Puerto Varas / Pucon and witnessing a volcanic eruption

Jun 02, 2015

There’s no fancy word-smithing here folks, we saw a freakin volcano erupt! It was an unexpected explosive eruption that spewed ash and hot magma into the air. It was a hell of a sight. Now before we go further, let me pause here and give you some info about these awesome places in one of my favorite countries, Chile.

Jen and I left Bariloche, Argentina bound for Puerto Varas, Chile and didn’t really know what to expect. We of course expected some fantastic views of the mountains and a more typical Andean town but nothing prepared us for the beautiful mountain town of Puerto Varas. We arrived on a cool and rainy day and weren’t sure if we’d get to enjoy the sights but woke up the next day to a clear and sunny day. Given the freezing night-time temperatures and lack of cold weather clothing, we were super happy to have a clear day where we could hike around the Osorno Volcano and about 1/3 of the way up.

The Osorno Volcano looking very good early in the morning before we set off to hike up.

The hiking was again excellent and again awarded our efforts with some spectacular views. We reached the peak of our hike around 1:00pm and had views of many of the other Volcanoes in the area as well as some of the other massive mountain peaks, which are covered in thick glacial ice year-round. 

A view of Osorno from the lower magma fields during our hike. See the little humps on the right side of the volcano, we hiked up to the first one. Going further required a lot more day-light and some better equipment.

We set out to leave town the next day in the morning but were not able to when the most unhelpful sloth of a human being I ever met dragged her feet in booking our ticket and the bus left without us. So, we salvaged the day by booking an evening bus and trekking around town a bit to see the various vantage points for viewing the volcanoes. One gave us the view you see below of the Calbuco Volcano, which erupted about 2 hours after this photo was taken. It erupted violently for about two full days and buried/destroyed the volcano-like mountain structure you see in the photo. 

Calbuco prior to erupting at the end of April, 2015.

The eruption began as we boarded our bus to the next destination, Pucón, but it wasn’t actually noticed until we got a little ways outside of town when a massive ash cloud began to build rapidly overhead. I first noticed it when the driver and his helper (all drivers have helpers in South America) began staring out the side window and taking photos. They were completely fixated on something so I looked out to see what it was and it looked like a massive bomb had gone off. Smoke and ash billowed upward in the shape of a massive mushroom cloud and everyone on the bus began calling friends and family back in town. The bus pulled over and we all took photos while the driver called home and cars beeped past and sirens blared. It was quite a scene actually and there was a palpable uneasiness in the air. It went away as we became aware that it was Calbuco, the volcano situated across the lake from town and in a National Park with few surrounding inhabitants other than a small village on the fringe of the park. This was the volcano that hadn’t erupted in over 40 years. We took countless photos but with a slightly obstructed view and the fact that we were headed away from it meant that the eruption became less impressive as we went along. Others we knew in the next town over got some amazing shots though.

Taken about 10 minutes after the eruption from the bus.

We arrived in Pucón that night and the hostel was in a bit of a frenzy discussing the eruption and impact it might have on their region and their own Villarica Volcano. A reasonable concern, considering it erupted only a few months earlier.

Tired from the long day, Jen and I went to bed early that night and woke up around 7:00am to it being pitch-black outside. This wasn’t a surprise at first though; the time-zone here allows for an 8:30 sunrise, so we rolled over for a few more Z’s until I woke up to people franticly whispering outside our room. I looked out the window and saw that it was still very dark and looked down to my watch to see that it was almost 10:00am!? I asked the people outside the room, who had entered by this point, what was happening and they said they were going to the store to buy bottled water and food before anything became contaminated. As you can imagine, none of their responses sounded like leisurely coffee sipping would be in my future on this day. In fact, it got us out of bed quick and within minutes we were dressed and assessing the situation. The darkness we saw was actually a thick blanket of ash covering everything and literally blocking out the sun. It looked like snow that made everything blackish-grey instead of bright white.


Around 10:30am on a cloudless day. As you can see the ash cloud completed blocked the sun and ash was everywhere.

We joined the crowd, Jen grabbing her beach sarong to use as a dust mask and me grabbing a cheap mask from reception, making a grocery run and snapped some incredible photos along the way. Once the wind shifted a bit by around 1:00pm, Jen and I got our hands on some protective masks and headed out to explore the ash-covered town. It was a bizarre sight. The sun was there somewhere but all we saw was an orange/grey haze everywhere. Stepping outside for even just a few minutes got you covered in ash that was fine like flour but a crystalline texture when rubbed together in your fingers.

The photos we took after things cleared up a bit were really amazing. Ultra-fine ash coated everything.

The ash hung in the air for a long time and kind of put a damper on things as we had to choose between doing what we wanted in irritating and chalky ash that was suspended in the still warm air or we could sit inside and hope the wind changes direction or it rains heavily. Neither happened so we did a few of the things we wanted like going on the best (and cheapest) guided horseback riding experience either of us ever had, and hiking to a “hidden waterfall” that is really inconvenient and a bit dangerous to get to. It involved hiking along a busy road with dust masks on cursing their itchiness and trying to draw enough oxygen in with each half exhaled breath so as not to pass out. Ok, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated but I hate those little disposable dust masks with a passion. Almost as much as I hate the Old Man…


For days this was the only way you could go outside without breather small amounts of ash with every breath.

While the dust part sucked, everything else about our time in Pucón was awesome. The dust even had a place in the whole experience as it made for a strange environment to be in and a most memorable event from the trip.

We left Pucón in the shadow of the Villarica Volcano taking photos of it’s lava caldron starting to heat up and, at times, shooting liquid hot magma a few meters above the rim. It was really mesmerizing and it made me wonder if we saw any part of the “real Pucón” or not. It was simply not itself those few days I suppose. On the bus out of town I took a look out the windows every chance I could get a glimpse of Villarica, no eruption this time.


The glowing and bubbling top of Villarica.

Category: Places

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