Chile's Volcano District
Mar 10, 2003
David Rich 1400 Words
C h i l e ' s V o l c a n o D i s t r i c t
I've been hooked on volcanoes since the serendipitous childhood moment when I flipped open a picture book to an amazing Technicolor shot of Vesuvius, open crater belching smoke, ash, and fire over the Bay of Naples, an image engraved in my memory forever. A few dozen years later I found volcano nirvana in South Central Chile, many perfect Fuji-like cones strung out in seven national parks above a dozen deep blue lakes, a gazillion waterfalls, umpteen thermal spas, and enough glaciers to slide down until my backside nearly became a blue block of ice. In March 1835 Charles Darwin described the volcanic activity thusly:
...several of the great chimneys of the Cordillera of central Chile commenced a fresh period of activity [after an earthquake and tidal wave destroyed the city of Conception and 70 villages on February 20, 1835]. We thus see a permanent elevation of the land, renewed activity through habitual vents, and a submarine outburst, forming parts of one great phenomenon. The extent of country throughout which the subterranean forces were thus unequivocally displayed measures 700 by 400 geographical miles.
My volcano district is the northern one hundred-eighty miles of Darwin's seven hundred. The other five hundred miles south is accessible only by an unpaved road, the famous Carretera Austral, and miscellaneous ferries.
I began the adventure fifty miles east of Temuco in Conguillio National Park, which is dominated by constantly smoking Volcan Llaima. I arrived a little early, in late November, when the summer sun had barely started to melt the winter snows, leaving the north end of the park inaccessible. I was left with the choice of hiking up Llaima, which has exploded an average of every twelve out of the last four hundred years (the last eruption over twenty years ago), or taking the best short hike in Chile according to every guidebook I could lay my hands on. I felt like Jack Benny deciding between his money or his life, but finally chose the rather safer hike up a snow-packed ridge between Lagos Conguillio and Verde, through stands of weird Monkey Puzzle trees into the high Sierra Nevadas where the heart of the Andes stretched north and south into infinity, dividing Chile from Argentina while Llaima smoked placidly opposite. This hike expended perhaps the best four hours I ever invested in a climb, though I didn't take advantage of a slide-down like friends of mine who tobogganed off the top to make their round trip in two and a half hours.
Fifty miles south of Parque Nacional Conguillio stands the perfectly symmetrical and glacier-blanketed Volcan Villarica in Villarica National Park overlooking Lago Villarica. The volcano is a must climb for anyone not in their dotage. Harboring pretensions, I rented crampons in the vibrant alpine village of Pucon, at the base of Volcan Villarica, which last erupted to havoc in 1971. This isn't precisely accurate, because Villarica is always erupting to localized havoc, spewing a poisonous plume of sulfuric gases almost daily, making it a rare occasion when climbers without gas masks can approach within a hundred meters of the top. Volcan Villarica was described three hundred years ago in Poet Arcilla's epic, La Araucana: "Great neighbor volcano, the forge they say of Vulcan, that belches continuous fire..." Some things never change.
It takes three hours to climb Villarica if you take the ski lift as far as it goes, which is to the bottom of the permanent glacier/snow line. There you must strap on crampons, unless following a tour guide who will tromp steps in the glacier for his minions to follow in single file. But if you're me, the only one of a hundred on the mountain not in a tour group, going solo on your own, many of the guides will hate you, and at least one will berate you for climbing his volcano without paying because the guides believe they own the mountain. A guided tour is the easiest way to go, providing all equipment from boots to parkas and ice picks, plus the crucial transportation six long miles up and much more up to the ski area from Pucon for only about thirty dollars for the entire day. For tourists who love their barbecue the choice is easy: several tours include an after hike barbecue.
The best part is after reaching the top, assuming the billowing sulphur prevents you from gazing into the rainbow-colored crater. That's when you spot a ten-foot-deep chute or crevasse at the top of the glacier and are still scratching your head while the guides are busily lining up their tourees into human toboggans. I joined the party, flopping on my back and schussing an entire mile down the glacier in far less than an hour. It may be a longish hike up, but it's a swoop down while Lago Villarica grows larger below you by the second. If you go on your own, make sure you wear padded and waterproof pants, supplied to those on the various tours, or you'll end up like me, with an icy rear end, probably like my friends also had when they shushed down the Sierra Nevadas in Parque Conguillio.
The Pucon area provides ample remedy for an icy butt; half a dozen thermal spas lie within a compact area in the fifteen miles east of town, from those commandeered by multi-star hotels with pricey rooms to the most primitive. All charge ten dollars or less for a full day's spa diversion, guaranteed to thaw you out pronto.
Heading south from Villarica, you'll pass Lago Calaquen, chock full of scenic islands, and reach Lago Panguipulli, on which sits the like-named town famous for its 14,000 roses. But the next best stop is at Puyehue National Park, which has it all, from resort hotels and thermal pools in all price ranges to volcanoes and great trekking. The best and easiest climb is up Volcan Casa Blanca whose crater is permanently filled with snow, fissures as far down inside as you can see. The top gives you views over the higher Andes and volcanoes all around, from the sprawling heights of Volcan Puyehue to the north, the most perfect snowcapped cone of Volcan Osorno to the west sitting next to shattered Mount Puntiaguido, and mighty Mount Tronador to the south. Don't try sliding down this volcano, because Casa Blanca is a misnomer—you'll end up with splinters of volcanic rock where you likely prefer no splinters.
The other great Puyehue hike is toward its namesake volcano from El Caulle near Anticura, through a lunar desert of recent (1960) rumbling lava flows and fumaroles to a remote spring with rustic thermals for bodily emersion, a unique campsite far away from everyone else in the world. Then head to the jewel of the Lake District, Chile's second largest, Lago Llanquique. On its western shore about fifteen miles apart sit three charming German-settled towns. The farthest north, smallest, and quietest is Puerto Octay with an old church on its center hill and great views of shattered Mount Puntaguido across the placid lake.
Farthest south and largest is Puerto Varas, a European-style church on its hill, thirty hazy miles from the perfectly shaped and always snowcapped Volcan Osorno, along with Volcan Villarica, the two most photogenic volcanoes in Chile, if not the world. But the best views are from Lago Llanquique's western mid-point, where the lovely town of Frutillar provides shimmering and perfectly reflected views of Volcan Osorno, an idyllic lakefront with musically themed sculptures and an open-air museum built by the Federal Republic of Germany. The Museo de Colonization de Alemana offers a water-powered mill, a mansion on the hill, a working blacksmith, and flower gardens spread over many acres while the entire town remains a museum of German-style architecture.
Many other attractions jam pack what is commonly known as the Lake District of Chile, where any tourist could easily spend a couple of carefree weeks, from the large historic island of Chiloe (pronounced Chill-Oh-A), to the exotic lake crossing of Todos los Santos, right next to Volcan Osorno, into Argentina and its mountain resort town of Bariloche, to the ferries leaving from Puerto Montt into the roadless fiords of the south to Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, and Tierra del Fuego. But for me the main attraction will always be the more accurately named Volcano District. For extremely up-to-date Web sites on accommodations and special rates in the Volcano District of Chile see www.discover-Chile.com and www.Chile-hotels.com.