Dominating the skyline south of Pucón, 2,847-meter Volcán Villarrica’s glowing crater is a constant reminder that what Spanish conquistador poet Alonso de Ercilla called its “great neighbor volcano” could, at any moment, bury the town beneath a cloud of ash or a lahar of lava and melting snow, or set it aflame in a cataclysm of volcanic bombs. Closely monitored and occasionally closed to climbers, its summit remains one of Pucón’s most popular excursions.
More than just the volcano, the park comprises 63,000 hectares of mostly wooded Andean cordillera stretching from Pucón to the 3,746-meter summit of Volcán Lanín, most of which lies within Argentina’s Parque Nacional Lanín (would-be climbers must cross to the Argentine side). On the road to the ski area, eight kilometers from Pucón, Conaf’s Guardería Rucapillán is the best source for information. Rangers collect park admission here (US$8 adults, US$4 children). There are ranger stations at Sector Quetrupillán and Sector Puesco.
Geography and Climate
Immediately south of Pucón, the park ranges from 600 meters above sea level on the lower slopes to 3,746 meters at Volcán Lanín. Barren lava flows and volcanic ash cover much of its surface, but unaffected areas are lushly forested. The other major summit is 2,360-meter Volcán Quetrupillán, halfway to the Argentine border. From Quetrupillán to the east, several alpine lakes are accessible by foot.
Summertime temperatures range from a minimum of about 9°C to a maximum of around 23°C, while wintertime lows average 4°C. Most precipitation falls between March and August, when Pacific storms can drop up to two meters of snow. Rain can fall at any time. The park receives about 2,500-3,500 millimeters of rainfall per year.
Flora and Fauna
At lower elevations, up to about 1,500 meters, mixed Araucaria and Nothofagus woodlands cover the slopes. The Araucaria reaches its southernmost point at Volcán Quetrupillán. The mañío (podocarpus), an ornamental in the Northern Hemisphere, also makes an appearance. Native bunch grasses have colonized some volcanic areas.
Among the mammals are pumas, pudus, foxes, and skunks, as well as the aquatic coypus. Waterfowl such as coots and ducks inhabit the lakes and other watercourses. Large raptors such as the black-shouldered kite and peregrine falcon are occasionally sighted in the skies.
Chile’s most active volcano, Villarrica is a cauldron of bubbling lava and venting steam that’s erupted dozens of times, including a 1971 event that expelled 30 million cubic meters of lava in a f low that spread over 14 kilometers.
A strenuous but nontechnical climb, Villarrica requires crampons, an ice ax, rainand wind gear, high-energy snacks, and a guide, except for those who manage to wrangle one of Conaf’s few individual private permits. For those who contract a tour with one of Pucón’s adventure travel agencies, the tour involves a mountaineering crash course. In good weather, the summit is about six hours from the ski area, but bad weather sometimes forces groups to turn back. When the sulfurous crater is especially active, Conaf closes the route.
While the ascent can be a slog through wet snow, the descent involves body-sledding down the volcano’s flanks with only an ice ax for braking. Rates for the trip (US$65-95 pp) vary considerably among agencies.
When winter snows cover the lower slopes, the Centro de Ski Volcán Villarrica (lift tickets US$53 per day in peak season, US$42 per day in the shoulder season) operates four lifts with nine runs ranging 500-1,500 meters in length. In addition to one-day lift tickets, there are three-day, one-week, and season passes. For more information, contact Pucón Ski (Holzapfel 190, tel. 045/441901) in the Gran Hotel Pucón.
About midway between Volcán Villarrica and Volcán Quetrupillán, a rough, summeronly road crosses the park from Termas de Palguín to the hot-springs town of Coñaripe. Best suited to four-wheel-drive or at least high-clearance vehicles, it passes through a scenic Araucaria forest that includes the park’s only campground.
From Volcán Villarrica’s southern slopes, hiking trails cross the park to Termas de Palguín and continue to Puesco, where Buses Jac has a daily bus back to Pucón. For more detail on this hike, which has some hard-to-follow segments, see Tim Burford’s Chile and Argentina: The Bradt Trekking Guide (Chalfont St. Peter, United Kingdom: Bradt Travel Guides, 2001) or Carolyn McCarthy’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2009). Conaf now levies a US$14 fee for hikers on this trail.
Transportation is limited except for organized tours. To Sector Rucapillán, only a few kilometers south of Pucón, taxis are the only nontour option.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Patagonia.