5 Best Volcano Hikes in South America

cotopaxi

The sheer power and immensity of volcanoes inspires not only curiosity and wonder, but also creates a magnetic draw, a desire to master or take part in something so fascinating. In fact, people have been hiking and exploring them since the beginning of mankind. While hiking up an active volcano may seem a little too risky for some, it can be one of the most awe inspiring and empowering things a person can do. And luckily, because not all volcanos are created equal, the saying ‘once you’ve climbed one, you’ve climbed them all’ doesn’t apply.  Coming in different sizes and shapes, along with different views and challenges, you’ll want to keep coming back for more.

Villarrica, Chile

Chile’s entire eastern frontier is crowded with volcanoes. Almost everywhere you look you’re bound to see one. In fact, the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program specifically lists around 500, although some estimates put the number in the thousands. While it’s certainly possible to hike up many of these volcanoes, one of the best places is volcano Villarrica.

Although this volcano is extremely active, the last explosion occurring in 2015, that doesn’t stop tourists from both hiking and skiing this 9,317 foot high wonder. While some adventurous souls try climbing it throughout the year, you’re much less likely to actually make it to the top in winter. In spring and summer you can drive partway up the volcano, so you’d only have to hike about four hours to the top. In winter, there’s more snow at the base, so climbing time increases by several hours.

Since this hike is similar to walking in a zigzag pattern on a very steep and slippery stair master for four hours, it’s better to wait till summer when the conditions are better and safer. Starting in late October, you have a better chance of getting up to the crater, where you will most certainly get to see not only volcanic steam and possibly a little lava, but also a sweeping view of the entire countryside for hundreds of miles, as well as more volcanos and the Andes mountains in the distance.

Getting down? Expect a speedy fast and exhilarating descent by sledding, skiing or snowboarding to the bottom.

Tunupa, Bolivia

About 8,000 feet higher than Villarrica, this spectacularly colored volcano will give you a whole new appreciation for the famous Uyuni salt flats, which can be seen from its peak. From so high, the salt resembles a strangely tranquil white lake or oddly even clouds. While one might expect a desert volcano to be the same sandy tone throughout, the colors of Tunupa slowly shift their earthy hues, sometimes mixing with the snow that dusts its summit.

Although it isn’t technically difficult, the climb is still challenging, taking around four hours to get to a lookout point at 15,255 feet. Although most people stop at the lookout, it’s possible to keep going and doable in one day. The volcano is dotted with small patches of rough light green grass and small boulders. After a certain point this thins out, leaving the granulized rough ruddy pebbles characteristic of the desert. Views are unobstructed throughout the climb, so you can pause now and then to take in the panoramic view below.

El Misti, Peru

Located just outside Peru’s second most populated city, Arequipa, is also one of the most popular volcano climbs in South America. While it might be tempting to climb this 19, 101 feet tall volcano by yourself to test your guts and bravery, it’s not recommended. Not only is there the likely possibility of altitude sickness if you haven’t properly acclimated yourself, some of the paths can be quite dangerous, though not because of the steep terrain. Travelers are often warned of the possibility of being robbed along some of the trails. It’s important to consult a local or go with a guide to find the trails that are safe. Given the volcano’s popularity though, most groups make it to the top unhindered. It’s been estimated that around 5 to 10 people climb it every week.

Climbing to the top needs to be taken cautiously and most people take two days. Although it’s possible to do a day hike, you’re unlikely to reach the summit, where you’d find a probably snowless peak, an old iron cross from 1901 and a wide steaming crater that’s easy to see into. The volcano is still active, but you probably won’t see lava though.

The best time to go is usually between late April and early October.

Cotopaxi, Ecuador

This volcano has been challenging tourists ever since the famous scientist and volcano enthusiast Alexander von Humboldt attempted to climb it in the 1800s. Considering even he couldn’t make it to the top should tell you something about this volcano’s difficulty. It’s one of the highest in South America, towering at a height of 19,347 feet. It’s located in a national park that’s also worth exploring, being home to wolves, wild horses, alpacas, deer and other wildlife. Hiking to the top you’ll get to see the changes that occur in the flora and fauna as elevation increases, until you reach the glacier that starts around 16,400 feet

Certainly it’s a much steeper and more dangerous climb than that of Villarrica. Not easily completed in a day, many tours offer a four day trip to complete the hike with the help of a guide. While tours can get pricey, Ecuadorian laws require a certified guide for this volcano because of its height and the presence of the glacier. Luckily there’s more than one option, and some day tours exist where you can hike a commendable 16,404 feet up to the base of the glacier and see a lagoon along the way.

This volcano has been showing some more activity in recent years, so make sure it’s still possible to hike it before you go. The best time to hike this volcano is between November and February.

Totumo, Colombia

If these volcanos sound too tall or dangerous for you, there’s one unique volcano in Colombia worth visiting. Not exactly a hike, this volcano has been lined with a staircase to make it easier for visitors to get to the top and down again. But don’t worry, it’s not a long climb.

Colombia’s volcano Totuma is a baby compared to the other volcanos on this list. Just 49 feet high, it’s not much of a challenge to reach the top. So what draws so many people to a volcano smaller than many hills? Inside this volcano’s crater, instead of searing hot lava, you’ll find a warm mud bath known for its therapeutic properties. Slipping around and floating in a bottomless pool of bubbly mud could be a good way to wind down after all your traveling. And, for the more timid, you can still say you made it to the top of a volcano.

This is a guest post by Lori Bell. Lori is currently traveling in Latin America and has been keeping busy with some adventure sports like white water rafting, climbing a volcano, and surfing.

image credit: Flicker, Sara y Tzunki

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