We had heard rumblings about an epic volcano climb in Southern Chile. So when we pulled into Pucon and laid eyes on the beautiful snow-capped Volcan Villarrica, she just begged for us to summit her frosty cone. The very next day, we rose early to begin this exhilarating expedition.
When we arrived at the excursion office we checked the ever-changing weather conditions and were given the green light to proceed with the climb. Skies were blue and wind was minimal – just about perfect conditions for this trek to the top of the Villarrica Volcano. The volcano hike is no easy feat and bad weather only complicates things. In fact, there have been multiple accidents resulting in injuries and even deaths of tourists climbing Volcan Villarrica, most of which were influenced by poor weather conditions. This was a little concerning to us, so the seemingly calm weather during the day of our summit was very appeasing. It’s not unusual for weather conditions or heightened volcano activity to cancel the Volcan Villarrica trek.
We were outfitted with ice picks, crampons, and gortex-lined snow gear, then driven out to the base of Volcan Villarrica. Here, we had one final weather report, where the lead guide literally drew a line in the sand. He gave everyone the choice to opt-out of the Villarrica Volcano summit attempt. He explained that once you cross the line, you were obligated to pay for Volcan Villarrica tour regardless of how far you make it up the icy volcano. Of course, we all crossed his line in the sand.
Climbing Villarrica Volcano
The first stretch of Volcan Villarrica’s summit was below the ice line, only containing rocky terrain without snow. Here, you have the option to take a chairlift up this segment, which saves you about an hour and a half of hiking. The guides strongly encouraged everyone to take the chairlift and explained how this extra bit of hiking can be draining, sometimes causing people not to reach the summit. But we came here to climb the entire volcano and as we always aim to stretch our travel budget, we decided to save the extra $18 Chilean Pesos (~$30 USD) that it would cost for of both to take the chairlift. Instead those funds would be put towards something more important, like tasty local craft brews once back in Pucon.
And so the trek began. There were about 30-40 people in our group total. Somewhat surprisingly, there were only five of us who opted not to take the chairlift. As our fellow climbers whisked up above us in their chairlifts, we tackled the steep rocky terrain right from Volcan Villarrica’s base.
Once we reached the ice line where the chairlift ended, the other group was already leisurely making their way up the volcano, with a 90-minute head start on us. Meanwhile, we quickly guzzled water, stuffed a sandwich down our throats, strapped on our crampons, and were given quick instructions on how to use our ice picks. It seemed as if we were in a mad dash for the summit to get there fast, in case weather conditions changed.
Onward hiking up the snow and ice, this was our first time using crampons, and we actually got used to them quite quickly. We zigzagged up Volcan Villarrica’s cinder cone, trying to step in the footprints before us. We used the ice pick as more of a walking stick, rather than axing our way up the mountain. But the ice pick was still a much-needed tool in order to stabilize ourselves on this steep, treacherous, icy terrain.
We were going at what seemed like a furious pace. Horrible leg cramps soon set in and we were quickly growing out of breath. About halfway up the ice section of the volcano is when our guide finally suggested that we stop to take some photos and rest. We hadn’t stopped for a break the entire time, so that sounded fantastic. Our trekking guide then continued, “…and you can just enjoy this nice view, relax, and when the others come down from the summit, you can go down with them.”
Wait, what? To clarify, I asked if we would not be completing the summit of the Villarrica Volcano. He responded that he thought it would be too dangerous for us to continue since we weren’t able to keep up to his pace. “Oh, hell no!”
After a bit of back and forth, I convinced him to let us continue. No rest. No taking pictures. No relaxing to enjoy the view. Onward we went. But this time, we really had to put on our game face so he wouldn’t turn us back. My right leg was cramping up so bad that I could no longer put weight on it. I used the ice pick as a cane and dragged my lame leg along, sometimes having to pull it up step-by-step with my hands. Meanwhile Heather was fighting exhaustion while the toxic fumes from the volcano blowing into our lungs certainly weren’t helping matters. We really had to push through the pain. But when the guide looked back, it was all smiles as he sprinted up the icy Villarrica Volcano.
We would get to points in the ice where it appeared we were reaching the top. But upon climbing the steep segment of Volcan Villarrica, we’d realize another nearly vertical portion awaited us ahead. Then we reached ice patches where our picks just went right through, so we could no longer rely on them to support our limping along. It was right then that wind carried the chemical smelling fumes right in our direction, choking us and nearly suffocating our every breath. It was all excruciating. We were ready to give up. You win Villarrica Volcano. But we were so close.
Volcano Villarrica Summit
We dug deep and finally arrived to the top of Volcan Villarrica. This agonizing hours-long summit had finally come to an end. We had made it. Interestingly enough, we got there exactly at the same time as the chairlift group who had a 90-minute head start on this grueling trek up the Villarrica Volcano. Hmm… so I guess we weren’t so slow after all.
Having now caught up to the others, it was now time to catch our breath. But first, we had to remove our crampons and put on our descending gear just in case we volcano began erupting and we needed to make a quick exit. Yikes!
The views were incredible as you could see the entire surrounding lake-filled land of Patagonia in addition to other impressive volcanoes in the distance.
We took a peek over the cone of the Villarrica Volcano, but were very hesitant to get too close to the edge. Others seemed to have no problem standing on a ledge of snow on the interior side of a steaming volcano. We took a hard pass on that activity.
After nearly collapsing (err, resting) at the top of Volcano Villarrica for about a half hour, it was time to go down.
Thankfully we wouldn’t have to climb down the way we came up. Instead, we would be sliding down Volcan Villarrica!
Sledding Down Volcano Villarrica
There were luge-like tunnels carved into the snow that we jumped on in and slid right down. As if the hike up Villarrica wasn’t crazy enough, this sledding down the active volcano was now just insane. But it was also a lot of fun. Imagine going down a super-greased up waterslide that ran miles long, and was on the side of a volcano! That’s the only way I can even try to relate the experience. It was like nothing we’ve ever done before and a highlight of the entire Volcan Villarrica trek.
While going down, our guides managed to ski the steep grade while keeping an eye on us and picking up loose items that inevitably popped out as we launched into the air. Our ice picks became our steering wheels and our breaks as we sled down the Villarrica Volcano. At some moments we were shooting down so fast that it gave the false sensation that we may fly right off the side of the volcano if we didn’t dig our ice picks into the side to slow us down.
At one point, the chute dipped down then launched upward sending us a few feet into the air. Thrilling? Yes! But the landing was not so glamorous. Ouch!
This was no short sled ride either. It lasted what seemed like about an hour, going down at great speeds, giving testament to the distance of the climb that preceded our joy ride. All the pain of the climb up Voclan Villarrica now seemed worth it for this awesome shot of adrenaline. For us, it was not the panoramic views at the volcano’s summit that was the climax of this experience, but it was sledding down these steep icy slopes of Villarrica Volcano that was truly the highlight.
By mid-afternoon, we had safely reached the base of the volcano and removed all our sweat and snow-soaked gear. Our muscles were thoroughly exhausted. I’ve never been quite so excited for a hot shower and a cold beer. Despite the grueling ascent, climbing up and sledding down Pucon’s Villarrica Volcano has been one of our favorite adventures in Chile so far. We’d definitely recommend it to anyone in decent shape and with an adventurous spirit.
If You Go – Volcano Villarrica Hike Information:
Where to Organize Volcan Villarrica Trek:
You can easily organize this trek from the city of Pucon, Chile, a town located near the base of the the volcano. Pucon is a great adventure hub in the area with lots of outfitters, tour companies, hotels, restaurants, and bars. There is a ton of recreation in the nearby area including whitewater rafting, hydrospeeding, hiking, horseback riding, and canyoning. Or you can just relax at the lakeside beach that’s in walking distance from town.
The Need for a Guide to Trek Villarrica Volcano:
Unless you’re a seasoned mountaineering expert, you must embark on this trek with a guide. Without a guide you’ll be required to obtain a mountaineering license and get permission from Conaf and you must have all of your gear such as crampons, ice pick, and helmet.
Selecting an Outfitter to Summit Volcan Villarrica:
There are an abundance of adventure companies throughout Pucon who offer this Villarrica Volcano excursion. Do you own research and find a reputable company. The company we used to climb Volcan Villarrica is otherwise one of the most highly recommended companies in Pucon according to popular guidebooks and even our hostel owner, but we were a bit disappointed by their rushed pace for those of us who did not take the chairlift.
But more importantly, we felt safe the entire time. And safety should be your number one priority when selecting a tour group to go with when climbing a treacherous volcano that has previously resulted in injuries and deaths. Some good advice is to do your research and check safety records of the Villarrica Volcano tour operators.
Making a Reservation to Climb Villarrica Volcano:
On the day you arrive in Pucon, be sure to reserve an excursion for the very next day. Weather often prohibits this climb. If you have multiple days in Pucon and your summit gets scrapped, you will get bumped to the following days in which you’ll hope for improved weather.
When to Go Make a Summit Attempt of Volcan Villarrica:
We did this Volcano Villarrica climb in early January, which is the middle of summer here in the Southern Hemisphere. Yet there was still a lot of snow on the cone. People were even skiing down. We were told that the later summer months (February and March) tend to have progressively less snow, which makes sledding down Volcan Villarrica more difficult and can make descending slightly more dangerous. Yet conditions change from year to year and day to day. You may even find that the volcano is active!
Cost of Villarrica Volcano Climb:
We saw prices for this trip consistently at $40,000 or $45,000 Chilean Pesos per person that includes transportation and all essential equipment. Food is typically not provided, nor is water. When choosing a guide be sure to do your due dillence on exactly what is included and what their policy is if the full summit is cancelled due to changing weather conditions.
What To Bring When Climbing the Villarrica Volcano:
Eat a full breakfast beforehand and pack a quick lunch (like a sandwich) and snacks for energy. The Volcan Villarrica tour guides suggest bringing chocolate bars to give quick bursts of energy. Bring at least 1.5 liters of water per person. Wear long pants and three layers. (Additional waterproof outerlayers are provided.) Bring sun screen and sunglasses. If you are thinking about taking the chairlift, bring 9,000 pesos per person to pay for it when you get to the chairlift.
You pay for the entire Villarrica Volcano tour pay at the end, so bring cash or card for that too, in addition to a few extra bucks if you wish to tip your guide(s).
Using the Bathrooms on Volcan Villarrica:
There are no toilets along the way and no trees to squat behind (f) or whip it out (m), so be sure to go at the porto-potties at the base of the volcano where the chairlift begins. Otherwise, you’ll endure a funny position with other climbers watching you turn the snow yellow.
Important: Deciding To Take the Chairlift or Not Take the Chairlift on the Villarrica Volcano
In retrospect, we wish we had taken the chairlift. It wasn’t the extra few kilometers of hiking that wore us down; it was the fact that we went at twice the pace in order to catch the group who did take the chairlift. If we had understood that we would need to climb Villarrica Volcano at an accelerated pace by not taking the chairlift, we probably would have opted differently.
Not taking the chairlift pros:
- You hike the entire volcano
- You save 9,000 Chilean Pesos per person
Not taking the chairlift cons:
- You must ascend at a much faster pace than everyone else
- There’s little to no breaks to enjoy the climb
- There’s greater chance that the weather can turn, ending your climb
- Adds an extra few kilometers to an already demanding climb
Villarrica Volcano Climb Recommendation – Just Do It!
Overall, we would definitely recommend this intense climb to anyone of moderate fitness who is up for the challenge. The views atop Volcan Villarrica are a breathtaking reward. The experience of using crampons and an ice-pick to climb to the summit of this massive peak was like nothing we’ve ever embarked on before, making for an incredible challenge. And the sledding down Villarrica Volcano was one of the best thrills we had during our two months roaming around Patagonia. This is a must-do for any adventure junkies traveling through the area!