Towering above the zippy resort town of Pucon is the smoking Volcan Villarrica, one of Chile's most active volcanos. Thousands of people climb its 2,840 metres (9,317 feet) each year.
It isn't a technical climb but there are some things you'll need to know before booking your ticket to Pucon for the experience.
Training and experience
You don't need any prior climbing or mountaineering experience to climb the volcano but it is not suitable for people with no trekking experience at all due to the high elevation and conditions. This is a strenuous climb (imagine climbing stairs for about three to four hours straight).
If you're in great physical shape, you'll have little difficulty making it to the top. Several unfit people turned back on our tour. If you're somewhat fit you'll still be able to do it but the going may be a bit slower. I've written in detail about the experience on our blog so you know what to expect. That said, it feels incredible once you make it to the top and if you think you can handle it, you probably can.
Descent depends on the conditions on the day. If there is too much ice you won't be able to slide down and will have to walk so factor that into your expectations. I recommend doing a bit of training ahead of the climb. The Parque Nacional Huerquehue has some excellent hikes near Pucon that involve climbing and will help you prepare in the days leading up to the climb.
Volcano tours don't happen every day. The weather in Pucon can be very erratic (it rained half the time we were there). You need a clear day with good conditions so be prepared to spend several days in Pucon waiting around for ideal conditions. A good way to keep an eye on the weather is via the Snow Forecast website
Getting to Pucon
Overnight (or full-day) buses from Santiago operate frequently to Pucon (11 hours). If you're coming from the north, buses operate via connections through Temuco. From the south, buses run from Puerto Montt and Valdivia. A more expensive option is flying. From Argentina, Buses San Martin operate from San Martin de los Andes.
Choosing a tour company
Unless you can provide docmentation of your mountaineering or climbing experience to CONAF, you'll need to climb with one of the tour companies in Pucon. Many companies do trips to the volcano but finding the cheapest should not be your priority. Unreputable guides may take your money only to tell you that the conditions are unsuitable once you've started the climb. In a worst-case scenario, your safety may be put at serious risk.
In the Tourism Office on the corner of Palguin and Avenue O'Higgins, you'll find a suggestions and complaints book where you can read reviews from people who have made the trip. We found this very helpful when choosing a tour company and were really happy with our guide. For safety's sake, you want a guide who can speak to you in a language you fully understand and English-speaking guides are available.
The tour company will provide you with all the specialist gear you need for the day. We were outfitted with waterproof jackets and overpants, boots, crampons, hats, gloves, sunglasses, an ice axe and a backpack to carry everything in. Even though the level of physical exertion is high, it is still very cold and windy on the volcano so dress in plenty of warm layers with a thermal shirt and thermal pants as your base layer.
Water can seep through your overpants so be sure to wear quick-drying trousers underneath and do not wear jeans. Don't forget to wear sunscreen on your face due to the sun's glare off the snow. You'll also need to bring a lunch, snacks and water for the day.
You will have the option to take a chair lift instead of climbing for the first hour of your journey. My advice is to take it. At the time of writing it cost only about US$11. The terrain leading up to the snow-covered part of the volcano is loose and will tire you out a bit before you even get to the serious part of the climb.