Climbing an active volcano may sound a little scary, but it's the perfect natural high

Rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we stumbled out of our tents in the dead of night wondering if this was going to be another false start. We'd been prepared for the ascent the day before but low cloud around the volcano meant that our attempt to scale Mount Villarrica had to be called off at the last minute.

Rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we stumbled out of our tents in the dead of night wondering if this was going to be another false start. We'd been prepared for the ascent the day before but low cloud around the volcano meant that our attempt to scale Mount Villarrica had to be called off at the last minute.

Climbing an active volcano might not sound like an obvious holiday option - or even a particularly good idea - but volcanoes whether extinct, slumbering or angrily spewing lava and smoke have become popular tourist attractions.

Today there are around 550 active volcanoes in the world; that is volcanoes that have erupted and are likely to do so again. Most are located within what is known as the Ring of Fire, an arc stretching around the Pacific Ocean from South America up the coast of North America to Alaska's Aleutian islands and then down the Asian coast to New Zealand. Most but not all.

Thousands flocked to Sicily to view Mount Etna's dazzling pyrotechnic show a couple of years ago, drawn by the sight of molten lava and smoke billowing from the crater. In fact, hoteliers reported an increase rather than decrease in bookings. Trips to areas of volcanic interest, led by geologists often focus on past activity with walks over the weird moonscapes of the barren lava fields. However, many are more adventure-led.

There is an added frisson to an attempt to climb a snoozing giant knowing that although all is calm above ground, below the surface glutinous rumblings continue.

Mount Villarrica soars out of the Chilean Lake District, an area of picture-postcard perfection, with its string of aquamarine lakes bordered by jagged snow-covered peaks, thick forests at their base. The landscape, peppered with 12 huge glassy lakes, and numerous smaller ones, is the result of glaciation and volcanic activity. Lake Villarrica is 21km long by 7km wide. The volcano is to the south, close to the little resort of Pucon.

Once a quiet little place of wooden buildings on the lake, this Wild West-style town has become a bustling centre for adventure sports over the past few decades. The batch of adventure sports companies in town offer everything from white-water rafting, hiking in the nearby national park, horse-riding and the guided ascent of the local volcano.

In the early hours of the morning, Pucon was anything but bustling. It felt like a ghost town. At the tour company's office beneath harsh strip lighting we fumbled with the unfamiliar gear.

We had been kitted out when we booked the climb with strong blue waterproof trousers and jackets, fleece hats, gloves, sturdy boots with crampons, walking sticks - and ice picks and oxygen masks for the summit. Bundled into a minibus - the weather report finally favourable - we set off, with just a little trepidation, for the volcano's base.

It is a 12-hour trip, starting before dawn to ensure that climbers make it down from the mountain before night falls. Mount Villarrica is 2,840m but anyone with a moderate degree of fitness should be able to manage the ascent.

At first light we set off. The going was tough, a tendon-torturing scramble, slipping and sliding up a seemingly interminable slope of loose scree. However, the ground underfoot eventually became firmer. The pace steady, using the walking sticks to right ourselves we edged gradually higher.

A couple of our group turned back after an hour or so, daunted by the struggle. Eventually the ground began to level out and we were hiking over packed ice taking care to follow the leaders as crevasses punctured the surface causing an added hazard. We were glad of the crampons giving extra grip and the extra layers protecting us from the wind whipping across the mountain.

Towards the summit, the snow gave way once more to scree and bare rock. The air became thinner. Finally the summit came into view. And then we were there; we'd made it. Exhausted, oxygen masks on, sulphurous smoke billowing out of the crater, we were on top of the world.

THE OUTDOOR PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

HIKING

Chile is a landscape of extremes from arid desert in the north, to the lush valleys in the central region and wild windswept realm of Patagonia in the south. An area the size of Ireland is conserved within national parks and forest reserves. In Torres del Paine national park there are around 250km of marked trails including the spectacular trek up to the base of the sheer granite faces of the towers.

FISHING

There are over 5,000 rivers in Chile - not to mention all the lakes, so it's not surprising that the fishing here is world class. It's also in some of the most spectacular surroundings. In Chilean Patagonia, the town of Coyhaique is an internationally renowned fishing destination. From mid-November until mid-April anglers flock here from all over the world to take advantage of the excellent trout fishing conditions.

MOUNTAIN BIKING

From heart-stopping descents of smouldering volcanoes to the desert canyons of the Atacama and shady trails through ancient forests, Chile's diverse terrain is perfect mountain bike territory. For those looking for a challenge, the Carretera Austral, linking the Lake District with Tierra del Fuego, is also a popular route. Bikes can be hired in popular resorts, such as Pucon, or you can opt for an organised trip.

RAFTING AND KAYAKING

For a real adrenaline rush, take to the water; between Santiago and Tierra del Fuego you can go white-water rafting on over 20 rivers. Rafting trips in Chile are generally well organised, with quality equipment. While it's also possible to kayak on many of the rivers, you'll need to be experienced. For the novice, the calmer waters of Patagonia's lakes or the stunning fjords around the Chiloe archipelago are a safer option.

HORSE RIDING

This is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid territory - the famous outlaws fled the US for South America and spent five years as respectable cattle ranchers in the Andes. You can retrace their routes, visiting old haunts on horseback, weaving your way through the Valdivian rainforest and out onto the Andean wilderness. From a four-day "Sundance Trail" in the Lake District to longer, guided riding trips in the Torres del Paine national park, you can explore the magnificent scenery on horseback. In ranches based in the lush rolling countryside near Santiago it's also possible to learn to play polo.

Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) runs a 13-night "Torres" tour, including hiking, horse riding and kayaking in the Torres del Paine national park in Patagonia, from £2,364 per person, including flights

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