Villarica – visiting the gates of hell

So far our Chilean trip was quite boring but it was suppose to end. One of the most amazing hikes and adventures was ahead of us – mighty volcano Villarica.

Not another town

We were staying in Santiago, Chilean capital, for quite a long time already. Our plan was to head south and ultimately reach Patagonia and its fancy peaks and trails. It was still quite a long way to go. We were looking for something interesting to visit on the way. So far we visited towns and driven car to one lake. Not very entertaining for two people who loves hiking.

We googled a lot and there was not much stuff around Santiago other than other towns either recreation places by the sea or inland famous for its wine production. At least these were easy to reach by bus. But it still felt like car is a must for any hiking activity.

It was necessary to extend the search and look little further. On the way south was one place which everyone on the internet was writing about – small town named Pucón which sits right at the edge of the Villarica national park. In the park is famous volcano, still active and it is possible to walk up there. Decision was made and we were on the way.

Pretty much at the moment when we boarded the bus I realized I forgot my Kindle at the hostel. It was a bad situation as we were used to each other but there was no time to go back. I was hoping I might be able to contact them and maybe return later to pick it up.

Picturesque Pucón

Our journey was long, more than 700 kilometers and roughly ten hours on the way. But it was worth it. Town itself was beautiful, small but with beautiful buildings. It was like some mountain resort in Canada. Wooden buildings and mountains all around.

Pucón
Pucón

At the time of our arrival there was some kind of Iron Man event in progress. We did not join them but cheered a little for the contestants.

Iron Man
Iron Man

We had to look for some accomodation. It was not an easy task as the town is quite popular and with the Iron Man event it was even busier. We spent half a day walking around and checking for some reasonably priced accomodation. We ended up in the Willhouse hostel, it did not cost too much, there was internet and it was clean.

It was time to explore town a little. Right next to our hostel was big park with benches, swings and other interesting stuff. Along the way to city center there were small shops and restaurants. Tana was looking for new trousers as the ones we brought in July were getting shabby and loose. She was lucky enough to find one in one small shop for really good price. It was a successful day. On top of that there were loads of tourist agencies offering either trip to Villarica or to hot springs nearby. It was our next destination.

Choose wisely

We asked guy at the hostel reception which agency should we use for trip to volcano. I don’t think it is possible to go to the top without a guide so we had no other option. He recommended us agency Sol y Nivel, which was on the same road as hostel.

From our previous exploration we knew that prices are somewhere between 80.000 – 110.000 pesos per person. It usually includes transport, guide and all the equipment. Some of the agencies put on top visit to thermal pools.

When we arrived at the Sol y Nivel there were three shop assitants and no customers. So our first question was if they have any free spaces for tomorrow and how much it will be. Just to make things clear we were talking in Spanish. They told us they have and that the price is 70.000 pesos. It did not have hot pools but price was good and we were not really interested in hot pools at the time.

Quick talk in Czech so no one can understand us and we agreed we’ll take it. Deal confirmed we were informed about all the stuff that will happen now. Obviously time of departure, which was early in the morning. After that all the equipment we’ll be given and what will happen on the mountain. Most important part was that if we are slow our guide will leave us and will continue with fast walkers to the top. No men left behind obviously does not work in Chile.

Unforseen events

We paid by card and went back to hotel. Tana was stressed because of the rule that all the slow people will be left behind and won’t get to the top. She read somewhere that it happend to some other group. I was not worried, we were in good shape and did lot of hiking in past few months in high altitudes. I belived that we can make it.

At the hotel I had a look at the bill from agency. Instead of 70.000 pesos they charged us 100.000 per person. It was a lot more than what we understood. We found the reason why, it was our Spanish. Because 70.000 sounds really simillar to 100.000. We were thinking about going to agency and trying to cancel our trip but decided against it in the end. Tana told me that she’ll pay me 30.000 difference because she did the negoatiation. I said that it is not necessary, as we are travelling together and I was in the agency too and understood the same.

To improve our mood we bought a cheap bottle of Chilean wine and went to nearby park. Using pocket knife corkscrew seemed like a good idea but it was futile. It did not budge at all. We returned to hostel and looked for bigger and better corkscrew. It was not much better than what we had but it was worth trying. Still no luck. It was time for some google advice how to open wine bottle. One of the tips was to put bottle to shoe and hit it against something solid (like wall). Cork is suppose to slowly get out of bottle on its own. It did not move at all (again). We were laughing a bit, that was crazy situation. We tried corkscrew again and this time it worked. Shoe method probably helped a little and it got little loose. We were finally able to sip wine from the bottle in the park as we did many times before as students.

Villarica – the beginning

It was early morning, adrenalin rushing through our bodies. We were on our way to agency office. Only camera, phone, some water and small light meal full of energy in our backpacks. We were first ones there, our group consisted of four people and two guides. They gave us equipment – trousers, jacket, backpack and boots. On top of that some equipment to walk in snow and on ice – ice axe, crampons. Cherry on top was a gas mask (for the top of the volcano where toxic gasses were flowing) and plastic snow seat.

We boarded minivan and were on our way to volcano. It was cloudy in the valley when we were leaving but at some point we got through the clouds and Sun was shining. Parking spot below the volcano was quite busy. I could not believe how many agencies and pople were there.

There is a chairlift going from the parking spot which can save you few kilometers of walking. But on that day it was not working. Good for us, proper challenge and we could later brag about walking all the way to the top without using a chairlift.

Villarica the beginning
Villarica the beginning

And so we started, joined the herd of other tourists. Surface was soft, almost sandy, and not very steep yet. Our guides intruduced themself and other people, told us what the plan is and what to expect.

First part followed the chairlift, easy and fast walking. We were going faster than lot of groups and thus had to walk around them. There was an interesting phenomenon – especially among US tourists. Every time they got over some kind of obsatcle they cheered and encouraged each other. Yelling good job, well done, you can do it and so one. It was amusing at first, but there was too much of it, at least for me.

The chairlift
The chairlift

Ice and snow

It took us roughly an hour to get to the place where ice and snow started. At that point it was obvious that lady from the other couple won’t be able to get all the way to the top. She was already tired and was walking quite slow. One of our guides will have to stay with her and walk with her, the rest of us will go up with the other guide.

It was time for instructions how to use ice axe especially in which hand to hold it so we won’t pierce ourselve if we fall. Crampons and snow equipment had to wait a little more.

First camp under the Villarica
First camp under the Villarica

We were walking on the snow. There was a path already, zigzagging up the hill. Gaps between different tourist groups started to grow. Our old guide was walking fast, fast indeed. We did not complain as all three of us were able to keep up with him. Only problem was when we needed to avoid other people. That meant we had to leave the path and walk through the snow which was slowing us down.

Thirty minutes of walking got us above some kind of construction. I think it was end point of the chairlift but it was either damaged or not finished yet. Above it was a rim of the hill and once we got over it we saw the peak of the volcano with plumes of smoke again. It did not look very far.

Is it a glacier?

We voted against a snack break and kept walking. And quite a walk it was. We were tricked by our eyes as the distance to the top was not what it looked like. Also the zigzagging added to it. It took us another two hours to get to final camp before the top of the mountain.

Snow was deeper and harder now and wind was getting stronger with every meter. But views were amazing. Not only looking back to the valley, lake and other peaks around us but also the ice and snow we were walking on. Its color changed and was bluish. Our guide confirmed that our observation was correct and we are walking on the glacier.

View from the volcano
View from the volcano

We managed to get short break for one quick Snickers bar and some drink. People from other agencies, who we passed earlier were now passing us. That meant we will have to get around them again, leaving the trail and passing through the snow.

Smoking top and no lava

We made a last stop before the peak. It was time to put on crampons, water / snow insulating trousers and jacket and get gas masks ready. All the groups were going through the same routine so place was quite crowded. We were also able to get rid of backpack and leave it there. There won’t be any need for it at the volcano.

Fully dressed with crampons securely attached we started our final ascend. In less than thirty minutes we were at the very top. Smoke was not very dense but it was full of some poisonous stuff. It was itching in the throat making my eyes water. We had to put the masks on and with. In masks we looked like visitors from another planet.

In the gas mask
In the gas mask

It was time to look into the creater. It was huge, filled with smoke and it felt hot. I wanted to see magma at the bottom but had no luck. Its level was low that day. Our guide later said that sometimes they can’t see it at all and even the amount of smoke is minimal at other days there is a load of it.

Crater
Crater

Our time at the top of the Villarica was over and we had to go back. I wanted to wipe my eyes with a handkerchief and wind blew it away. It made me sad as I already lost quite a few things during this trip. And miracle happend, wind changed and brought it closer to me. I went for it and managed to pick it up before another wind gust took it away.

Back in the camp we pushed and squeezed through other people. We had to take the crampons off and get ready for the descend.

Sledging down the mountain

This was the part we were looking forward to. Three hours of walking up were suppose to last only ten to fifteen minutes the other way. We got our plastic snow ready and listened to the instructions. How to keep the distance and more importantly how to use ice axe to slow down and not pierce ourselve (again).

Ride down was awesome. Not only because we did not have to walk but because it was fast. I even jumped a little at some places. Adrenalin was rushing through my veins. If it was not necessary to walk all the way up I would have done it again.

We sledged back almost all the way to first camp. Got rid of snow protective layers and let them dry a little. Another small rest and refreshment before last short descend to the parking spot. We were accompanied for a while by some bird of prey who was snacking on a mouse.

We got to the car safely, no broken legs and no holes in our bodies made with ice axe. It was time to go back to Pucón.

Owner of the agency welcomed us back and invited us for a beer. We talked about our experience and listened to some of his previous adventures. Other couple from our group told us that they arrived from Peru and came here for the Iron Man event. Gentleman was actually participating in it. He was able to do the triathlon on previous day and climb the Villarica today, amazing.

Relax in Pucón

Few more days in town were dedicated to relaxing at the lake or in the park, shopping and eating. We searched for trousers for Tana, the ones she brought with here at the beginning of our journey were quite loose and not very good looking any more. Luckily there are loads of stores and we found some.

Beach in Pucón
Beach in Pucón

Local cuizine is very good, we tried some typical stuff at one small restaurant and I even had german cake – Kuchen – which is very popular at this place.

Chilean special
Chilean special

So far, climbing up the Villarica was best adventure we had in Chile. There were more to come as we were heading to Patagonia but it was still far away.

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