The bus pulled into Pucon around 7am. The whole town was asleep. I staggered through the deserted streets to find my hostel. First impressions of the town was it looked like a ski resort. Wooden chalets lined the road and in -between were bars, restaurants and adventure tour companies.
Posters in all of the windows showed white water rafting, hiking and summiting the Volcano Villaricca. This place is where active and adrenaline-craved people descend.
There in front of me was the volcano…looming into the skyline its white capped peak gleaming in the brilliant sunlight against a bright blue sky. I never even considered giving this beast a thought. My last experience hiking on a volcano was Kilimanjaro and that almost killed me last year. Climbing at altitude is now off limits as far as my physiology is concerned.
I trundled through the rest of the streets and found my digs. I checked in, crashed out fully clothed and slept for two solid hours.
Over the course of the two days I have been here I went white water rafting down the Trancura rapids. This incredible river has two parts – the upper and lower – with vastly differing strengths of waves. I opted for the lower part – Bajo – and had great fun paddling and getting soaked wearing a wet suit and a helmet. I was the only person in the raft with the instructor which meant a lot of paddling and my arms were killing me the next day. As someone said to me, “Good job you don’t use your arms to walk up volcanoes,” because that’s exactly what I did next, less than 12 hours later.
The next day I found myself hitting the alarm as it went off at 5.30am. I had somehow been sweet- talked into hiking Villarrica by one hell of a charismatic, fluent English speaking Latino called Rodrigo. What was I thinking? I hate snow! I must be nuts! The volcano’s rocky surface is covered in thick snow until the summit, where the topography has changed to exposed rock after an explosion just 10 months ago.
I had all my gear with me – thermals, trekking pants, hiking boots, a down jacket, fleece, woolly hat, two sets of thermal gloves and waterproofs. This was in preparation for the Atacama Desert later this trip. I did not want to get sick like I did in Morocco camping in minus 5. I’m anticipating ice cold mornings.
When I arrived for a kit inspection the guides poked fun at me saying, “Are you prepping for Patagonia, Asha?” You can hire all the gear at every tour operator. The additions I was given were a helmet as there are rock falls all the time now, following the eruption, crampons in case of ice and a gas mask if the sulphur is particular strong. This is an active volcano!!
Snow and me don’t mix. I had already tried to explain this to Rodrigo. “I’m a diver, I like the water. I hate the snow and the cold!!” I protested outside the shop.
“But Aaaaasha! Snow is just frozen water. You’ll be fine. You are fit and healthy and it is super hot up there, trust me. I will be watching you the whole time. Ok? Come on. Join us!”
So I did. I was really lucky the weather conditions were perfect. Fresh snow, fluffy – no ice. No wind and no cloud. Sunshine all the way. I was roasting. Sweating buckets, peeling off layers at every stage.
I was scooped up by the ski lift and five minutes later I found myself on a snow slope for the first time in 12 years. Every step I took I was concentrating so hard on not slipping. If you fall over and start sliding down the volcano the only way to stop is to dig your snow axe into the mountain face and cling on. That thing is your best friend. It also acts as a brake on the way down….more on that later.
There were 12 of us in a group. Sadly for me I was lumbered with a bunch of immature, irritating Israelis. These 20-somethings gave the guides such a hard time refusing to listen, doing what they wanted, behaving like twats basically. They even brought a bag of weed with them to smoke which did not go down well with Rodrigo.
This type of activity does come with risk. On the whole the vast majority of people ascend and descend safely if they follow instruction and keep their wits about them. But if you think you know it all, don’t respect the volcano or the environment it also has the potential to kill or cause serious injury. Conditions can change rapidly and quick reactions are necessary specially with the rock falls of which I saw many.
On reaching the summit the crater surface is covered in yellow/green sulphur. Imagine moss and that comes close to the effect. Smoke is billowing out of it and the rocks are hot to touch. It is magnificent and I could hardly believe after nearly 3 hours of hiking I had made it. It was challenging and Rodrigo was true to his word, watching me and encouraging me as well giving me the odd helping hand. I was grateful.
Villaricca stands at 2700m and there is no altitude so breathing is not a problem this is purely cardio. The way down will tickle some of you reading this and horrify others. You are given waterproof pants (I had my own – my outdoorsy mates will be proud – haha!!) a square mat which is attached under you legs and around your crotch. Looks like you are earring nappy. The downside of it is shiny and then they give you a plastic seat that looks like the head of a tennis racket. Yes you got it, you are a human toboggan on the way down. You sit on your arse with your legs bent and pressed firmly together and you slide baby, slide! In order to stay upright you have to manoeuvre your hips left and right with the curves on the slope. To slow down or stop you use your trusty snow axe handle as a brake! It sounds crazy and it was pretty crazy.
The hundreds of people doing this daily has created some ice slides some of the way down the volcano face because the snow has built up either side of the tracks. The idea sounds more terrifying that the actual experience which was a lot of fun. The first “slide” I did was with Rodrigo….I wasn’t convinced I could do it solo. I sat behind him, my chest pressing against his backpack and my legs swapped around his waist with my thighs resting ontop of his. Off we went. It was fast and we hit a lot of bumps. After the first two slides as a pair I was more confident and I went solo. By the last slide all of us had formed a human locomotion. No casualties and everyone accounted for.
I would definitely recommend doing this if you are in this area, but you do have to be fit, despite what people say. Pick your tour company wisely. I saw many people being led by guides who didn’t give a shit, they just had to keep pace even if they were struggling. Bad attitude by tour companies. I wasn’t impressed. There were a few times Rodrigo fell out of line to go and help other people and show them the correct way to walk and use their axe. He was a legend and without his help I wouldn’t have made it. Mind you, I wouldn’t have been up the bloody volcano if it wasn’t for him!
The next day volcano under my belt I decided to hike El Cani Reserva. It is about 35minutes out of town. The trail is marked but not clear so I hired a guide. Many consider this hike harder than the volcano because it is so steep. And let me tell you it is no walk in the park. I ended up doing 9km up and 9km down, no sliding this time. I was sweating buckets in 32 degrees carrying a heavy backpack. My legs were like jelly by the time I got back to my digs – destroyed. It was one of the most beautiful places I have been through. The panoramic view is incredible. One friend said to me after seeing pictures, “It’s what I imagine heaven to look like.” He is not wrong. In 360 degrees you can see seven volcanoes in total and at least three in 180 degrees.
Today has been my last day. I woke late, ate breakfast and then headed to the thermal spas to dip my broken body and get a massage. It’s been a lazy five hours and the perfect way to round off Pucon. I’m headed for the bus station in an hour. No hangover this time. Let’s hope the next 10 hours are less painful than the last trip.