Tuesday, May 13, 2014
One of the biggest reasons to come to Pucon is the opportunity to climb the Villarica Volcano. Volcán Villarica has one of the world's most accessible lava lakes in its caldera - and when the conditions are right, you can climb to the top and look right down into it. The main shopping street in Pucon is lined with sports outfitters and touring companies - all of similar degrees of reputability - all of whom will outfit you with a full cold weather climbing kit and lead you on a climb up to the volcano caldera. The tour leaves extremely early in the morning and is not an easy climb - five to six hours slogging up a snowfield, climbing at an angle often above 45 degrees.
On a scale of tourist-wranglers, the Pucon fellows are extreme professionals. My dad and my sister have both made the climb and reckon that it was a positively exciting and majorly memorable experience. Their group took five hours to climb to the caldera, but the return trip took scarcely more than an hour – the climbers all slide down the trail on the seats of their pants! Dr Tabubil even saw one guy climbing up with a snowboard on his back, prepared for a seriously awesome return trip. There's an excellent description of the climb here on the Go World Travel blog. As for Dad and Dr Tabubil, their only regret of the climb was that the day they climbed Villarica, the lava pack was too low in the caldera to be seen. Like any volcano, Villarica plays by its own rules. Some days the lava glows brightly, some days it does not - but always, the view from the summit is spectacular.
The lower reaches of Volcán Villarica belong to a small ski resort - when the lifts are running, they cut an hour off of the climb. One evening, Mr Tabubil and I drove up a deeply graded road to the base of the ski lifts, and turned out onto a rutted service lane.
We'd passed through a conifer forest into a lava field - a land of ash and stunted twisted trees and low, badly-growing bracken. The weather was close and clammy - and we found it an almost sinister experience, as we drove the vegetation petered out and we were driving through a wrecked and shattered landscape; cold and damp, gray ash underfoot, and the only foliage scattered spikes of livid orange flowers. Our imaginations were boundless. The flowers were like flames, licking out of the ground. Thick mists curled and wraithed. It was a landscape straight out of Tolkein. We'd driven out of life and into Mordor; nowhere could be more like Mordor than the slopes of that volcano, not even the landscapes inside Tolkein's own head.
Abandoning the car, we climbed on foot. I sat down on a small rise and let Mr Tabubil go on ahead. He disappeared into the mist and I imagined that I was sitting outside the Gates of the Dead, watching the Dead armies pass before me as shapes in the murk - and heard, behind me, a sharp crack. I turned. Mr Tabubil stood about 5 feet away, frozen in mid-stealth. He had spent a good ten minutes, crazy man, working his way silently back toward me across the moss, planning to sneak up behind me, gargle “Got you, my Precious!” and hopefully watch me jump off my rock and fall into a ravine.
I do wish he hadn’t stepped on that twig!