In the Andes

The top 5 volcanoes to visit in Chile

From the Altiplano to the Lakes District, Chile’s active volcanic peaks offer extraordinary hiking, skiing and iconic views.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011  
Osorno Volcano, towering over Llanquihue Lake in the south of Chile. (Photo: Joel Mann/Flickr) Osorno Volcano, towering over Llanquihue Lake in the south of Chile. (Photo: Joel Mann/Flickr)

Stunning images of the ash clouds and electrical storms, eerie post-apocalyptic visions of cities cloaked in ash, airports crowded with travelers interrupted en route to places as distant as Australia and New Zealand – these were the images that arose from Chile’s most recent volcanic eruption.

Here in Chile as much as anywhere on earth, nature maintains its elemental power and mystery. The eruption of Puyehue is the most recent to demonstrate this, but the spine of the Andes is studded with numerous volcanic cones, many long dormant, others still shuddering to life every so often.

These stunning, symmetrical peaks are also a favorite focus for skiers, hikers, and other adventurous travelers who arrive here in Chile to climb these spikes of living earth. Here is a list of This is Chile’s five favorite volcanoes from north to south.

Parinacota: Nearly 21,000 ft (6,400 m) above sea level, Parinacota Volcano (and its twin peak Pomerape) soar over the shallow waters of Lago Chungara in the far northeastern corner of Chile, marking the border with Bolivia. Though the perfect cone of Parinacota has been dormant since the Holocene era – roughly 10,000-12,000 years ago – the nearby peak of Guillatiri in Reserva las Vicuñas last erupted in 1985 and still emits a wisp of smoke into the thin atmosphere of the altiplano. Treks up many of the volcanoes in the region can be organized through tour operators based in the town of Putre, or in Arica, the region’s largest city.

Ojos del Salado: The highest volcano on earth, and the second highest peak in the western and southern hemispheres, Ojos del Salado is split along the border between Chile and Argentina, inland from the city of Copiapó. The volcano, whose name “Eyes of Salt” refers to the salt deposits found in its glaciers, rises 22,608 ft (6,891 m) above sea level in the dry highlands of the Atacama desert. Due to the minimal presence of snow on the peak, hikes to its summit are challenging primarily due to altitude. The mountain sits near the borders of Nevado Tres Cruces National Park.

Llaima: One of Chile’s most active volcanoes, Llaima is also the site of a popular ski center and the otherworldly centerpiece of the magnificent Conguillío National Park in the Araucanía region of southern Chile. The most recent eruption of this conical peak in 2009 left its mark on the landscape when the snowy peak rolled black dunes of volcanic debris into the valley, along the shores of lagoons and high forests of pre-historic Araucaría trees. In summer months, well-marked paths lead hikers to the high summit for views of the surrounding countryside, while Laguna Conguillío – the mountain-fringed body of water that gives the park its name – sits a short hike away.

Villarrica: Among the most frequently visited of Chile’s volcanoes, Villarrica lies just south of Llaima Volcano and gives its name to a town, lake and national park that have become fixtures on the backpackers’ trail. Easily accesible from the resort town of Pucón, Villarrica’s snowy cone looms large over the region, and its recent activity (it last erupted in 2007) is responsible for some of the areas most popular attractions, like Pucón’s black sand beaches and stunning volcanic landscapes of Villarrica National Park, popular for day hikes. Like Llaima to the north, Villarrica’s smoking summit also hosts a small ski resort and is a popular destination for hikers. On clear nights, the smoldering orange tip of the volcano is visible for miles around.

Osorno: The landscape of Chile’s pre-Patagonian south is defined by its lakeside volcanoes, and few are more iconic than Osorno. Set on the southeastern corner of Lake Llanquihue, one of the most beautiful in Chile’s lake district, the volcano is also a prominent landmark on nearby Lago Todos Los Santos. With its more modest altitude, rising about 8,700 ft (2,652 m) above sea level, Osorno is also a popular, though still quite challenging, hike. The mountain is best known, though, as the majestic cone soaring over the romantic, German-style of Puerto Varas and Frutillar along the shore of Lake Llanquihue. The wilder Andean landscapes around Todos Los Santos Lake make it an ideal destination for canoeing and boat trips toward the Argentine border.