Houses and restaurants whiz by giving way to steep mountains and goat herds as we wind up the paved road heading toward the snow-capped peaks already looming up ahead.
While the lower parts of the Cajon del Maipo valley are populated by campsites and myriad empanada restaurants, those adventuring on a little further towards the Argentine border are rewarded with goliath mountains, a mighty glacier and volcanic hot springs.
Monumento Natural El Morado, the national park with the glacier, several pristine lakes and some of the best trekking near Santiago, is something of a happy paradox — a world away from the capital, yet perfect for a weekend getaway. Visually reminiscent of the distant, remote landscapes of Chile’s extreme Patagonian south, the park is actually remarkably easy to get to (only around 50 miles from the capital) and surprisingly well-serviced: a cluster of campsites, hostels and restaurants (yes they serve empanadas), are located at the reserve’s entrance.
Camping is a great option for those going well prepared, but keep the season in mind as temperatures can drop dramatically in winter months (June-August). Two affordable campsites offer basic, but decent service in a stunning location a stone’s throw from the park entrance, shops and-the perfect remedy for sore, post-trek feet-Baños Morales hot springs. Alternatively, hotel accommodation is available near the park entrance and cabins can be rented for groups.
If trekking or horseback riding in the park sounds a bit much, some of the area’s most spectacular scenery can be enjoyed from thermal baths situated at 3,500 meters above sea level. Located a short drive away from the national park, Baños Colinas offers exquisitely warm waters amongst unbeatable natural surroundings.
Running between October and March, the upper reaches of Cajon del Maipo can be reached by bus from Santiago taking approximately two hours. Another option is hiring a car in the capital and making the trip yourself, but remember to check weather conditions and take wheel chains if travelling in winter as snow can blanket the roads when the weather is just right!