Chile's national parks offer a wide range of walks, catering to everyone from experienced climbers to enthusiastic day-trippers, writes Andrea Loebbecke.
During the approach to Laguna del Laja National Park, the tall conical volcano of Antuco comes into view long before the bus reaches its destination.
At the beginning of December, when the Chilean summer is just beginning, the smooth flanks of this 2900-metre-high volcano of black sand and scree are still carpeted almost entirely with snow.
As the visitor moves closer to the sleeping giant, the already sparse vegetation of unkempt gorse, broom and bent-over trees vanishes altogether. The view of Antuco becomes clearer as it rises up majestically from a sea of solidified lava with an emerald-blue lagoon at its base.
The Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja lies only 500 kilometres south of Santiago - merely a stone's throw by Chilean standards. By comparison, to reach the celebrated Torres del Paine tourists have to travel 3000km by road from the capital to Patagonia.
Fortunately, the national parks which are easier to reach from Santiago and which involve only a day or two of travelling by car and bus have a great deal to offer hikers in search of the great outdoors.
Only experienced mountaineers should set their hearts on scaling the Antuco peak. But there are plenty of other paths in the park which are less demanding. They range from comfortable two-hour outings through to a robust, three-day tour. Once the snow has melted, a trek around the base can be attempted.
The first day is the most spectacular. After a steep march through waist-high shrubbery the route crosses the solidified magma. The reward for the first day's exertion is a fantastic view of the waterfalls and hanging glaciers of the Sierra Velluda range.
A further 250km south of Antuco in the Parque Nacional Conguillio stands Llaima. One of Chile's oldest and most active volcanoes, it stands 3125m high.
The Araukarie pines hereabouts form open woodlands, allowing plenty of air and sun to reach the ground. The trunks and snake-like branches are covered with light-green lichens.
A narrow path leads from the park administration across a flat five kilometres to Laguna Captren - a pleasant afternoon's outing. On the shores of Lagune Conguillio lies one of the well-equipped camping sites. Each plot has its own campfire site. When the sun goes down, the Sierra Nevada on the other side of the lake is thrown into striking relief.
The area below the summits of the compact mountain range is easily explored. Paths lead through the fairytale Araukaria woodlands, which shrink in size until only a few scattered trees hang their withered branches in the wind. Every so often palm-sized tarantula spiders scamper across the track.
Those on tour in the southern hemisphere in early summer will find their path blocked by fields of snow a few kilometres before the crest of the Sierra Nevada. The view from here is no less impressive for that, a panorama of the deep-blue lagoon, Llaima Volcano and its neighbouring volcano Lanin.
The Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay only has one volcano to offer. But this area of outstanding natural beauty is located only 320km from Santiago.
The park is spread out over 120 sq/km and is well-suited for trips lasting several days at a time, such as a trek to the lagoon, or to Descabezado, a volcano which has lost its cone.
A great advantage here is the excellent coach service - it takes only two hours from Talca and the last bus home sets off back for the return journey in the late afternoon from the park entrance.
IF YOU GO
For more on Chile's national parks and volcanoes, see chile.travel.