How to climb a South American volcano
Chimborazo, Ecuador – 6,267m
This volcano is wilder, bigger, remoter, colder and windier than Cotopaxi. In fact, because of its location just one degree south of the equator where the Earth’s crust is thickest, Chimborazo is the world’s highest mountain if measured from the planet’s centre – taller, by this measure, than Everest. Located in southwestern Ecuador, 30km southeast of the city of Riobamba, dormant Chimborazo rises out of the high altitude grassland known as puna, where sheep and wild vicuñas graze – though glaciers shroud the mountain’s peak. The summit takes two to three days round trip from the Whymper Refuge – a simple lodge where you can spend the night at 5,000m. However, climbs are often disrupted by bad weather, and waiting for a weather window can take many days. Chimborazo is a more technical climb than Cotopaxi, but several companies, including Mountain Madness, offer guided treks as well as mountaineering training, making its peak an exhilarating, but attainable challenge, even to mountain novices.
Parinacota, Bolivia/Chile border – 6,348m
Straddling the border between Sajama National Park in Bolivia and Lauca National Park in Chile, this mountain is one of two photogenic volcano “twins”, known as Los Cerros de Payachata. Though Parinacota has not been active in its recent history, it is still considered potentially active, rather than dormant. With slopes inclined at a consistent 35 degrees, Parinacota’s flanks offer routes on rock, snow and ice, which require crampons and an ice axe but do not demand much technical mountain ability. One unpredictable feature of Parinacota is the snow formation known as penitentes, thin, icy spires that can grow several metres tall and can make progress difficult, or even impossible by blocking the usual climbing routes. Reputable guides can advise of current conditions on the mountain and can arrange the logistics of getting you to the summit. Both the Bolivian capital of La Paz, 300km to the north, or Arica on the Chilean coast, 180km to the west, are possible starting points for a Parinacota climb. La Paz is possibly the better option because it is located at an altitude of 3,650m, so that you can start your altitude acclimatisation here. The rewards of this three-day up-and-back climb are the incredible views over the dry altiplano and a thrilling peek into the ice-crusted craters of these volcano twins.
Villarica, Chile – 2,847 m
This volcano does not offer the rarefied, high altitude challenge of those listed above, but it is one of the most active in the Andes, so chances are you may see plumes of volcanic gasses and even some lava. Though this mountain is not significantly lofty, at 39 degrees south of the equator it is sufficiently cold to support 40sqkm of glacier. Villarica, and the eponymous national park that surrounds it, are close enough to the town of Pucón that trekkers can make it to the summit and back in one day, meaning you can stay somewhere luxurious like the beautiful lakeside spa Aldea Naukana, before and after your assault on the volcano. In winter (May to November) the slopes of Villarica become a ski resort with excellent off-piste touring on the volcano’s flanks. Guides like Sur Expediciones in Pucón, and also your hosts at Aldea Naukana, offer winter skiing and summer trekking to the summit of the Villarica, volcanic activity permitting.