’t been strong enough to stop me, I would have brought him along for the ride down the precipice. He held my hand for a while to keep me from falling headlong, while Richard assisted my sister. Subsequently, hiking hand in hand with a guide became trendy as other trekkers requested the same service. I started that trend. I’m the Coco Chanel of assisted descent.

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Mauricio, rock star and tour guide

As Mauricio had to look after my followers, I continued on my own; before long, however, I stumbled down again and, if you’ve read my last post, you’ll know that I had had an accident the day before, thus my wounds were still fresh and open. In order to avoid a greater accident and flying in a helicopter to get me out of there – a girl can dream – Diego helped me keep my balance.

Over rocks, snow, through glaciers and volcanic ash, Diego held my hand most of the time. After a while of being in a vertical position, I gained confidence in myself and told Diego, who was ahead of me leading the way, that I could continue on my own. He let go of my hand, turned around, a bang followed, he looked back and those were my feet up in the air. After that, Diego never let go of me again… I do believe the guides high-fived each other once I was safe in the van.

Preventive Evacuation in Case of an Eruption 

As it was a long way down, I learnt a few interesting facts about the volcano from Diego. Accordingly, Chile has a system to predict volcanic activity, which is not only useful to keep the population safe from one of the most active volcanoes in the country, but also to keep trekkers from getting roasted in the event of an eruption. This system, nonetheless, is fairly new, and although the first explorers didn’t count on it, they ventured their way up with no insurance they wouldn’t end up swimming in lava flow.

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Only one month after the last eruption of Volcano Villarrica in 2015, the warning siren rang off again as a preventative measure to warn locals of the increased activity of the volcano, triggering Pucón’s town temporary evacuation. With the last eruption still fresh in their minds, both locals and tourists evacuated Pucón, leaving the Chilean locality resembling the set of the Walking Dead. When locals found out that Pucón had become a ghost town over a mere warning, they took to social media and argued the siren is used in the event of an eruption and not as a preventative tool, prompting a backlash against the mayor.

Once we reached the travel agency (Sierra Nevada), the tour guides had one last surprise in store for us: beers and snacks – as if we didn’t love them already.

 

 

 

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