Feeling a bit sad to leave Bariloche we make our way back in to Chile for some volcano action. The view crossing the Andes is amazing. We reach immigration where we are frogmarched off the bus to line up in alphabetical order to get our passports stamped. After all the Gonzales’ have lined up, a Mr Grim is called out. “Mr Grim???” “Mr Frederick Grim??”. We absolutely kill ourselves laughing and then try to hold it in because its best to behave here.
Then “Mrs Lod—geh?” “Mrs Lod-geh??” which sets us both off again. Their attemts at pronouncing Green and Lodge were almost there!
First stop back in Chile is Puerto Varas which has a Mt Fuji look alike. It’s nice but we decide to move further north to Pucon where we’ve heard that the volcano is really smoking! And we aren’t disappointed.
Volcan Villarrica is Pucon’s backdrop and it huffs away, billowing smoke that lights up red from the reflection of its lava lake at night.
Our hostel offers us a guide to climb it the next day and we enthusiastically jump at the chance – well I’m enthusiastic until I see them fitting us with crampons and ice picks which makes me wonder what I’m getting myself in for.
Some stats about Volcan Villarrica: It is one of only four volcanos in the world to have an active lava lake in its crater. Height: 2847m. Last eruption: 1971. Active: in the last two weeks – Yes! Estimated hiking time from chairlift at 1400m: 4 hours. (More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villarrica_(volcano))
My fears about not being able to keep up with the group are quickly allayed when our guide, Inrique, assures us we will walk slowly but consistently. There is just Geezer, me and an Italian in our group. The Italian doesn’t speak English so Geez and I pretty much keep to ourselves. It is very steep and once we hit the snow Inrique fits the crampons to our shoes to make it easier to walk on the ice. The hostel has hired me hiking boots which are like weights on my feet. With the crampons, they weigh a ton. The guide tells us to hold the ice pick ‘like this.. not like the way you see in the movies’. But he says they are more to steady us than anything else... mmm OK I think.
The smoke at the top seems to get closer and closer and around lunchtime we hit the top. I don’t know what to expect. An American at the hostel had said that we might see lava and that we would never forget peering in the top of a volcano.
What I don’t expect is the smoke to be so strong. Just as we reach the top it seems to blow straight into us and everyone throws their heads underneath their jackets to get some protection. It is pretty overwhelming and our guide ushers us over the side of the cone.
I’m amazed at how small the opening is – I’m guessing 20m across. The radius of the top is much larger – perhaps 200m across. As we walk around the cone, our guide finds a suitable viewpoint where we see red hot lava bubbling away. We are gobsmacked. Occasionally the lava comes a bit higher allowing us to get some great photos. The smoke again heads our way so we move to the other side where we have a great view of the lava. Inrique tells us that he hasn’t seen lava for two years and in the last two weeks it has suddenly sprung to life.
The Geezer and I are in awe. We could spend the entire day here but our guide hurries us along and we have a few minutes to soak in the view of two other Chilean volcanos and the Andes mountains. It really is something.
We hurry back over the lip of the volcano and strap on a thick black sheet to our backsides. We make our way over to a series of ditches carved out in the ice. And we slide all the way down to the chairlift on our bums like a team of bobsledders. I seem to create a giant snowball in front of me which slows me down. Geezer yells at me to sit on a blue paddle that we have also carried up top with us. ‘Lean back’ he yells. ‘You’ll go faster!’.
I lean back - probably too far - and suddenly take off, hurtling down the mountain, swiping a rock that catches my elbow and nervous that I’m heading straight for my group who are waiting for me. Geezer breaks my fall and I collect him on the way through. We finish up looking like a giant snowball with arms and legs protruding. It is great fun but Geezer’s camera doesn’t fare so well.
It’s not until we reach the bottom that we realise how good our guide was. Some of the other groups hadn’t been told about the tobogganing and he had let us take extra time for photos. Some of the other guides seemed more aggressive.
We finish up back in Pucon devouring tacos (which we will later regret) and hop on a bus to Santiago bound for Easter Island!