The Villarrica Traverse
Party : Mum, Dad and I
A classic longer trek along the rugged volcanic spine of Parque Nacional Villarrica.
This incredibly scenic, high-level trek traverses virtually the whole length of the national park, giving constantly changing views. The route first leads around Volcán Villarrica’s glacier-shrouded southern sides, then along a complex volcanic plateau of alpine lakes, small calderas and lava flows that extend as far as Volcán Lanín. The mostly rocky, open terrain provides sensational vistas, although the route dips repeatedly into beautiful highland araucaria and lenga forests.
Day 0: Pucón to Zanjón Molco
Day 1: Zanjón Molco to Estero Ñilfe
Day 2: Estero Ñilfe to Río Pichillancahue
Day 3: Río Pichillancahue to Campamento Volcán Quetrupillán
Day 4: Campamento Volcán Quetrupillán to Laguna Avutardas (Los Patos)
Day 5: Laguna Avutardas (Los Patos) to Pucón
After a trek around Volcán Antuco, we hitched rides to the small community of Abanico. Deciding it was too late to make a move to Pucón we’d spent the afternoon at the popular Captación Estero Malalcura. Jimmy sourced some yummy food from town, and whilst simple, it seemed like a feast compared to our trekking food.
We moved back down the road to camp the night secluded in the shrubs, rising early the next morning to catch a bus back into Los Ángeles.
Jimmy guarded the packs whilst mum and I searched for a replacement stove. Before walking out to the bus terminal we lunched in a small park, some police checking our passports hinting that we should move on.
Jimmy suddenly remembered he knew someone in Temuco… I got in contact with her and we arranged to meet at the terminal. We met very briefly, but being new year eve, we ended up purchasing tickets for the same bus! The bus attendant a little confused when we presented the new tickets and put our packs back beneath the bus.
Driving past Largo Villarrica we arrived in the small tourist town of Pucón. We decided to search for accommodation and quickly found a simple hostel with a great atmosphere. The owners of the Latinoamerica were very friendly with a great warmth. We ate dinner beside them and an Argentinian couple, midnight slipping up on us surprisingly quickly.
Whilst my photos backed up, I researched the trip we were planning to start in the afternoon – once we had sourced food…
Day 0: Pucón to Zanjón Molco
Mum and Dad went out in the morning with the difficult task of collecting food for the ~6 day traverse. Despite most shops being closed, they did well… though with food there is always room to complain 😉
It was after 2pm when we finally started walking across town to the road that leads up to the ski hill (and the start of the trek). Once there, we waited in the shade, Jimmy quickly scoring a ride on the back of a motorbike. Mum and I had less luck and after some time slogged up in the heat until again resting in some shade at the bottom of a steep dusty hill. Eventually an elderly lady stopped to give us a lift. She had a very nice aura, and having lived here for around 30 years had really seen the town grow in the last 10 years. We stopped to pick up Jimmy and after calling her husband, she drove us up to the CONAF office. “You can get all the information here”, she said as we pulled up… “But it’s closed”. After a bad experience with CONAF on the Cóndor Circuit, I was actually happy. After waving farewell and taking a quick look at the map, we continued up the road stopping where the road began climbing steeply up. The plan was to wait here for a couple of hours, if we couldn’t get a lift up, we’d walk up when it was cooler. Quite a few people were heading up to enjoy the view, but it was still slow. “I’ll sit in the back! I don’t care what animal they have!”… A car pases… “On second thought, it depends on what animal it is… It could have been a lion in there!” – wise words from Jimmy.
Passing the time we threw rocks (when Jimmy got three in a row he exclaimed proudly: I’m that good, I don’t need to prove myself any more) and after mum got a ride up, moved on to stick balancing. Eventually tiring of waiting, and concious of the hour, Jimmy and I started walking up. After a couple of k’s a ute stopped and we happily hopped in the back soon joining Mum at the top.
Thanking the couple again we headed back down the rd a short way before taking a track lined with stones beside a corrugated iron shed. Quickly we crossed Zanjón Correntoso which was followed by more dry steambeds. The wildflowers were amazing. Their perfume sweetening the air. Fairly quickly we arrived at Zanjón Molco, a lively stream carving a channel in the gravel. It was a good spot to spend the night and heading up the drainage a way, we found a nice sheltered spot to set up camp.
As the sun began to set, I walked up onto a ridge with mum just in time to see it disappear below the horizon. The colours across Largo Villarrica were amazing, the pinks and purple slowly fading as the stars and lights of Villarrica became more and more prevalent. With little sleep the previous night I had quickly slipped into sleep.
Day 1: Zanjón Molco to Estero Ñilfe
There was a cool breeze most of the night, and it was still cold when mum roused us for an early start. Clouds hung low blanketing the valley below us and obscuring the lake. I dozed as the others packed not really keen on rising. Eventually I made a move and quickly packed without having breakfast. After grabbing some water, we continued along the track crossing lava fields separated by sparsely vegetated ridges and a couple of gullies covered in snowdrift. The fragrant alpine flowers again sweetened the air. As the sun touched us it warmed quickly and we stopped to shed a couple of layers. We were happy when the track descended and soon dipped into the treeline, the increasingly dense forest of lenga engulfed us in its welcome shade. There was a nice spot for a tent before the vegetation abruptly ended and we emerged into the open Zanjón Voipir where water could be found. Crossing, we quickly re-entered some more mature forest, meeting a local couple at a 4-way junction. They had walked up from the town of Villarrica to visit the mirador Glacier Voipir.
Dropping down into Zanjón Pino Huacho a sign alerted us to the presence of water not far from the track. We followed a plastic pipe down, but unexpectedly found a small spring seeping from the steep bank. Collecting our packs, we headed up the other bank and rested to enjoy lunch, I again volunteered my complaints on the lack of food as a couple also hiking the traverse passed by only stopping briefly.
The next section was great! After camping beneath only a single Araucaria on our circuit around Volcán Antuco we suddenly entered a forest of them! Young juveniles covered completely in pointy triangular scales raced to capture the sun whilst others towered above, their trunks bare of the pointy scales and instead protected by a thick bark. It was a nice change of scenery not seen on our last two treks.
The route then dropped into Zanjón Challupén and followed it up the alluvial. There were vehicle tracks… “I think they’ve been here with trikes. The ones with four wheels ” – wise words from Jimmy… We soon crossed a string of shallow crystal pools, the water slowly trickling over the rock. The side of Volcán Villarrica now covered in crevasses; putting to rest of our thoughts of a side trip.
We struggled upward in the heat which was really sapping mums zest. We rested several times before we finally entered another shaded forest with a small lake and accompanying pond higher on the slope (known as the Lagunitas Challupén).
We pushed on to the short lava tunnel next to audible Estero Ñilfe. By this point, it was really hot. We took shelter in the cave for a time, my parents quickly deciding to call it a day rather than pushing on to the next convenient camp some 9km (Felix’s 9!) further along the trail. After scouting upstream and disturbing a herd of cows, I returned back to the best place right by the cave and trail. We strung my parents tent fly from the trees and enjoyed a siesta for the afternoon the bothersome tábanos again seeming to only target me! I swatted over a dozen of them, the local iridescent lizards enjoying the extra snacks.
A hiker snuck past as the afternoon slowly cooled, and soon we roused (maybe due to my hunger complaints) to wolf down another bland dinner of pasta and sauce, which we all pretended tasted better than it actually did.
Venturing out for the sunset, we again marvelled the complex volcanic mountains below us, a small slice of Lago Calafquén just visible between two of the peaks. As the sun disappeared the sky turned a brilliant orange, the snow on the distant snowcapped summits of Volcáns Choshuenco and Mocho fading and melding with the dark silhouettes of the other mountains. The temperature quickly dropped and we soon retired for the night, another unspoken early start on the cards in the morning.
Day 2: Estero Ñilfe to Río Pichillancahue
When I woke the second time, mum was already packed. I packed and was pretty much ready by the time a sleepy Jimmy emerged, evidently not pleased by another early(ish) start. Despite being a similar time to yesterday’s start, being further around Volcán Villarrica, the sun already touched our camp before we left. Stepping over the slightly shrunken Estero Ñilfe we continued across some recent lava flow and then an area with busy bumble bees zipping around the flowering heath.
Walking directly into the rising sun, it was difficult to see, and mum and I stopped to put on sun glasses though it didn’t help much. We soon reached an area known as Valle de Fuego, passing the large reddish side crater (and another smaller cone) that had been visible from our camp. Some of the patterns in the rock were interesting, but all in all I felt it was a bit of a slog.
We enjoyed a short water break in the shade created by the deep Estero Tralco. I was happy for the clean water, dumping the heavily silted water I’d been carrying from camp. Despite the exposure, thanks to the cool breeze the weather today was much more bearable.
Continuing, we crossed another lava field known as Escorial de Catricheo, there were more interesting patterns in the scorial and the track wove through some fairly high volcanic walls.
The scenery didn’t seem to vary much and I was happy to see we were slowly dropping down to meet the treeline. Not far below, proud araucaria stood tall against the backdrop of Volcán Lanín on the border with Argentina. We crossed over a number of dry washes before reaching the rushing Estero Aihue were some flat unshaded sites offered descent camping.
Finally we reached an araucaria stand isolated above the forest below, it was a great rest spot, but despite Dad wanting to stop for lunch, we pushed on further. The track wove in and out of a number of small valleys with flowering bushes, one hiding a small stream. Dumping our packs at the junction, we headed up to Mirador de volcanes (1500m), a side-trip for us, but a popular destination for day hikes. Four were already enjoying the vista as we headed up. From this vantage point, all five volcanoes we’d seen so far could be identified (the only place in the world were 5 Vulcanos could be seen Jimmy assured us. Felix’ reply: yes, in other places I have seen more) .
Our stomachs soon took us back to our packs, and we lunched in the shade after quickly entering the forest (again we had arguments about eating food!). After lunch the trail dropped down steeply, with a number of slippery sections, to the Río Pichillancahue. A bridge had been built fairly recently making the crossing easier than expected, though it wasn’t really deep. It was a great spot, and after a quick look about I waited for my parents to join me, wondering if we’d push on, or call it a day. It made sense to continue, but it was such a nice spot, that we ended up deciding to stay. We tried to relax but the bothersome flies wouldn’t leave us alone. A different type seemed to prefer Jimmy but also bit me many times.
We laidout our remaining rations to see if we really needed to be concerned, in the end leaving meager portions for day 6. I repaired a tear in the bottom of my pack whilst Jimmy cooked. And was soon enjoying a much better dinner with a double portion of sauce and the rest of the mushrooms. With full bellies we all silently relaxed, still easily several hours of daylight.
Day 3: Río Pichillancahue Campamento Volcán Quetrupillán
Continuing down through the amazing forest, an unexpected climb over a ridge brought us to the dirt road between the two sections of the walk. Not far along a ute came up from behind. They offered us a ride and hoping in the back we soon transitioned to standing as 4wd was engaged to negotiate the rough road. We parked at the apex of the pass. Here they were heading up another walking track to visit the Pichillancahue Glacier, a sign/picture rising ones hope to see a puma.
After conversing for a while and a quick farewell, we dropped down the other side, silently past an Indian ceremony, the elder muttering uninteligible words.
We passed some great camping spots beside the Estero Chinay. Keeping a close eye on the vegetation to the right, I soon decided to go for a short cut I’d been eyeing on the map. Instead of hiking down to the CONAF guarderia we headed up the steep slope and then across fairly open terrain until we reached a stream running right across our path. The vegetation was thicker here and travel slowed. Miss Anna seemed to cuss occasionally to herself. All the sudden we were back into easy terrain and back on the track. We’d saved about 2.5km as well as some ascent and descent!
We climbed up the steep switchbacks occasionally exposed to the sun. The wild strawberries sadly devoid of fruits, their large flowers promising future hikers some tasty treats. Contouring in the shade past a water access point we continued up another steep section to an ideal spot to rest at the edge of the treeline.
The tábanos were bad and a constant pest so we didn’t rest long. More switchbacks led us up in the sun before the vegetation finally yielded to the elements. A convenient spring presenting itself before our planned lunch spot just above.
The views got better, and then even better. I counted 8 volcanoes scattered around us, though there were probably more. We lunched with the lizards who would enjoy the scattered flies once we left. Dropping generally down we contoured around Cerro Los Pinos to drop down through the dusty scrub to a signed junction. Climbing back up through the trees we reached a small creek confluence with nice spots to camp, but continued on through the open plateau we paused to enjoy some hopfully edible ‘snow berries’… Mum thought she recognised them from Alaska but wasn’t sure, so we didn’t go overboard (Jimmy only eating one exclaimed: I see first how you are doing before I risk my life). Arriving at a mirador overlooking Volcán Quetrupillán and numerous cascades created by the snowmelt. Crossing some streams we set up camp near the base of the primary waterfall.
Jimmy seemed pretty tired but we hatched plans for another long day whilst we feasted on couscous, mash and some other delicacies procured from Mum’s pack.
Day 4: Campamento Volcán Quetrupillán to Laguna Avutardas (Los Patos)
During the night I woke to a dark sky. It was more ominous than simple cloud. Yesterday’s high sirrus (and the forecast) had been right; the weather was changing. I rolled over thinking about packing up some of the gear sprawled around me, but hoping it wouldn’t rain I drifted back to sleep. When I woke again it was light. Not bright, but as good as it was going to get for a while. Wisps of clouds were blowing around on an icy wind, the fog thick consealing most of the hills around us. Mum left before I was even out of bed and a grumpy Dad stomped around complaining of the early hour, the low light making it feel much earlier than it actually was.
My bladder soon forced me to get up, and I warmed my fingers between rapid bouts of packing.
Crossing another small confluence I quickly caught Dad as we climbed steadily up at a brisk pace. Neither of us were using our walking sticks, instead cradling our hands for extra warmth. Many of the smaller water trickles, as well as the edges of the snow packs were frozen, it must have dipped down pretty close to zero. There had been a decent reset and the numerous snow drifts we had to cross were solid.
About 45mins later parts of Largo Azul could be glimpsed down to the right. A better vantage point was by a second seismic station (there was also one above camp). I caught mum here, as the trail dropped down through a steep bank of snow. In the end we all slid down on a different place, my sick broke whilst jamming it into the snow as a brake, the resulting two halfs giving me better control on the steep section at the end… but were useless for walking. Crossing over a snow bowl, and more drifts we bumped into a couple (English and Chilean) who were making their way up from the lake. They warned us that the rain was apparently arriving today! not tomorrow.
Soon afterwards we past a large (~6?) group of seemingly underequipped Chileans. As we dropped down do the nice grove of lenga trees by the lake’s edge it was sad to see all the damage people had caused in the otherwise idyllic spot. The group we’d just passed had left the fire burning and food in the pots. A blanket and articles of clothing hung around whilst some lay piled in fire rings. Most of the stunted trees had bits hacked off them. We put the fire out and glanced out across the lake. Fog blew around, clinging to the surface ripped into waves by the wind. On the far side, a waterfall dropped down from a plateau. It looked like a lava flow had dammed the valley to create the lake. Turning around, we wove through the black faceted scorial taking a moment to shed a layer, and when mum had left I grabbed a quick bite to eat.
Heads down I was happy we had a tail wind, icy fingers pushing me onwards, occasional sprinkles of sleet like rain for added encouragement. Even though the weather was clearing, there wasn’t much to see; it was a fairly bleak and desolate area. We crossed long sections of snow, the trail dissaperaing through a pass in the distance on the other side of another lava field. We passed through the scorial where a small snowmelt pond had formed. Crossing a wide braided stream we soon reached the corniced pass to Laguna Blanca. A uniform grey like the clouds above, it didn’t look overly inviting. Skirting around the cornice on some interesting sandy brown rock, we soon reached the junction to the lake. I went for a quick look whilst the others continued gently up the sandy valley.
My shadow joined me for a moment as the sun poked it’s face through a momentary lapse in the otherwise uniform clouds. A rock stood like a stele high on the side of the valley, though dad in his poor mood probably saw it as a tombstone… The track soon hooked left and began climbing more steeply upwards, one side of the sand scallops wet were the wind had carried the rain.
Reaching the top I passed through two posts, it felt like a gate and I was pretty sure I had just set foot on Argentina for the first time. A limestone looking peak to the right, the route hooked left away from the wind, it was now easier to keep balance on the slippery snow traverses. The forested valley below looked welcoming, but after dropping down, we headed back over the ridge into Chile, sliding down the snow bank on the other side. The marshy valley below encompassed a number of shallow streams and terraced pools which tumbled off the escarpment below creating numerous waterfalls. Trying to keep our feet dry we tended left around the sodden earth running parallel to the drop off until a safe spot to descend. We then doubled back along the bottom of the cliff stopping to admire the snow tunnel at the bottom of one of the falls. (Dad was still sour, and wouldn’t take a close look).
Entering the first vegetation since Lago Azul, the trail dropped up and down over small streams until popping out into an open area with views of Laguna Avutardas below. To our right many waterfalls were dropping from above. I sat down to have lunch and the others soon joined me. The wind picked up and quickly finishing, we continued on, dropping down steeply into taller forest covered in old man’s beard, more muddy patches and finally a large open meadow with an indistinct trail.
Just inside the treeline I found a nice campsite and waited not very long for the others to join me. A complicated discussion followed about where we should spend the night, ranging from camping right were we were, to walking out to the road. The longer options were ruled out, and since Dad wanted a fire, in the end we stayed put, setting up camp in a convenient dry spell.
Cooking dinner on the fire we slowly warmed, but as we ate, we got wet from the back and soon all retired early for the night.
Day 5: Laguna Avutardas (Los Patos) to Pucón
I didn’t sleep well. The spot I’d set up my bivy was a water trap and I woke with my feet in a cold puddle of water números times. I got some sleep but spent a lot of time rubbing my feet, wishing I’d spent less time in the rain, packed some toe warmers and waiting for morning to come.
When I heard the whoosh of air releasing from mums air mat, I didn’t spend much more time in my bivy. The condensation had made much of the top part of my sleeping bag damp. I packed a bit, important things going into my dry bag, and then decide a hot breakfast was in order, and heated up a litre for us to share.
It was still our latest start. It was good to get moving, trying to get some warmth back into my fingers and wet feet.
We followed the pleasant track through the trees, the lake visible just below us. Entering the clearing near the beach, I was supprised to see fresh snow on the mountains not much higher than were we’d camped. I was happy we’d had a longer day and pushed onto the lake.
Without a break we passed by the beach and just within the trees paralleled a scrubby flatland with the occasional meadow. Finally crossing through the pantanosa to walk up and down a number of small ridges. We dropped steeply down to an old road. A nice sign gave information of the trail to the left that climbs Quetrupillán, Jimmy wasn’t interested when I joked about a side trip. We got water from the stream a minute down stream passing more cabins and cleared land from former farming days.
Jimmy saw the first cherry tree but I saw the the first ones with fruit. They were clustered around a pleasant dirt floor cabin. Someone had smashed the window to gain access 😦
We spent at least an hour gorging on cherries, finishing by filling a bag. Mum’s method of incrementally pulling the branches down worked best with multiple people, and yielded the most fruit 😉
Belly churning, we continued merrily down the rd.
We popped out on the highway where a new café was being built. We tried hitchhiking at the pull out for a while but it seemed slow and we were soon walking down the steep winding rd.
Near the bottom (just before the CONAF station), a car stopped with mum inside. They said we could jump in the back and we were soon on our way to Pucón to spend another night in the homely LatinoAmerica.