Massive, rugged and unforgiving, the Andean cordillera forms an imposing barrier along Chile’s eastern border. Getting a glimpse of the Andean interior can be impossible, unless you’re a mountaineer, or you get in a car and drive to Cajon del Maipo.
On the eastern outskirts of Santiago, a road winds through an ever-narrowing valley in the Andes called Cajon del Maipo. The paved portion of the road follows the Rio Maipo, and is hemmed in by impressive, precipitous peaks. The pavement runs out at the confluence of the Rio Manzanito and the Rio Volcan, the major tributaries of the Rio Maipo.
Andres and I took a trip into this valley, driving to an outdoor adventure center near the Rio Maipo to hike to a 2-tiered waterfall called Cascada de Animas. We paid $4,000 Chilean pesos apiece for a guided walk to the falls. $4,000 CLP is a little over $8 USD, for those who might be curious. The hike to the falls only took around an hour, but in that short time we saw a lot.
The walk began with crossing the Rio Maipo, a swiftly moving, turquoise colored, very cold river. We made the crossing by walking over a shaky suspension bridge with old wooden slats. Our guide, Ramon, tried to assure us that the span was safe, but more than once I envisioned one of the slats giving way, falling into the river below, and the stories that would appear in the Santiago newspapers about the gringo that drowned during his outdoor adventure.
Once over the river, we stopped at the adventure center’s raptor care facility. In the video you’ll see a clip of some large birds of prey in an enclosure. These birds had sustained various injuries facing whatever risks birds face, and can not be returned to the wild.
We continued on through a short, thin stretch of riparian forest, stopping to get a lecture on litre, a shrub/small tree that can cause allergic skin reactions after being touched. Litre is abundant on the dry slopes of the Andean foothills. My tactic to avoid this plant was simply to avoid all plants. This seemed the best approach, since litre looked similar to other, benign trees and shrubs.
The trail left the forest and followed a small tributary of the Maipo before beginning its climb to the first waterfall. At the first waterfall, we all did the typical tourist things, snapping pictures, extolling the beauty of the area, and engaging in the chit-chat of strangers.
We then walked up a series of dusty switchbacks to the second waterfall, a much longer cascade falling from a ledge up on a cliff. Mosses and lichens clung to the cliff side near the splashing water. A small, brownish bird hopped and flitted about the rocks by the pool at the bottom of the falls, perhaps annoyed that we were deterring it from taking a mid-day bath. I managed to get some video of this feathered denizen of the falls. Help anyone on an ID? species and genus?
Just before leaving the area, a Mr. and Mrs. Jackass decided to uproot a clump of wildflowers near the falls to bring back to their home. They did this despite being instructed at the beginning of the trip not to remove or destroy any wildlife. Mr. Jackass tried to feign some sense of decency by bringing the clump of already wilting flowers to the guide and asking if it was ok to take them home. Ramon stared in disbelief, shaking his head in disapproval and disgust.
After the hike, Andres and I stopped for a late lunch at one of the various roadside eateries. We enjoyed spinach quiche while drinking pisco sours. Pisco is a popular Chilean liquor concocted from fermented grapes. The alcohol content of your average pisco is between 30-35%, making it a drink best approached with modesty.
With our hunger satisfied and the tangy taste of pisco sour still lingering, we patronized one of the many small, roadside vendors selling artisanal honey, nuts, and baked goods. I bought myself 12 ounces of the local honey – incredible. Every morning I put a teaspoon of this golden delight in my tea.