Volcanoes and lakes

It was while I was staying at El Rincon (see Grace and Favour) that Don gave me the tip to check out Volcán Antuco and Laguna del Laja. Located about 100km from the El Rincon, it promised to be an easy out and back day run. What I didn’t expect was how bloody spectacular it would be.

Don mentioned that the volcano would become visible by the halfway mark, and really make its presence felt once I’d passed through the little town of Antuco, which is about 30km away. He wasn’t wrong. Not far out of Antuco, the road bends right and you find yourself on a long straight stretch with the snow-capped cone dominating the horizon dead ahead. The mountain looms ever larger as you get closer, until the straight ends and the road veers slightly right before beginning the climb to the cordillera.

As I surfed the road’s twists and turns upwards different facets of the volcano were revealed, while the crystal-clear Rio Laja rushed past on one side through impossibly green meadows fenced by towering grey rock walls and dotted with brilliant yellow flowering gorse. Soon though, the alpine scene gave way to a moonscape. Great swathes of pumice, old lava and other detritus cover Antuco’s skirts, creating a wasteland which seems to support little in the way of vegetation or other life.

Rio Laja, on the run up to Volcan Antuco.

Antuco is 2895m high and is considered to be active. It’s classified as the eighth most dangerous volcano in Chile. The last recorded eruption was in 1911, and it certainly wasn’t doing anything other than slumbering under its snow cloak on the day I visited. There’s a ski resort on the mountain too, so I reckon they’re not too concerned about old Antuco blowing its stack any time soon.

Sadly, Antuco was the scene of a fairly recent tragedy when 46 members of the Chilean Army lost their lives on its northern slope in May 2005. Forty-five of the dead were newly conscripted recruits, and they died after being forced to march by their commanding officer in a blizzard amidst temperatures as low as -25C. From what I read of the tragedy, the non-commissioned officers basically buggered off to safety and left the conscripts to fend for themselves. Most froze to death. The fallen were buried under four metres of snow and it took searchers until early July 2005 to retrieve the last soldier’s body. There’s a memorial pillar to the ‘Martyrs of Antuco’ up there now.

Volcán Antuco.

The road to Antuco (the Q-45) continues right around the volcano east and then south before becoming the Camino Paso Pichachén. It ends up going right over the border into Argentina, which is only another 45km away or even less as the crow flies. It was closed when I was there, though, with a chain across the road and a big PARE sign preventing any further exploration or border runs. I don’t know why – maybe there was still too much snow around, or too few people to staff the border. There are a bunch of road crossings between the two countries up and down the Andes range, so I suppose they can’t keep them all going all the time.

I turned left 100m before the road closure and went for a look at Laguna del la Laja instead. One minute luminous blue, the next almost green, Laja’s water changes hue with the light. It’s a decent size and incredibly beautiful, tucked in among the stark lava ridges and cliffs.

Laguna del Laja is the source of the Rio Laja, whose waters drive a small hydroelectric plant back down the road a short distance towards Antuco. The lake is at an elevation of 1700m, and I was quite surprised to see a boat ramp in place and in use. There was a family hauling out their runabout when I was there, and another larger craft parked at a jetty nearby. It was a bit like a ferry and a bit like a small cargo boat, but I don’t know where it would go as there doesn’t seem to be any communities around the lake.

Laguna del Laja.

After a good poke around, I headed back down the hill and grabbed a late lunch in Antucho. Well, late for me, but kinda normal for Chilenos and Chilenas. Antucho is quite a small town, but the number of signs around advertising cabañas and hostals was proof it’s a popular area for holidaymakers. I found a restaurant next to the town’s plaza and had a terrific feed: carne a la olla (literally ‘meat in the pot’) with veggies and salad. Excellent!

Then it was back to El Rincon. I was heading out the next morning, southbound again.

Volcán Tolhuaca on sunset.

There were more volcanoes and lakes to come over the next few days. This part of Chile is known for them. Chile sits on one edge of the Pacific ring of fire, where a few of the earth’s plates bump up against each other. Putting it completely non-scientifically, this crunching and grinding creates all kinds of pressures, fractures and movements – and volcanoes are one of the ways these forces are released.

Another is earthquakes, of which Chile has more than its fair share. I was awoken on my third night in Santiago by a tremor, which confused the hell out of me until I worked out what had happened. There was another one while I was camping at El Rincon, but I didn’t feel a thing.

Further south, I camped between Volcán Tolhuaca and Volcán Sierra Nevada, near Malalcahuello. I say between – they are miles apart, but it felt and looked like they were much closer as they both dominate the skyline.

Volcán Sierra Nevada.

Then it was smokey Volcán Villarica, which looms above lovely Pucón. There’s a lava lake inside the top of Villarica and some glaciers on its sides. It’s one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, grumbling away on a reasonably regular basis for the past 500 or so years. Jon, my AirBnB host in Pucón, said the last one was in 2015 when an eruption forced the evacuation of a few thousand local residents. I must have looked worried, because he quickly followed that up with a reassurance we weren’t in the danger zone, thanks to a ridge nearby that would redirect any lava flows away from his place.

Volcán Villarica. If you look really hard, you might see some smoke.

My favourite so far though would have to be Volcán Osorno. If someone asked me to draw a volcano, this is pretty much what I’d come up with, but with snow on top. It’s the classic cone shaped lava-chucker and is located near Lago Llanquihue. Although it’s not the biggest one in Chile at 2650m, you can see it from absolutely bloody everywhere you go around the lake and on many of the approaches. Sticks out like a sore thumb.

I didn’t know you could ride up it until I stumbled on the road while heading around Llanquihue to stay at Puerto Varas. Glad I did. It was a peach of a ride, winding first through forest then breaking out into that typical lava landscape higher up. The last bit is a scream: about six or seven hairpins piled on each other like loose coils of rope.

At the end of the road is another ski resort – Chileans are definitely thrillseekers, I reckon – with Osorno’s snowy cone towering above one way and a simply mindblowing view of the lake and more snow-topped mountains the other. Fucking brilliant.

Volcán Osorno and the trusty packhorse.
Killer view from Volcán Osorno.


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2 responses to “Volcanoes and lakes”

  1. Vik Avatar

    Sounds bloody amazing. So jealous

  2. Greg Avatar

    The scenery is amazing. Must’ve been difficult to keep your eyes on the road.