Pucon, a small touristy town in the heart of the Lake District region, has been one of our favourite destinations whilst overlanding in Chile. Popular with holidaying Chileans as well as foreign tourists, the Lonely Planet describes it as “A mecca for adventure sports”.
Not into adventure sports? Then don’t be deterred. Pucon is also a fantastic location if you fancy a few days just kicking back and relaxing. As Pucon lies at the eastern end of Lake Villarrica, there is also a lakeside beach with black volcanic sands where you can catch a few rays, read a book and do a spot of people watching.
Wandering around the numerous tourist gift shops and sampling a coffee and medialuna or two, (Argentinian pastries), are also great ways to pass the time!
There is lots on offer to see and do here, so if you are planning on visiting Pucon, we recommend allowing at least 3 days to cram in as much as you can. It is easily reachable by bus from Santiago, however coming from the Argentinian side we crossed over the border at San Martin de Los Andes, (a similar resort in the Argentine Lake District).
There are numerous tour operators in the centre of Pucon offering an array of water and snow based activities dependent on the season. Visiting in December, the start of summer, we found the main activities were white-water rafting, some limited skiing, horse-riding and trekking opportunities in either the Villarrica or Huerquehue National Parks, as well as more relaxing activities such as a visit to one of the nearby hot springs.
We didn’t choose to do any of the above however, as our main reason for visiting Pucon was to summit one of Chile’s most active volcanoes. From the streets of Pucon, Volcan Villarrica has an imposing presence on the town. Covered in snow year round, it particularly stands out against the summer blue sky and can be seen from a number of viewpoints looking south.
The Star Attraction
At 2,847 metres above sea level, rising out of the clouds above the lake with the same name, Volcan Villarrica is undoubtedly Pucon’s main tourist attraction.
65 eruptions have been recorded through history, the most notable of these being in 1964 and 1971. Villarrica’s last eruption occurred in 2008, which means it is no longer possible to see a lava fountain inside Villarrica’s crater. However, just peering down into the crater lake is still a marvellous sight.
Although most tour operators emphasise it is not a technical climb, you ‘just need a basic level of fitness’, trekking to the summit of the volcano should not be taken lightly. It is not an easy task no matter how fit you are as altitude sickness can quickly take hold, likewise the weather can change dramatically in minutes.
Whilst writing this blog post, we read some recent reviews on TripAdvisor that told of how two tourists had fallen to their deaths during their descent – very sad news. If we had known this before our trek it is likely we would have changed our minds. I was already a nervous wreck thinking about sliding down the volcano on ‘bum boards’ as the method of returning to the base. (Did I mention I’m NOT an adventurous sports kind of person?!)
In hindsight, I’m glad we made the decision to do the trek. Reaching the summit is definitely one of those memorable moments, especially as we found ourselves above the clouds – which Wayne tells me is called a ‘cloud inversion’.
But on hearing the terrible news of the fate of other trekkers, what I am glad about is that we took the trek seriously and organised our tour with a reputable company. Remember – you get what you pay for… Cheap is not always the best.
We booked the trek as part of a large group, with 15 fellow overlanders. But this number meant we had 4 guides to take us up to the summit of Villarrica and bring us back down. (The guides actually then split us into two groups based on speed so that people could go at their own pace).
Before leaving town we were each kitted out with sturdy hiking boots, waterproof trousers, windproof jacket, thick waterproof gloves, a backpack with crampons should we need them, an extra waterproof layer they called a ‘nappy’ that fastened around your bottom and legs for sliding down, an ice-pick, a safety helmet and a ‘bum board’.
They had told us when booking that if the weather was poor on the morning of the trip then they would not take us up the volcano and we would get a full refund. (A good way to give your customers peace of mind). We paid 100 US dollars each or 50,000 Chilean pesos.
Using mini-vans, the company collected us from our campsite at 7am, and luckily for us the weather was good. Perfect conditions for walking up Villarrica, so much so, we didn’t make use of the clothing they had given us until much near the summit as it was so hot. What we did use continuously however was the ‘ice-pick’, which proved invaluable for support on the icy slopes.
The guides encouraged us to take the ski lift for the first section of the volcano trek, which they said was the hardest section and would save us an hour of time. This would have cost us an extra 8,000 Chilean pesos. However, along with a few other experienced trekkers, we decided to walk the whole route without taking the ski lift as we agreed our fitness levels were good.
First the guides gave us a safety demonstration in terms of how to hold the ice pick correctly (not like a golf club as I first picked it up!) and how to use it to anchor yourself if you happened to slip or slide. And then we set off…
Our group had a guide leading at the front, plus a guide following at the back. The first section where we didn’t take the ski lift was a steep walk on volcanic gravel. It took our group around 45 minutes to reach the next section when the snow began. From then on we literally zig-zagged our way up the volcano following very carefully in the footsteps of our leading guide and using the ice picks for balance.
We had a couple of rest stops for photographs and energy boosting snacks before reaching the summit, which took us around 4 hours in total. We walked at a steady pace and were not affected by the altitude and as the weather was so good we didn’t need to wear crampons at all.
The actual trek presented us with spectacular views, but as we were concentrating so heavily on the task of walking, it wasn’t until we reached the top that we could really appreciate them!
On Top Of The World
From the top we couldn’t see views of Pucon as big fluffy white clouds had gathered below the peak, but the view we did get was amazing. It was a surreal experience to find ourselves higher than the clouds with bright blue sky all around and to look down on them was simply stunning.
As the weather was so good, we also had the opportunity with our guides to walk to the crater rim and look down into the volcano. There wasn’t any smoke coming out of the volcano but we could smell the acrid aroma of sulphur all around.
We spent around an hour at the top as the weather was so good. We were told by our guides that we were the luckiest group that week. Sometimes the conditions are such that other groups literally get a quick photo opportunity then have to make their way back down as it can be so cold and visibility can be poor.
Ride Of Your Life
Next came the moment everyone had been excited about but I had been dreading. The slide down…
We put on all the waterproof gear that had been provided, secured our ‘nappies’, and got our ‘bum boards’ ready. You don’t actually slide all the way down in one go – thankfully. The volcano is split into sections where you walk a little bit then slide to the next section. The guides were very safety conscious and made sure people were well separated and one took the lead whilst another waited at the rear.
My guide in particular, named Nacho, could see how nervous I was and did his best to put me at ease. I tried the first slide by myself but deliberately tried to go slow and use the ice pick as a break. So for the next slide, Nacho let me sit behind him and slide down as a train while he held my feet, which gave me some confidence and this time I actually enjoyed it!
There were 5 slides in total and it took us around an hour to return to the base of the volcano. This was where we ran out of snow and then had to walk down the last gravel section below the ski lift to our awaiting mini-van. We arrived back in Pucon around 4pm ready for a celebratory beer!
We had no complaints at all about the tour company we used. The equipment they provided was well maintained and the guides were both knowledgeable and safety aware as well as friendly.
All in all, it was a fantastic day out, one of those real memorable moments and definitely a highlight of our South American trip so far.