On March 3rd the peace of a clear night was somewhat disturbed as volcán Villarrica rumbled and spewed lava into the starry sky.
Situated 750km south of Santiago, volcán Villarrica stands ominously over the towns of Villarrica and Pucon and is one of Chile’s most active volcanoes with serious eruptions occuring roughly every 15 years.
This regularity brings with it a unique relationship between the people of Pucon and their “house of the devil” as the Mapuche name Ruka Pillañ translates.
Although the show seems to be over for now, Claudio Cavacho Malinowsky, who has spent his entire life in Pucon — 29 of which as a mountain guide — claims that there are numerous factors which could lead to a secondary eruption.
“Most importantly, the lava from this recent eruption has sealed the crater which will obviously cause a serious build up in pressure. The smoke which you can now see escaping contains highly explosive gases as well. It is the same gas which was seen a few days before the last eruption,” he said.
“Also, it was undoubtably a spectacular eruption but wasn’t nearly as powerful as the eruptions of 1971 or more recently in 1984, the first of which killed around 15 people,” he added.
Cavacho suggested that bearing the 15-year cycle in mind, the previous dormant period of 31 years leaves volcán Villarrica with what he described as “unfinished business.”
“But Pucon has a well planned evacuation protocol,” he reasured. “The police and military assist in getting over 3,000 people out to one of the evacuation points where temporary shelters are set up. The mountain is also monitored remotely with equipment which was renewed in 2012, so we know exactly what’s happening on the mountain.”
Cavacho explained that the biggest issue comes with the seasons, “in winter, mudslides and flooding from the snowmelt can lead to devastating damage in the town as the lake at the far end of the city is where all the debris is heading.”
Visitor, Sarah Stoll, was lucky — or unlucky — enough to witness the eruption and described it as “scary, surreal, but of course exciting.”
Pucon itself is a hive of tourist activity with people from the world over putting the 9,400ft volcano on their list of unmissable sights. Whether they are planning to simply gawk at it or wrestle through the permanent glaciers to the summit, it is undeniably the main attraction in Pucon, amongst a plethora of other adventure activities. However, an eruption puts a stop to all business as the mountain is closed and the town evacuated.
Volcán Villarrica has succeeded in created an adventure tourism paradise, but it is a double-edged sword. People may come from far and wide to climb the volcano, explore its foothills, or raft and fish in its rivers. But when nature takes its course, everybody runs — and business grinds to a halt. As Cavacho put it, “the volcano is the heart of life here, the whole economy is built on it.”