How to climb a South American volcano
Straddling the border between Bolivia and Chile, Parinacota and Pomerape are photogenic volcano “twins”, known as Los Cerros de Payachata. (Escudero Patrick/hemis.fr/Getty)
There is something magical about volcanoes. In the mind’s eye, their ice-frosted peaks rise perfect and cylindrical, topped with cotton-wool wisps of white smoke like the mystical mountains of fairy tales. They embody an awe-inspiring power; even when they are dormant we imagine them cloaked with mantles of fiery lava, cannoning rocks and spewing mushrooming clouds of ash. And climbing a volcano holds a special satisfaction: when you arrive at the top, you can not only marvel at the bird’s eye view all around, but also at the chilling view inside the mountain.
The young geology of the Andes – the mountain range that runs along the western coast of South America – is pocked with snow-capped volcanic cones. While many are breathtakingly high, several have the gradually inclined slopes of the imagined volcano, offering non-technical routes to aspiring volcano-baggers. Although these high-altitude mountains should not be taken lightly – summiting them demands the proper equipment, acclimatisation and usually a professional guide – anyone who is physically fit and mentally tough can climb them.
El Misti, Peru – 5,822m
This is the classic first-time volcano-bagger’s peak. Just outside the city of Arequipa in southern Peru, El Misti rears high above its parched surroundings as a perfect volcanic cone. This is still an active volcano – it last erupted in 1985. Contract a guide in Arequipa to transport you by 4x4 to the base of the mountain, from where it is a two-day hike to the top, with an airy camp at 4,500m on the mountain’s gravel-strewn slopes. From here, set off in the dark to summit before midday, then it is a fast, sliding descent down chutes of fine ash and scree. El Misti is best climbed between July and November when there is the least amount of snow and the views are clearest. There is no permanent ice cap, making this a straightforward trek on rock and shifting volcanic ash, though an ice axe and crampons may be needed in a snowy season. Near the summit is a sulphurous yellow crater with bubbling mud and volcanic fumaroles hissing gas.
Ampato, Peru – 6,248m
Situated in remote, dry country 100km northwest of Arequipa, dormant Ampato is perhaps best known as the last resting place of the Ice Maiden, the Inca child whose mummified body was discovered by archaeologists near the volcano’s peak in 1995. Most Ampato summiteers make it to the peak in three or four days round trip from Arequipa, camping at 5,000m and 5,500m to aid acclimatisation. Both the altitude and the terrain make this climb a little more complicated than El Misti; there is some glacier travel and some scrambling to the summit ridge, so contracting a guide is advisable: Pablo Tour has an excellent reputation. Trek highlights include camping in the empty desert dryness (you will need to carry extra water on parts of this route) and the incredible views of the surrounding plains and the Cordillera Ampato – the Ampato mountain range which is a sub-range of the Andes . This includes the active volcano Sabancaya (5,976m), which may be fuming gently as you climb.
Cotopaxi, Ecuador – 5,897m
Although this volcano lies close to the equator, Cotopaxi’s imposing height puts this mountain’s head in the clouds often enough to give it a permanent cap of ice and snow. In fact, this is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes: its last major eruption was in 1903, and seismic activity on the mountain was noted as recently as 2002. The centrepiece of the beautiful, alpine Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, the volcano is one of the most climbed in Latin America; most get to the summit and back in a two-day trip. A gravel road goes to 4,600m, and a cold, cramped night is spent at the refugio (mountain hut) at 4,800m. Bring earplugs (it can be noisy sleeping amongst all the other trekkers) and a down sleeping bag and jacket as temperatures plummet once the sun sets. The summit day begins in headlamp light at 1 am, when a line of trekkers kicks crampon spikes into the crunchy snow and trudge slowly to the peak, hoping to summit at dawn. Outfitters in Quito, about 75km south of Cotopaxi, offer all manner of Cotopaxi climbs, often combined with mountain biking, horse riding and hiking or camping in the park. But the best place to stay, acclimatise, arrange your climb and enjoy the wonderful Ecuadorian estancia (ranch) ambience is Hacienda El Porvenir, set in the sparse, high country just outside the park.