Villarica in the Chilean national park of the same name is a very active volcano rising up to 9,380 feet above sea level. We hoped to climb to the top and peer into the crater since we had heard that the it was possible to see the bubbling lava lake below. So on our journey southwards, we a little detour to Pucan – the departure point for any attempt to climb this exciting volcano.
19th February 2000: Pucan, Chile (Day 212 overall)
Our overnight coach from Santiago dropped us in the quiet bus station of Pucan at 9am. The view of the countryside around us was magnificent. Forested valleys surrounding a huge blue lake and a sea of surrounding mountains amongst which rose several towering volcanoes. The nearest and most prominent was that of Villarica – a perfect cone standing almost alone with the small flat top of its crater, all ringed in a thick layering of snow.
From the bus station, I went off two Israeli’s we had chatted with on the bus to find a place to stay and we ended up in Hospedaje Lucia which was run by a sweet lady also called Lucia. The only had a room with three beds between the four of us, so I volunteered to sleep on the floor for the first night since Lucia told us some of the other guests would be leaving tomorrow. It was too late in the day to start with the volcano but after speaking with a Frenchman who was also staying there who recommended some other local activities, we decided to spend the afternoon river rafting.
It would be Jono and Irinia’s first time at rafting so and we found a company (Aventur) who would take us down a nearby Class IV river which was suitable for ‘brave beginners’. Our foursome was altogether in one raft and a guide and there were four more people in another. For $16, the afternoon was fun although the rapids were not that taxing and a bit too widely spaced. At least our guide was better than the one in the other boat since they managed to capsize towards the end and their boat and crew were washed separately down river having to make their own way back to the landing spot.
We were later warned by another guide that Aventur are very inexperienced and a lot of his fellow guides apparently refused to work for them. Another company – Tracura – was similar but kept running because the owner was a local drug lord and this was one of his many money laundering operations! All this didn’t seem to put us off however since in the evening, we booked with Aventur to climb Villarica the next day. It was expensive at $40 which included park fees $6.50, chairlift for the first section $6.00, transport to and from the park entrance, equipment and guide. Everyone had said that a guide is obligatory but we did later find that some people were making their own way up.
We would leave at 7am tomorrow. That evening, Irinia cooked a pasta and sauce meal which was very tasty and good energy for the trip we were all looking forward to.
20th February 2000: Pucan, Chile (Day 213 overall)
We were up at 6am and after breakfast, we arrived at the Aventur shop at 7am which was shut. There was a large group of expectant trekkers outside including an Australian couple we had met briefly in Santa Cruz (Bolivia) and we all waited together until 8am when the guides finally showed up. Inside the shop we kitted up (water proof rugged trousers, helmets, pick axes, etc) and waited yet another hour before a minibus turned up and drove us all to the base camp just outside the park gate.
From here, the massive volcano seemed to stretch straight up and on top, we could see the continuous, thin stream of smoke from the crater was being blown horizontal by the forceful wind. The wind was fierce even down where we were and blew grit and sand all over the place. Our guide said that it was very unlikely we could get up there or see anything today, so we all agreed to try again tomorrow. Most of the other groups that were in front of us were also turning back and we heard later that of the few that carried on, all subsequently had to turn back at the snow line as a result of high winds and snowfall.
Back in Pucan, we ended up having a rather relaxing day as a result of the anti-climax. Irinia and I decided to venture around the small town on a fact-finding mission for our upcoming journey into the south of Chile exploring the different options. Mark’s turn at dinner tonight and this time it was an energy providing carbonara for Villarica Mark II!!
21st February 2000: Pucan, Chile (Day 214 overall)
The alarm didn’t go off for the umpteenth time on this trip. We most get a more reliable one! I awoke naturally 25 mins after we were supposed to be at the shop! We all sprang out of bed and raced over to find the familiar faces from yesterday waiting outside the closed shop! It ended up being 2 hours of waiting, watching a few other groups with other companies head off on their mini-buses, until a woman in a van eventually pulled up outside. Without any mention or apology of our 2 hour delay, she said offhandedly that it was too windy and that they wouldn’t be able to go today.
Looking up at the volcano, we could clearly see the smoke rising completely vertically – no wind whatsoever. Some of the waiting group spoke Spanish and tried to reason with her but she refused to listen, jumped back in the van and drove off!
It seemed to us like the perfect day for climbing which was then confirmed as the case by other agencies along the road who we asked. The other agencies were in radio contact with their respective groups (now half way up) who frustratingly said it was the ‘best day in ages’. We were so angry but even more disappointed to hear the forecast for tomorrow wasn’t good and anyway, we couldn’t afford to wait another day since we were due to be heading to Puerto Montt to catch the weekly boat to the far south.
We agreed there was nothing more we could do until 10am when the Aventur shop opened for business and we would attempt to get our money back with some vague hope to make some form of complaint. Mark and I arrived first and before long, ended up in a heated discussion with the owner demanding they get on the phone, find a guide and get us up the volcano! Amazingly, this somehow did the trick since within 30 minutes, it was all agreed and organised. The others then walked into the shop and we delightedly informed them that we would be leaving albeit 3 hours later then all the other groups who left earlier! We rushed around, got kitted up and were out of the door at 10:30 heading to Volcan Villarica!
Back at base camp, in stark contrast to yesterday, there was no wind at all. The chair lift took us to the snow line and we headed on up by foot from there. It was a long trek but not at all technical. The highlights were the amazing views back across the lake and surrounding mountains and a lonely Condor which circled us for about 10 minutes as we slowly ascended. It would fly right over our heads perhaps only 10 meters above us – a beautiful, graceful flight and absolutely huge! We watched in awe for all the time it flew by us.
The volcano is 2,860m high and it took about 4 hours to reach the top and to the crater edge. The crater itself was small for a volcano – only about 300m across and about 150m deep with sheer sides dropping straight down to the black rocks of the crater floor. In the center of this was a burning mass of molten lava down a short spout. Every few minutes, either a mass of hot gasses or a large spurt of lava would erupt and splatter the crater floor. This red molten lava would then slowly cool to become part of the black rock or drip back down and into the lava spout.
Every now and then, the lava eruption would be greater still throwing a bigger burst of molten material about 30 meters upwards which would completely cover the crater floor and cause a shower of rocks to come crashing down from the rocky walls around. A strong smell of gas would occasionally fill the air around us which was horrible to breath. Irinia had an asthma attack – her first in 6 years and had to sit down. I met a volcanologist who was an American completing his PhD. He described how the gasses were poisonous and it you stayed for several hours on the crater rim, that you would most likely die. He also said, the volcano fully erupts on average every 14 years and is late for the latest one. None of which was very reassuring!
Before long, we decided to head back down, however, instead of walking down we just slid down in the snow by taking a running jump onto our arses and down the steep sides! Most people in other groups seemed to be taking it easy but Mark and I went hell for leather. I found myself generally sliding down backwards and headfirst so that my feet wouldn’t dig into the snow and slow me down! We covered the entire distance back to the chair lift in this fashion although with numerous wipe-outs which left a trail of belongings spread across the slope which we would then have to retrieve.
The chairlift was closed but the loose carpet of ash and small stones allowed us to hone a rather loping stride that made the walk back a little easier and we soon made it back to base camp where the guides had a cold beer waiting.
All in all, the day had started terrible and disappointing but in the end – it turned into our of our favourites! It was my turn to make dinner but unfortunately, by the time I’d finished, the showers were closed – but at least the food was tasty 🙂