I’m a city girl. I was born on the outskirts of Paris and grew up taking the metro weekly to go visit the capital’s museums. When we moved to the west of France, all I wanted was one thing: move to London, the biggest and busiest of Europe’s cities. And when I did, I loved it. I love walking city streets, taking public transport, going to busy little bars and walking through markets.
Climbing mountains? Not really my style.
And yet, here I was, crampons on, ice pick in hand, slowly and very unsurely dragging myself up Volcán Villarrica in Pucón. Villarrica is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile, with its latest eruption dating back only two years – so not only was I climbing a volcano, I was climbing a bloody active volcano.
But that’s Patagonia: fire and ice, volcanoes and glaciers, and mountains, mountains, mountains. If you’re going to travel all the way there, you’d be foolish not to put your fears aside and attempt something you’d never thought yourself capable.
So I told myself as I put one foot after the other, more slowly each time, as we continued our climb. We were zigzagging our way up, pushing hard against the icy slope to find our footing. We’d passed the protection of some nearby peaks and the wind had come rushing in, making the air around grey and opaque, and here it came: I’m never going to make it, I thought.
This is no Hollywood story, guys. I didn’t make it. Rather, the weather turned, so our guides decided to head back down. There was no point in risking our way to the top to not be able to see the volcano.
So this is the story of how I nearly climbed an active volcano, and ended up sledding all the way down said volcano on a little piece of plastic (nearly impaling myself on my ice pick-cum-brake in the process, though – even sledding is extreme in Patagonia).
I apparently took to crampons and ice picks, because two weeks later, I signed myself up for a glacier trek in the splendid town of El Chaltén. (More to come on its out-of-this-world-beautiful hikes).
El Chaltén is situated on the edge of Los Glaciares National Park, itself a part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It’s the third largest ice field in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland, covering over 12,000 km2. Little of the glacier is open to visitors, as it’s a moving body of ice (that’s what characterises a glacier – the more you know!), so we explored only a little area, while still getting to see tunnels and miniature lagoons, and walking across narrow ice bridges.
And cherry on top, we even got to try our hand at ice climbing!… A wall that, granted, was not even 10m tall but quite the thing to tell the grandkids someday.
If I had to do it again… I’d definitely give the volcano another try. That’s a unique experience that is truly challenging and worth every single penny (more so if you can actually get to the top), and in my opinion, a must-do while in Pucón. However, I might give the glacier a pass in El Chaltén. Too much time on our excursion was spent waiting around while people climbed up the little ice wall, and I’d rather have been exploring the stunning trails surrounding the town. Instead, hit up the Perito Moreno glacier in nearby El Calafate – also part of Los Glaciares NP – where you are better able to take in the scale of the ice field, and see its activity first hand.