It’s a sparkling spring afternoon and we point our 4WD towards the beautiful Cajón del Maipo, southeast of Santiago. Following the road along the river, we pass through the valley, admiring the green scenery as we munch on some tasty home-made empanadas bought along the way. The traffic is constant but not heavy and we make it to the police check point at San Gabriel in good time.
Here begins a winding dirt track that heads deeper into the mountains, in the direction of Argentina. For the most part it’s smooth but along the way we come across two shallow creeks and a couple of rocky patches. As we climb higher, the vegetation becomes sparse and the ground gets dustier. We drive past fields of pine trees, a small mining outpost and a cascading waterfall before rounding a bend and coming face to face with a towering volcano. Around 40 minutes and 8.7 miles (4km) later, we reach our destination.
It’s early evening and the sun is starting to set, casting an orange glow through the clouds over the rugged Andean peaks. We pitch our tents at the camping grounds near the Termas de Baños Colina hot springs, nestled into the hills about 8,200ft (2,500m) above sea level. It’s early spring and there is still enough snow on the ground to complete the postcard view.
In the valley below, a couple of camp fires are already crackling away and overhead, a pair of condors arc lazily through the crisp high-altitude air. On a distant hillside, a herd of wild horses are grazing. Pulling out our cameras, we take advantage of the fading light and start snapping. Snow. Mountains. Wildlife. Sunset. In these circumstances, it’s hard to take a bad photo.
A short while later the sun sinks behind the mountain range and the clouds part, revealing a star-studded sky and a smiling crescent moon. In the torchlight, we fire up the camp stove and bop along to the lively cumbia music, straining from our neighbors’ stereos. It’s cold but with a woolen beanie and a thick parka, it’s definitely bearable.
Soaking it up
Early the next morning we are woken by the sun’s rays, piercing through the tent. The cold of last night has gone. Skipping breakfast, we make our way to the famous hot springs that have helped to put this place on the map, attracting hundreds of tourists and santiaguinos every year.
Built into the side of the hill, the six turquoise pools range from about 68ºF (20ºC) to 158ºF (70ºC). We start from the top and slowly work our way down. Rich in minerals and mud, the hot springs are said to be therapeutic but regardless of whether that’s true or not, they certainly are refreshing. The view is nothing less than spectacular either, with the majestic mountains standing tall beneath the deep, blue sky.
We linger in the water, soaking up the warmth until our skin is soft and wrinkly. It’s the perfect way to wake up.
Termas de Baños Colina
Getting there: Follow the Camino al Volcán from San José de Maipo
Entry fee: US$11.40 (CLP 6,000) per person (children are half price).
When to go: In spring you can relax in the hot springs without having to worry about oppressive heat or freezing temperatures.
What to bring: At night, it still gets quite cold so make sure you bring a thick sleeping bag and warm clothing.
Amenities: A small toilet block is located near the pools. There is no hot water or electricity.
Other activities: There is a range of hiking and mountain bike trails not far from the springs.
By Tim Dixon