Hitchhiking, Volcanoes, and Glaciers: The Travels to Cajon del Maipo

The title of this post definitely leaves a lot up for questioning (“You went hitchhiking in a foreign country? Are you CRAZY??”), but it doesn’t indicate at all how new all of this was for me at the time. If I were to make a synopsis for this weekend, it would go something like this: four young study abroad students step out of their comfort zones as they ride crazy buses, hitchhike with complete strangers, camp along freezing rivers, and discover a magical landscape just two or three hours out of the bustling city of Santiago.   [Probs the most adorable ball of fur that I’ve met in Chile]  [The river of our first campsite in San Jose del Maipo][First hiking bag, first adventure with it, didn’t die, A plus]

It was only a day or so before our travels when Danny, Steffi, Buck and I decided to get out of town for the Easter weekend and visit the realm of Cajon del Maipo. Cajon del Maipo is known for it’s camping, hiking and infamous glacier (who knew that there was a glacier smack dab in the middle of Chile, only a few hours from Santiago?). Our journey started on the Thursday of Easter weekend. Around 5:30 in the evening, we took the metro (linea 5) to the outskirts of Santiago, near the Puente Alto region of the city. Before completely departing the city, we grabbed supplies at the local Lider and by the time we caught the MB 72 heading out to the country, it was already dark outside. We managed to make it an hour or so out of town to the country region of San Jose del Maipo, where we camped for the night along a river at el Parque del Rio. It was a charming little area for camping, with the resources we needed to make it through the night (fresh and FREE water, bathrooms that weren’t the wild, ground to sleep on, and adorable dogs to make friends with).  [I took this one for you, Mom, because I know how happy you are about me visiting volcanoes and dangerous places][That name for the volcano though, it’s just so creative]

Our journey continued in the morning (Friday). We caught a bus to San Gabriel (another quaint area in the Valle del Maipo region) but afterward, we were at a bit of a loss for more transportation to our destination of Cajon del Maipo. We walked for a bit with our backpacking bags (stuffed full of supplies for camping). Along the way, we saw some signs warning us of the volcanic region we were in. Of course, none of the volcanoes were dangerous at the time, though they were active. It would have been incredibly epic to see them erupt! After a good twenty or thirty minutes of walking down the road with our things, we made the decision to hitchhike our way to Cajon del Maipo.

I have some items to touch upon in regards to hitchhiking, before you freak out while reading this post. Hitchhiking in Chile is very VERY common; over the course of this journey, it wasn’t uncommon to see people trying to bum rides off the side of the road. To add to that, many of those people were in fact in the university student age range (though I did see an old man trying to hitchhike with his groceries). Another thing: 2 out of the 2 times that I’ve hitchhiked, I have been picked up by the most adorable of families with children in the car. If hitchhiking here were anything like that in the U.S, I doubt that we would have gotten anywhere. As I stated, I believe that hitchhiking in Chile is much more common (and seemingly safer) than it is in the U.S (but remember to be careful and always be with someone you know when you do it, nevertheless).  [hitchhiking selfie]  [everyone is paying a lot of attention to me, as you can see][The road, the volcano, the Andes]

The first time we hitchhiked, we were picked up by a family of three, with an older daughter who spoke a bit of English. All four of us managed to squeeze into the bed of their little truck, and within ten minutes, we were already making friends with the daughter. I must say, riding in the bed of truck in the midst of the Chilean country was probably one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had since I’ve come to Chile. Nothing is more thrilling than the wind in your hair, and the beauty of the landscape that you pass, and in the midst of driving, you’re actually in the outdoors. At one point, the family driving us offered to buy us empanadas (we had to refuse because it was too much considering they decided to bring us to our destination), which was incredibly sweet and generous of them. With their help, we made it to our camping area in Cajon del Maipo.  [some of the rock formation that we encountered]  [Our camping site in relation to the mountains, the volcano and the river, looking upstream]  [the river looking downstream]  [words can’t really describe how serene and beautiful it was to be in the midst of almost nowhere]  [so much water and mountains][More rock formations in panorama format]

When it came to finding a camping place in our camping area, dubbed Baños Morales, we met three Chilean guys (also in university) who helped us find a place away from the tourists of the area. All seven of us ended up camping at a hidden away site on the rio del Maipo. From there, we had a gorgeous view of the local snow-capped volcano (only called ‘el volcan’ because apparently it is too ferocious for an actual name). Later in the afternoon, we did some hiking towards the volcano and got some great pictures of the landscape that was in fact the Andes mountain range.

  [Steffi on top of the boulder on our first hike, towards the volcano]  [hiking towards the volcano, which was snow capped at the time]  [We saw a lot of mountain goats while hiking towards the volcano, and at one point, we probably could have been destroyed be them if we had pissed them off enough]  [Selfie with the river, which might I add, was a good few hundred feet below me in this pic. Don’t let the depth perception thing fool you.]  [more selfies — smiling is hard for some of us]  [To the left of the volcano, with Danny’s man bun]    [Looking back down to where we came from] [The beginning of our second hike, towards the glacier]

The following morning, we prepared ourselves to hike Monumento Natural El Morado — the random glacier in the midst of Chile as well as the source of Santiago’s drinking water. It cost 2,000 pesos to enter the trail (an incredibly cheap price to pay to enter a park — it comes out to less than 4 USD). The trail to the glacier was 8 km (about 5 miles) long, incredibly sunny, and incredibly gorgeous. We were surrounded by mountains from every angle, and had access to fresh water directly from the glacier. The landscape reminded me a lot of that from the Lord of the Rings films (although usually any hiking trip makes me thing of Lord of the Rings). About 6 km into the hike, there was a small ‘lake’ at which we ate lunch and examined the valley that we were traveling through. Despite our poor traveler’s lunch (for me, that was dried ham and pita bread), the view and journey made it completely worth eating.  [Looking back onto the valley in the midst of our second hike]  [Laguna Morales de Cajon del Maipo]  [The lake and the glacier as one being]  [The glacier at first looked more like a mountain with snow on it… but the closer I got, the more I realized that it was in fact a bunch of ice covered in sediment for the most part][Ice cave!]

Buck and I reached the glacier in about 2.5 hours (discounting lunch), and discovered that there was an ice cave in the midst of the glacier where melted water from the top of it carved through the ice to form the river we hiked along side (which later joins up with the rio del Maipo). In order to get to the actual ice cave, we had to get across the river that it formed, via the prominent river rocks that the rush of the water hadn’t knocked over. Doing that with a heavy backpack was pretty terrifying, but it meant getting to the ice cave, so it was completely worth it. I got to drink some of the water that dripped directly from the glacier, and I have to say that it is the purest water I’ve ever tasted.  [Selfie 1 with the glacier]  [Selfie 2 with the glacier — it was so awesome that it deserved two selfies with it!] [Look at all that ice just existing in the midst of the 80 degrees F weather! It’s just crazy how that happens!]         

I did some reading about glaciers, especially in regards as to why there is a glacier in the middle of Chile. It turns out that in order to explain this major question, you have to look at how something becomes a glacier. Glaciers usually begin formation in places of high elevation (such as the Andes), and they start off as massive accumulations of snow. The snow turns to ice with the climate, and as the mass of ice grows in size, it begins to flow downhill from the point of high elevation where it is birthed. The place at which the glacier rests and remains a glacier is at which there is an equal amount of ice melting and snowing (for you chemists, it would be at an equilibrium), known as the ablation area. Based on this, I guess it just so happens that the Morado glacier is located in an area of ablation (and equilibrium).   [The river flowing from the glacier]  [Looking back onto the glacier from downstream][The trail]

Our journey back to the starting point of the trail was quick — about 2 hours. Danny ventured off near the glacier to take what I know will be amazing photos of the incredible landscape, so it was just Steffi, Buck and I on the way back (though Danny somehow managed to get back about five minutes after Steffi and Buck met me at the bottom). The valley was even more beautiful in the late afternoon than it was earlier in the day; the green of the landscape was enhanced by the subtle disappearance of the sun, and the shadows created by the mountains helped define the geography even more. I don’t have the best words to describe how beautiful this hike was, but I can definitely say that it’s so worth doing, and it’s incredibly underrated.  [GAH it’s just so fjlkgsfjhgdsfhgkdhfjfhgkfd]  [So much green for a place that lacks trees and real grass] [The mountains opposite of the glacier — you can see where roads are based on the little trails in the mountains, such as the sideways ‘M’ near the right of the picture][Bunch o’ birds sitting on a rock — were they parakeets???]

Now getting home was the fun part. Buck and I left Saturday evening, marching out of camp around 7:15 when the sun had almost set with no idea how we were going to get back to Santiago. We got incredibly lucky and hitched a ride with another adorable family that took us all the way to the metro in Santiago. We made it home before 11 that night, which was amazing considering how much work it took us to get out to Cajon del Maipo. Despite our luck, I would not recommend hitchhiking at night, or choosing to leave somewhere at night not knowing how or if you’ll get home. In our case, I think it worked out because it was Easter weekend, and many families were traveling back into the city (along the only road that leads to Santiago from Cajon del Maipo). Any other weekend, we might not have been so successful. Nevertheless, I am incredibly grateful for how well it worked, and the generous family that took us the distance to help us get home.

All in all, I really do recommend that if you’re ever in the Santiago region, you go visit Cajon del Maipo and hike your way up to the Morado glacier. Being in the Andes definitely gave me the thrilling rush of adventure, and it was exactly what I needed after spending so much time in the bustling metropolitan area of Santiago.

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