There’s no denying that Santiago is a city which really delivers when it comes to day trips - your only trouble is deciding where to go and what to do! This weekend, I plumped for Cajón del Maipo - lying to the southeast of the city, this canyon offers myriad options for everyone, from the most daring thrill-seeker, to the more sedate sightseer. The day started with me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at Metro Bellavista La Florida, hopping on the No.72 bus. This will take you to San José de Maipo, which is the principal town of the area, as well as Cascada de las Ánimas further along the road, making many other stops along the way.
We took the bus straight to the Cascada, rattling along dusty roads for an hour or so, and relishing leaving the city's hustle and bustle behind us for a few hours. Ask the driver to give you a shout when you reach the Cascada de las Ánimas, and head straight for the information centre. You will need to go with a guide to gain access to the Park and get up to the waterfall, but this only robs you of 5, 000 of your pesos and trust me, it really is worth it! The tours are conducted in Spanish, but there are English-speaking guides who can accompany the group and translate the information provided about the native flora and fauna, if required. The real treat of the trip is the gorgeous landscape, however, so you shouldn’t feel too short-changed if you don’t catch all of the Spanish!
We wandered deeper into the forest, crossing rickety bridges spanning the gushing river, including one very aptly dubbed the puente borracho (the drunken bridge) - solid, hard ground is too often taken for granted... We made several pit stops, including one at a stream rushing straight down off the mountainside, and whose water is pure enough to drink. On such a baking day (I’m sometimes convinced that the concept of a Chilean “winter” is a hoax!), this provided some very welcome refreshment. Be prepared for the information boards, however, as it was here that I realised to my naive surprise that I was merrily passing through the stomping ground of some rather interesting-looking spiders and scorpions...
It only takes half an hour or so to arrive at the star attraction: the Cascada de las Ánimas. Frothy, snow-white water tumbling down a sheer rock face on one side, and an icy-capped mountain range on the other, make it the ideal photo op. Though a tad breathless after clambering the path up to the viewpoint, we couldn’t resist dropping down again on the other side to stand at the foot of the mighty torrent. Thanks to the blazing sun high in the sky behind us, the pool below became a kaleidoscope of colour with a perfect rainbow glimmering through the spray.
Buses to San José amble past every ten minutes or so, and this little town is well worth a visit on the way home. At weekends and festival days there is a small market selling everything from handmade jewellery and crafts, to brightly-patterned woolly hats and socks. There were also stands selling local jams and condiments - if you have any respect whatsoever for your taste buds, don’t forget to ask for a sneaky taste of the manjar de lúcuma! We grabbed some empanadas for a late lunch from a little van down one of the small streets leading out of the central Plaza de Armas, picking and choosing exactly which fillings we wanted (a travelling vegetarian’s idea of heaven!) - I opted for cheese and tomato, and thoroughly enjoyed every last mouthful in a flurry of flaky pastry beneath the dappled shade of the trees in the main square. It was a perfect lunch spot, boasting a photoshop-esque vista of the snow-capped mountains peeking out from behind the pretty church, but do expect a few polite, but pointed, petitions from the local dogs for any spare snickets of your empanada.
My day out in the Cajón del Maipo was relatively relaxed, but if you fancy packing in more action you won’t have much trouble finding it - there are numerous spots where adrenalin-addicts can go rafting on the river, or animal-lovers can jump in the saddle and explore this unique natural haven on horseback. And that's in addition to trekking through the 3,000-hectare El Morado National Park, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing in Lagunillas, stumbling across tiny, picturesque villages deep in the mountains... But there is a lot to be said for having a more laid-back day, if you can afford the time - sometimes it’s worth spending that extra half an hour looking out over the river from a hidden viewpoint, or having the chance to pop back to the market to decide definitively whether the raspberry jam is a legitimate contender to the strawberry... An oasis of calm lying so close to Chile’s capital, I, for one, will definitely be going back for seconds!
Final tip: I would recommend hopping off the bus at Las Mercedes on your way back, allowing you to catch the Metro back into Santiago’s centre. The view out of the window as the glowing sun tucks itself into bed behind the towering, snowy Andes mountain range is the perfect end to the day!
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