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Published: January 31st 2008
Approaching the summit of Volcan Villarrica. Villarrica is one of the most active volcanoes in South America, and you can see clearly the smoke at the top.
Leaving Chiloe behind we moved onto one of Chile's most visited regions, the Lake District. We had taken things relatively easy in Chiloe, so we were looking forward to plenty of hiking and climbing after leaving the islands. The Lake District in Chile lies roughly between the cities of Temuco & Puerto Montt. The main towns are connected by the Pan American highway, running through the western half, while most of the lakes, mountains and volcanoes are found within a series of national parks and reserves, in more remote areas closer to the Argentinian border. Access to these parks is often via dirt roads, meaning it takes time to see all the sites, and that you usually need to return to the Pan American to move north or south. The relative inaccessibility of these parks, however, means it's very easy to escape the crowds and experience very remote and beautiful scenery. Osorno
Osorno was our first stop in the Lake District. It's a bit far from the lakes and volcanoes to be a proper base, so we only stayed here one day. We had a quick look around the town, then rented a car for the next two days. At
a cafe in Osorno we ended up chatting for a long time with the owner, who had visited Europe before and knew Ireland quite well. He spoke some English but we ended up speaking in Spanish, so it seems like we're making some progress with the language. He suggested a few things for us to see in Osorno for the rest of our stay, and told us about the history of the town. Somehow the talk got around to politics, and it turned out he was a big admirer of Pinochet, the Chilean dictator from the 70s and 80s. Hmm...
If nothing else, speaking with this man made me realize how few Chileans outside the tourist industry we've actually met. I guess it's difficult as were always moving on and never staying in one place too long and in general the people we have most in common with are other backpackers from abroad. I'm currently reading Sara Wheeler's book, Travels in a Thin Country, and one thing that surprises me is how many Chileans she meets and how easily she seems to befriend them. In general we've found Chileans a little harder to get to know than Argentinians.
Celebrating back in Pucon
My audition for Right Said Fred had gone very well!
We spent the rest of that day seeing Osorno, which, to be honest, isn't the most interesting place. The churches here are especially strange: our guidebook described them as hideous, and I don't think it was far off the mark. The friendly cafe owner seemed to like them. Perhaps Pinochet had them built in some cost efficient way... Puyuhue National Park
We drove east from Osorno towards Puyuhue National Park, home to a number of volcanoes and hot springs. At about the halfway point we found a hotel in Entre Lagos, then continued to Puyuhue. Our plan had been to climb Volcan Casablanca, whose summit can be reached in about 3 hours from Anticullura ski centre in the park. The weather, however, was against us, and the volcano was covered in clouds, so we instead did three shortish hikes around Aguas Calientes at the park entrance. We later drove out to Volcan Casablanca along a dirt road and up to Crater Rayuhen, where the trail to the summit begins. The cloud was still covering the mountain so we limited our walk to crossing the crater. This was my first time on a volcano or inside a crater, so despite
This crater lies below the main summit of Volcan Casablanca in Puyuhue National Park. We hiked across the crater but couldn't go any further as the clouds were coming in fast.
the bad weather it was still an interesting hike. Frutillar
The clouds remained over Puyuhue the next day so we moved south towards Frutillar on the shores of Lago Llanquihue. Here the weather was slightly better, and we spent an enjoyable day relaxing in the town. This is a popular spot, especially with Chileans, but without the view of the volcano it was a bit dull. Frutillar, like many towns in the Lake District, was a popular destination for German immigrants in the early 20th century, and the lady at our hotel even asked us "Sprechen Sie Deutsch" when she found out we were European. There is a small beach on the shores of Lago Llanhuique, which was packed with people, and there were even a good few in the water, but I don't know how they managed as it was freezing. We drove up to Frutillar Alto (the new part of town up near the Pan-Am) and found an Internet cafe, which gave us an excuse to skip the town's museum. I think we'd exhausted all Frutillar's possibilities by now, so to pass the time, we decided it was time for a new look. I shaved all my
Sea Lions in Valdivia
They congregate behind the fish market
hair off while in return Ruth agreed to dye her hair red! That's what happens during bad weather in the Lake area! Valdivia
We returned the car to Osorno and moved further north to Valdivia, near the coast. This is a University town, so there was more of a buzz than in Osorno, though I think it must have been summer hols for the students as the University area was very quiet. We struggled through the historical museum (as in Argentina, museums are not Chile's strong point), then spent a few hours in the Botanical Gardens. By our second day in Valdivia, the weather had finally changed so we booked our tickets for Pucón, the Bariloche of Chile, and one of the best bases for exploring the region. Pucón & Volcan Villarica
Pucón is a very touristy town, but for good reason, given its location at the shore of Lago Villarrica and close to the volcano of the same name. We found cheapish accommodation and based ourselves here for 4 days, exploring the surrounding regions by day, and relaxing in Pucón by night.
Volcan Villarrica is one of the three most active volcanoes in South America, but
that doesn't prevent thousands of people climbing it every year, and it's by far the most popular summit in Chile. A huge tourist industry has developed in Pucón, centred on guided trips to the summit, and there are many such companies in Pucón, with prices ranging from 35,000 to 50,000 pesos. You can only climb it independently if you can show proof of your experience to CONAF, plus have all the required equipment. We called into five companies before settling on Sierra Nevada, which had a 7am departure the following morning for 37000 pesos. Based on all the information they gave us and all the gear we had to try on,you might think we were about to climb Everest rather than a 2800 metre volcano!
The next morning, we were up bright and early at 6 to prepare for our 7am departure. From our bedroom window we could see the summit was clear of clouds, and the weather looked good so that was one worry of our minds. We put on all our gear at the Sierra Nevada shop and met the seven other group members (two Chilean couples and three Americans) before setting off for the trail head.
Arriving at the ski centre we were encouraged to take the chair lift to 1800 m and begin the climb there. This cost another 5000 pesos! At the top of the chairlift we were given instructions on how to use ice picks, and then we finally set off with our two guides. About 100 others were setting off at the same time, and we were all on the same path, so progress was slow. But by the first pit stop, it became a little less crowded. The views were fantastic and we were going at such a slow speed we had plenty of time to enjoy them. We had an excellent view of Voclan Llaima, which erupted as recently as last month.
After taking a break at 2200 metres (roughly halfway), we climbed to a ridge and the summit came into view. We could see the smoke emerging from the crater and as we got closer to the top we began to smell the sulphur. Exciting! It took us 3.5 hours to get to the summit. I reckon had we been on our own, we'd have been an hour faster. It's one for all in this group and
On Villarrica summit
Normally the clouds cover the summit, but today it was clear though there was plenty of cloud cover below us
we had to walk as fast as the slowest person.
At the summit we were barely given 30 minutes. I'm not sure what the hurry was, probably the guides wanted to get back to the pub, but I could have easily spent another hour there, to take in all the fantastic views. I was hoping to see Volcan Lanin, but the guides insisted we stay in the small area we had chosen area. It's not that it was unsafe as I could see other groups circling the rim. Well, I'm being a bit negative about this climb, but, despite some misgivings I certainly enjoyed it; the views were fantastic, we had a good group and guides and it was a nice feeling to climb my first volcano.
Descending Villarrica was great fun. It took us less than an hour to get down, as we slid down all the way along five or six toboggan paths. Some of these toboggan paths were very steep and I was glad I had the ice-ax to steer and stop. We arrived back in Pucón at 4, returned our gear, and sat in the sun drinking a beer provided by the company, a
Looking south from Villarrica, Chushuenco was the only thing we could see above the clouds
We took it easy the next day, spending a day at the lakeside beach in Pucón, an excellent spot to rest and relax. The water in the lake is great for swimming, and you can see Volcan Villarrica in the background as you swim. We also rented kayaks and went out on the lake for an hour from where there were even more good views. Huerquehue National Park
Before leaving Pucón we had one more enjoyable day of hiking, this time in Parque Huerquehue, 40 km northeast. The national park here has been created to protect the Aracunia (monkey puzzle) trees, and offers excellent day walks and one multi-day trek. We chose to do the 20 km return trek to three small lakes. Once again, as in many of Chile's parks, there were no maps, but the trails were well marked and the helpful Conaf staffed assured us we'd easily find our way by keepoing to the paths. The trek began at Lago Tinquilco, then climbed up through the forests, passing a number of waterfalls and miradors, from where we had great views of the lake, and Volcan Villarrica in the distance, to finally reach Lago
Araucarias in Huerquehue
Araucaria trees can be seen all over Huerquehue National Park
Verde and Lago Toro. There were very few people on the trails, and it was one of the nicest spots we've visited in Chile. The park is well set up for camping, so we regretted not having brought tents for the longer trek. That more or less rounded off our time in the Lake District. The towns may not have been too impressive but the lakes, volcanoes and general scenery was fantastic.
A final few words on perhaps the most annoying part of our hiking. The fine weather meant the tabanos were out in huge numbers. Anyone who has hiked in the Chilean or Argentinian Lake District in January will know (and hate) these little creatures. Insect repellent doesn't work against them and you spend most of our time trying to stay on the move or swat them. It can become very frustrating as you can never stop anywhere for more than a couple of minutes before them swarm all over you. Their bites are harmless but can be painful. We killed a good hundred or so that day in Huerquehue but I doubt they're a threatened species given the numbers that followed us. Hiking above the tree line
Quick descent of Villarrica
Three hours up, 30 minutes down!
usually means you avoid them - but you have to descend sometime!
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