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Published: March 4th 2016
R: We arrived in Pucon in the northern Chilean lakes at about lunchtime. The bus trip was uneventful except for talking to a man at the bus station who was doing almost the reverse of our trip after retiring. Our hostel here is a bit far out of town but has incredible views of Volcan Villarica right from the window. But first we had to read the 2-sided rule card for the hostel, said the lady who checked us in. We found the England v. Ireland match on the TV so I nipped to the supermarket during half time to grab some empanadas. It's kind of like eating a pie. After the resounding win, we headed into town.
Pucon is quite touristy, and overpriced, but very sweet. The buildings are all pretty wooden affairs and there are so many cake shops. And the cakes are delicious. There's clearly German influence here with names like "Oma's Cafe" and the cakes are all ones you would find in towns in Germany. Pucon sits on the side of the lake and has a little harbour full of boats for hire, or not. They also have a duck boat. Though its not like the
ones we have in the UK - it's actually the shape of a duck. And when it hoots its whistle - it comes out of the duck's hrad on the front. Needless to say we wouldn't have wanted to do that. You can see Volcan Villarica from everywhere around too.
Next day we had a mooch about and I decided I wanted to hike up the volcano. You have to go in a group as the national park insist on it, so we set about finding a decent outfit to do it with. We also booked a half day area tour for the afternoon as we had limited time and it was a cheaper way of visiting one of the many geothermal hot springs around the place.
This was a nice little tour taking in some pretty waterfalls, rapids (used by rafters - category V i believe) and a blue lagoon. All of them were 'quite nice' but not stand out amazing. It was a good way to spend the afternoon. Then it was on to the hot springs. There are loads of these around Pucon and we went to this one, about 30km outside, mainly because the
tour went there. When we got there, the guide told us to swim in the river as it had special healing properties. We headed into the warm pool first which was about 35c and then into the hot pool at over 40c. After that we went to the river and dipped a toe - and immediately yanked it back out again - it was freezing! We thought it was supposed to be geothermally heated. Or maybe he just told us that to make the stupid Brits go in there. So we headed to the final, indoor pool. At this point, Cate noticed the unbelievably cheap massage prices. So after about 10 minutes I was on my own in the baths for about another hour. They are set in a lush valley by a river, the sun was setting, so I laid out on a deck chair and enjoyed the view until it was time to leave, for the next morning was the volcano climb...
I left the hostal at 6am and it was still pitch black and the stars were out. When I arrived in town, I was supplied with a larger backpack than my own, walking
boots, crampons etc. then we headed off by bus to the base of the volcano. There are very strict rules about the time of the day you can climb so it's a bit awash with minibuses at the park entrance. We then got taken to a base/parking lot from where you can take a short chairlift or an extra 90 minutes walk up to the next station. It was now 7.30am and the sun was rising over the lake and Pucon. The volcano left an odd shadow in the air where the sun rose around it. Just as we headed up, the volcano belched a cloud of brown smoke upwards - just to remind you of its activity. (It normally has whispy white smoke rising from it when you see it from town.) As we left the minibus they handed us each an ice axe - I was promised this wasn't going to be a technical climb!
We headed for the chairlift - only one hardy American made the extra climb - much to the annoyance of one of our guides who had to climb it too. The chairlift creaked into life and started ferrying us up - the
route was exceptionally busy that day as it had been closed two days before due to rain, so it was a bit congested. The chairlift was a rickety old thing and had no safety bar. Great! I was on it with my walking buddy, Shelley from New Zealand who spent the whole time talking about how Chile isn't very safe and the lack of safety checks!
From the top of the chairlift it was 2 hours of 'up' over sandy rocks - volcanic ash. For me, the pace was a little slow, but our group was of mixed ability, so they couldn't go much faster. Our first main stop after this point was an abandoned and ruined chairlift station which was destroyed by lava in a previous eruption. They have now built a new one on the other side for the skiers. This is, however, as high as skiers are allowed.
We walked about 30 mins more to the base of the glacier where we stopped to get the crampons on. Sadly, this is where Shelley and I parted company, as she decided to turn back due to lack of fitness. She also went with a french lady.
Then we recommenced our trip up the glacier and it was bloody steep! We had to zig-zag and switch back and forth and even then there was quite a risk of turning your ankle over. (We got told, if you fell, to use the ice axe as a break, not your crampons to avoid shattering your ankle! Cheerful thought.) All the time we were climbing the glacier you could hear the shouts of "Roca!" and whistles being blown ahead as rocks, dislodged by previous hikers, bounded uncontrollably towards us! I watched the same person get hit twice, but not seriously. We were at least 90 minutes on the glacier, then we got to the rocky precipice at the top. From here it was a 20 minute hike up a steep slope to the top, 2860m above sea level.
At the top, after donning a gas mask, you could see right down into the massive crater. You could just see a pool of black, newly formed lava flow. There was white smoke rising from the abyss and you could hear rumbling from below. (Apparently up to two days before an eruption, this becomes much more intense, and that's when they
stop climbing!) As we watched, the volcano spat bright red lava onto the black lava rock, and occasionally belched Sulphur which if you didn't have your gas mask on, was pretty unpleasant. Around was a 360 degree view of the national park, other volcanoes (including one which is currently erupting), the lake and Pucon. Not a cloud in the sky - stunning! But sadly a bit hazy for decent photos.
When it was time to leave (which was too soon due to park regulations) we donned a set of protective trousers, mittens, and a kind of hard 'nappy' which the guides referred to as "El Pampers" plus were given a little plastic sled. We were led to a sort of aperture in the top of the glacier where snow had built up a sort of channel. We were given a brief safety briefing on how to slide down the ice and use the ice axe as a brake, and... Off we went. It was about 90 minutes of little runs - some faster and some slower. Occasionally you hit a bank of snow created by someone else, or like me, jumped the tracks into a disused run. All the
time, you had awesome views of the Pucon area.
From there, it was a fairly boring trudge down to the parking lot where we picked up the minibus back into town.
I didn't take any photos of the sledging, so check out this youtube link of someone else's GoPro video!
It was a great laugh - almost made me want to climb again just so I could come back down.
I definitely deserved a big dinner that night so we headed to a "Parrilla" - a Chilean grill for a big plate of meat. The next day was the dreaded 12 hour bus to Santiago.