Countless volcanoes jut up from the Andes Mountain range in South America, like pins in a pin cushion, defining the landscape – and everyday life – up and down the continent. No two South America volcanoes are unique; alongside ancient, inactive craters and colorful crater lakes, you’ll find snow-capped cones that threaten an eruption any day now.
If you’re headed to South America, make sure to add a visit to a South America volcano to your itinerary! This ultimate guide to the most spectacular volcanoes in South America will show you the very best volcanoes to visit, and how to visit and hike the best of them.
Volcanoes in South America
South America is studded with nearly 200 volcanoes, meaning that you’ll never be far from a South America volcano no matter where you travel across the continent. Most are concentrated along the Andes Mountain range, formed by the Pacific Rim fault line that makes Asian countries like Japan so susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic activity as well.
Today you can visit many of these volcanoes – active or inactive – making for incredible hikes, climbs of all levels of difficulty, and incredible features along the skyline of South America.
While the majority of the volcanoes in South America are currently inactive, there are several that are quite active, and have had recent – sometimes frequent! – explosions of gas, ash, or even lava. These are some of the most active volcanoes in South America:
- Cotopaxi Volcano outside of Quito, Ecuador
- Villarica Volcano in Chile
- Nevado del Ruíz Volcano in Colombia
- Nevado del Huila Volcano in Colombia
- Tungurahua Volcano in Baños, Ecuador
- Reventador Volcano in Ecuador
Keep reading for our list of the most spectacular volcanoes – active, and inactive – that you’ll find in South America. These volcanoes in South America make for an incredible visit, whether you’re looking to summit a snow-capped peak, or just stand in the shadow of an imposing giant.
Cotopaxi – Ecuador
Located just an hour and a half outside of Ecuador’s capital city of Quito, Cotopaxi is one of the most visually stunning South American volcanoes. Perfectly conical and capped in a glacier, the volcano is an essential part of the Quito skyline when it peaks through the clouds.
A day trip from Quito to Cotopaxi is one of the most popular day trips from Quito. Visitors can enjoy Cotopaxi National Park, including hiking through the park, climbing to the refuge near the glacier line, or mountain biking down the side of the cone.
Hiking to the top of Cotopaxi is a popular though challenging excursion for visitors to Ecuador, and one of the most popular volcano climbs in South America. Those attempting to summit spend the night at the Jose Rivas Refuge and awake early in the morning to push to the summit. Winter gear and crampons are required, provided by tour companies.
For less adventurous visitors who would like to enjoy Cotopaxi National, make sure to stay overnight at the Secret Garden Cotopaxi – this incredible hostel is one of my personal favorites EVER. Complete with lush grounds, delicious food, and (free!) excursions to hidden waterfalls at the base of the extinct Pasochoa volcano, Secret Garden Cotopaxi is an unforgettable stay in an unforgettable destination.
Read More: 10 Most Impressive Volcanoes in Ecuador
Rapo Kua – Easter Island
Few people know about the mystical Easter Island, of those few an even smaller portion is aware of the fact the island is home to many dormant volcanoes. The largest of these volcanoes is located in the southwestern part of the island. The 325-meter Rano Kau volcano today is surrounded by dark volcanic rocks and a large lagoon measuring a whopping 1.5 kilometers in diameter.
Getting to the Volcano can easily be done on foot from the island’s main town Hanga Roa, simply follow the well-indicated signs! The very best views can be found from the aptly named “mirador Rano Kau”.
Next, walk down the southern slope of the volcano, follow the signs for the historical ceremonial village of Orongo. The little village contains a set of 50 stone houses that were abandoned in the late 19th century. The village can only be visited with a valid Rapa Nui National Park ticket which can be purchased at the airport upon arrival.
Tronador – Argentina and Chile
Monte Tronador is an extinct stratovolcano that is located on the border between Argentina and Chile. Its last eruption was over 300,000 years ago and became extinct in the Middle Pleistocene era.
The summit is at 11,453 feet (3491m) with a small mountain refuge (Refugio Otto Meiling) at just over 6,560 feet (2000m) – the perfect location to view the peak and attempt to reach the summit. Even in the summer months, the peak is snow-covered and it is surrounded by glaciers that give it its name.
Tronador is Spanish for “thunderer” and describes the noise of the collapsing seracs (blocks of glacial ice!) that echo across the landscape.
The nearest town to Monte Tronador is Bariloche, a small ski resort. From here it is possible to walk to Refugio Otto Meiling from Pampa Linda in a day. The walk starts in a dense forest before heading out onto the plateau. A guide is not needed for this hike but to reach the summit or complete the nearby Paso de las Nubes back to Mascardi Lake a guide is needed to navigate Alerce Glacier.
Pululahua – Ecuador
Located about 45 minutes north of Quito, Ecuador is Pululahua, a dormant volcano and one of the largest volcanic craters in the world. Pululahua and the area around it make up the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve. The crater is unique because it is one of the only volcanic craters in the world that is used as farmland and inhabited by humans.
Pululahua’s last known eruption was around 2400 years ago. This eruption formed the caldera that is seen there today.
Visitors to Pululahua can opt to make the trek into the crater, take a horseback riding tour, or simply admire the unique crater from the Ventanillas lookout point. For hikers, a guide isn’t required but is highly recommended in order to make the most of your visit.
Pululahua is a popular day trip from Quito. For tourists, one of the easiest ways to visit Pululahua is to take a group tour, many of which combine Pululahua with a visit to Mitad del Mundo. Plus, since Ecuador is a great country to visit on a budget, these tours tend to be pretty affordable. You can also take a taxi or the bus to Pululahua from Quito.
Villarica – Chile
Villarica is one of the most impressive active volcanos in Chile. The nearest town to Villarica is Pucon, known for its numerous adventure tours such as rafting, mountain biking, hiking, or skydiving over the volcano. In fact, climbing Villarica is considered one of the most adventurous things to do in Pucon.
The top of the cone of the volcano is covered by snow most of the year, and you will need special equipment in order to climb it. You can only go up the volcano with one of the accredited climbing companies based in Pucon, or, if you manage to obtain a special permit.
Climbing Villarica is not easy at all, and you must be sure that the guide you hire is a professional, has climbed the volcano many times, and knows what to do in case of emergency.
Villarica is an active volcano, which means that it can erupt at any time. Sometimes you see the smoke coming out of the crater. When you reach the top, you can actually look inside the volcano and see the bubbling lava. Before you reach the top you will need to put on a gas mask, to protect yourself from the toxic gases climbing out of the crater.
The last eruption of Villarica was in 2015, after which the path up was closed for a good few years. Locals say that Villarica only erupts at night, on a full moon.
Chachani – Peru
The Peruvian city of Arequipa is full of fiery volcanoes, but Chachani is the biggest of all. This beast peaks at an altitude of 19,872 feet (6,057m), which is taller than the more popular volcanoes such as El Misti. Chachani is the ultimate volcano to hike in Southern Peru (and one of the best things to do in Peru!), with its stunning panoramic views at the top, as well as the otherworldly terrain that you’ll pass through on your way to the peak.
If you’re backpacking Peru, note that Chachani is located roughly 55km from Arequipa, and you’ll first need to head there. Arequipa is around 1010km from Lima. The bus from the capital takes 18 hours, whilst a flight takes around an hour.
Once in Arequipa, the only way to hike Chachani is with an organized tour. You can find many reputable companies based around the Plaza de Armas. There are two options for the hike; either the one-day ascent or the two-day, one-night experience.
The best time to hike Chachani is during the dry season, which runs from April until November. It’ll still be pretty cold (so you’ll need to bring several layers), however, there’s much less risk of mudflows due to excessive rain. The climb up to Chachani is not too complicated but is definitely not for those who aren’t in good physical condition – however, it’s still one of the best things to do in Arequipa!
Also, due to the high altitude, it’s extremely important to prepare properly by acclimatizing in Arequipa for a few days. Buying Coca Leaves or Soroche Pills is recommended to prevent any potential altitude sickness symptoms.
There have been no eruptions from Chachani in the past centuries, however there are hazards to be wary of including mudflows due to melting ice, especially if summiting during the wet season (December until March).
Read More: 25+ Best Things To Do in Peru
Nevado del Huila – Colombia
Nevado del Huila is the highest volcano in Colombia, reaching a height of 17,598 ft. Located in the heart of the Colombian Andes, the volcano’s base covers the cities Cauca, Huila, and Tolima. The volcano’s summit is capped by a glacier and offers beautiful views of the Andean Forest and alpine tundras for adventurers and hikers alike.
The most recent eruption of Nevado del Huila was in November of 2008, resulting in an avalanche and the evacuation of surrounding cities. Today, Nevado del Huila is still active and is common for effusive eruptions.
Hiking Nevado del Huila is a challenging trek and is recommended for experienced hikers. It is often required that you get a guide registered with Parques Nacionales, especially for inexperienced hikers and solo travelers. The hike to the summit requires multiple days of strenuous activity. Having the required guide will ensure you take the best paths, have all the supplies you need, and have the required permits for the trek.
Close to Nevado del Huila, visitors can visit the El Paraiso Hacienda estate which is a historic sugar cane farm built in 1815. At the Hacienda, you can learn the entire process of harvesting sugar cane, a product used to create sugar and rum.
Licancabur – Bolivia and Chile
Licancabur is a prominent, inactive volcano located in Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve in Bolivia. Sitting on the border of Bolivia and Chile, Licancabur is best visited on a 3-day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats, a must-do activity on any Bolivia Itinerary, or from the town of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
Part of a volcanic zone that contains over 1000 volcanos, it may not be the highest at 19409 feet (5916m), but it definitely stands out from the lower surrounding landscape thanks to its perfect cone shape. Licancabur is also famous for holding the world’s highest elevation lake.
Formed around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago over three eruptions, it’s been pretty quiet recently with no eruptions in recorded history.
Incan ruins have been discovered on the mountain (thought to be watchtowers) and their preservation suggests that eruptions in the past 1000 years are unlikely. It is possible to climb the volcano, though it’s not the easiest! It takes about 6 hours to summit from the Bolivian side thanks to the steep sides and loose scoria ground.
Climbing the volcano has only become popular in recent times as Licancabur was considered sacred and divine by the Atacameno people and summiting the volcanoes was considered to bring misfortune.
The volcano also forms a beautiful backdrop for Laguna Verde, a brilliant turquoise (or emerald) green salt lake that is located right in front of the volcano. Its brilliant colors are created by minerals, such as arsenic, that are suspended in the geothermal waters. Its best visited early in the morning when winds are less likely, resulting in undisturbed water sediments and the lake at its most bright, turquoise color.
Read More: La Paz, Bolivia: Ultimate Travel Guide
Osorno – Chile
The town of Puerto Varas borders the calm waters of Lake Llanquihue, in a region aptly called ‘Los Lagos’. Located not far from Puerto Montt –the gateway to Patagonia– its peaceful streets are surrounded by a landscape of black sandy beaches, tiny villages, and the silhouette of Volcan Osorno, overlooking from its 2652 m (8700 ft). It’s truly a perfect area for a backpacking trip in Chile.
The volcano’s base camp is only a 1-hour drive from town, on a gentle road where hitchhiking is pretty easy. Alternatively, local buses bring you to the hamlet of Ensenada, then you’ll have to reach the base camp by your own means.
From there, several paths of different difficulties wander on rocky terrain. There’s no entrance fee and no guide needed – you’re free to roam on the volcano slopes. It’s dormant, although there’s been some activity lately, and locals are already predicting an eruption.
The path climbs through colorful rocks and sand dunes until it reaches the snow. The ascent continues further, but crampons are needed after the 6,561 feet (2000 meter) mark. No matter where you stop though, you’ll be rewarded with the sun’s reflection on the lake and the mythical tranquillity of the Andes.
Quilotoa – Ecuador
Located in one of the most remote corners of the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, Quilotoa might look somewhat different from what you’d expect of a volcano. After a massive explosion centuries ago, the conical top of this volcano collapsed in on itself, leaving behind the green-blue volcanic crater lake that is one of the most beautiful crater lakes you’ll find in the Americas.
Today, this remote, high-altitude crater lake is one of the most visited attractions in Ecuador. The crater lake is start (or end!) of one of South America’s most famous treks – the three-day Quilotoa Loop. Make sure to add it to your Ecuador itinerary for some spectacular scenery and the opportunity to discover a part of the Andes not often seen by outsiders.
While Quilotoa is inactive, you’ll still find some hints at its volcanic past. Fumaroles are visible from the surface, where bubbles escape to the surface of the lagoon – rent a kayak at the bottom of the crater and venture out into the water to find them.
Read More: Quilotoa, Ecuador: Ultimate Travel Guide
Sierra Negra – Ecuador
Situated about 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador in South America, the Galápagos Islands are home to nearly two dozen active and inactive volcanoes. Isabela Island, in particular, is a shining beacon for adventure seekers looking to hike the world’s second-largest active volcano crater known as the Sierra Negra Volcano.
With an elevation of 3,688 feet, hikers are required to access the volcano with a guide and can face hefty fines if they attempt to summit it alone. Owing to the volcano’s most recent eruption in 2018 which left the uninhabitable area surrounding the base deep in lava and ash, the area must be continuously checked for dangerous conditions.
To reach the base of the hike, you’ll first need to arrive by plane at either San Cristobal Island or Baltra Island. From there, you’ll need to jump on a ferry to Isabela.
You can choose to either hire a guide for the day or an entire week (land-hopping trips will bring you to multiple islands and will include numerous fun activities), but just be sure to brush up on your Spanish before you get there since much of the local population speaks strictly Spanish.
After you finish your hike, head to the infamous Wall of Tears and learn about the island’s historic past or the stunning Pearl Shell where you can snorkel with South American penguins and sea turtles!
El Misti – Peru
Located near the Chachani Volcano on the outskirts of Arequipa, Peru, El Misti is an incredibly imposing South America volcano you won’t want to miss. While El Misti has recently been calm, its last eruption was in 1985, and active fumaroles can be seen from one of the volcano’s three craters.
Summiting El Misti is one of the most popular activities for adventurous visitors to Arequipa, though its no easy feat. You’ll likely need special winter gear and crampons, though this will depend on the time of the year you’re hiking. From the top, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of Arequipa, the surrounding desert-like landscape, and the impressive Colca Canyon, one of Peru’s most popular destinations.
After summiting the volcano, make sure to head to the Museo de Santuarios Andinos in the center of Arequipa. This museum holds archeological discoveries made on El Misti from the past few decades, including mummies and some of the most impressive and unique Incan artifacts ever discovered.
Read More: 16 Best Cities to Visit in South America
Tunupa – Bolivia
Located on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in southwest Bolivia, the Tunupa volcano is an incredible part of one of the world’s most unique sceneries. The volcano is respected and revered by the local Aymara indigenous populations and forms an important part of indigenous folklore about the formation of the Salar de Uyuni.
While most Salar de Uyuni tours skip a visit to Tunupa, make sure to look for a dedicated visit to the mountain as part of a tour, or, book with a guide to summit the volcano. Even if you’re not interested in summiting, there are interesting caves on the side of the volcano where mummies have been discovered.
Nevado del Tolima – Colombia
One of the eight volcanoes located within Colombia’s Los Nevados National Park, Nevado del Tolima is one of the most impressive peaks you’ll find in the park, whether you’re interested in summiting or admiring from a distance.
Hiking to the summit of Nevado del Tolima is one of the most unique challenges you’ll find in mountaineering in South America, thanks to the near complete lack of flat sections of trail, and the variety of environments you’ll pass through while summiting.
You’ll need specialized winter hiking and climbing gear once you reach the glacier line. You’ll need a guide to reach the top.
One of the most beautiful features of the park, other than the countless peaks you’ll find here, is the unique vegetation found in this high-elevation ecosystem. Frailejones (pictured above!) sprout out of the volcanic soil throughout the park; these unique, fuzzy shrubs are only found in a few areas of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru in high-altitude páramo environments.
Lanín – Argentina
Sitting along Argentina’s western border with Chile, the snow-capped Lanín volcano is a prominent feature of the skyline in this remote area, with a distinctive cone and year-round crown of snow and ice.
Despite its imposing shape, summiting Lanín is rather straightforward and much easier technically than some of the other nearby volcanoes and mountains along the Argentina – Chile border. You’ll need a guide to make the summit push – climbing is limited and controlled, as the volcano sits in a national park, but popular with South American climbers.
For less adventurous visitors to the area, especially the quaint nearby city of Bariloche, you’ll be able to get a glimpse of Lanín and other nearby volcanoes, such as Villarica across the Chilean border, or Tronador even close to Bariloche, if you head out on a volcano route through this beautiful part of Patagonia.