The sign out the front of the Santa Dilia camping ground boasted that the toilet blocks had hot water. What it didn’t say was that the hot water was only available between 7.30 and 9pm. The first two nights we stayed there, this wasn’t a problem as I rose late in the morning when the sun was high in the sky and the air was warm. But the third day was different. I had made plans to take a walking tour up the side of the Villarrica Volcano and I had to meet the guide in town at 7am.

When I clambered out of the tent, the sky was still dark and the air was chilly. Even though I had known there would be no hot water the night before, I had decided not to have a shower. My first mistake. Reluctantly, I made my way to the toilet block and for 90 seconds, I ‘showered’ as best I could before reaching for my towel and throwing on some warm clothes to stop my teeth from chattering. Then I looked at my watch. It was ten to seven and I had no time spare so I took off without eating any breakfast. That was my second mistake.

Manuel, our affable tour guide, arrived right on time Chilean-style, exactly ten minutes after he had said he would. He came in a double-cab Hilux ute with a young guy, about 20-years-old, called Fernando. Manuel had a huge grin that never left his face and he was constantly offering to lend a hand or laughing at one of his corny jokes. Fernando rarely smiled and he spoke even less but in his own way, he seemed friendly enough.

Six of us piled into the five-seater car and soon we were on a winding dirt road which took us to the entrance of the Villarrica National Park, where we joined a four-wheel-drive track. Manuel deftly manoeuvred the vehicle over rocks, around fallen branches and through flowing creek beds. In the back we had to hold on tight to avoid banging our heads as the car bumped its way along the path. About half a kilometre from the beginning of the walking trail, we came across a large boulder in the middle of the road and Manuel decided it would be prudent to get out and walk.

When we hopped out of the car, the sun was still low in the sky and the air was cool. We made our way along the road, admiring the mighty Coihue and Araucaria trees that dominated the Andean forest. Unique to Chile, the Araucaria is a distinctive tree with spiky, triangular leaves growing out of twisted branches which jut out at odd angles high up the trunk. We walked slowly with our necks craned and our cameras pointing skywards.

The sign at the start of the trail said it was a 3.3km walk to the edge of the glacier that covers the volcano’s peak. We set out on the path, which wound its way through the dense forest where trees young and old, jockeyed for space and sunlight. Along the way was a series of ten black poles with red tips, marking the route.

As we rose, the trees began to change. The thick Coihue trunks became thinner and slowly disappeared, replaced by the spindly Lengua trees whose small yellowy-green leaves dappled the scenery like an impressionist painting. Somewhere between the third and fourth path markers, the forest ended abruptly and we came to a grass clearing that soon gave way to rich, dark volcanic sand. Above us, stood snow-capped hills and in the distance, we could see the peak of Villarrica, gently puffing away.

As we walked up the side of the volcano, I began to regret not having breakfast. With each step, my feet sank into the sand and although the path wasn’t particularly steep, the constant climb was starting to wear me out. I started taking note of the route markers. Seven. Only three to go. By now the sun had risen high in the sky and was making its presence felt. I was glad that I had decided to bring a two-litre bottle of water and I made the most of it.

Looking back along the path, the view was breathtaking. High above the tree line, we could see out over the lush green forest towards the west where jagged mountain ranges broke up the horizon. In the distance the billowing tips of two more volcanoes were visible. Standing there, it was easy to understand why so many ancient societies chose to worship their deities in high places.

Just over two hours after we set out, we reached the tenth route marker.

At first, I thought we had been duped. Despite looking everywhere for the glacier, I couldn’t see anything that resembled the huge walls of ice that you see on the Discovery Channel. But as Manuel explained in Spanish for the third time, I finally understood: that dark grey surface stretching up towards the tip of the volcano was actually ice covered in ash and volcanic dust. When Fernando grabbed a rag out of his backpack and brushed the dust off the a small ledge of the glacier, the pure, clear ice glistened in the sun. On closer inspection you could see drops of water dripping from underneath the grey dust and there were a number of thick channels carved in the ice by streams of melting water.

We sat down to take in the view and to eat our packed lunches. My hunger soon disappeared.

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