Santiago is not the capital of Chile in name only: it’s at the heart of the financial, cultural, artistic, sporting and…well, just about anything that goes down in this unique country at the bottom of the world.
Fortunately for the expats, exchange students and English teachers that live here, as well for tourists or business people making a short stop-over, the city offers an outstanding range of weekend getaways and day-trips that provide a refreshing change of pace from the bustle of this cosmopolitan metropolis.
With the Andes a short trip to the east and the Pacific Ocean within striking distance to the west, options include: skiing, hiiking, white water rafting, rock climbing, horse riding and paragliding, to name but a few.
A more relaxing way to get out of the city and in touch with the nature and rural communities on its doorstep is to take a trip in search of the Andean condor, the majestic national emblem of the Chile and the largest flying land bird in the world.
For all its size – adult males can weigh up to 30 pounds (13.5 kg) and have a wingspan stretching 10 feet (over 3 meters) – the Andean condor glides effortlessly on the updrafts of the mountain range that gives the bird its name, rarely bothering to flap its enormous wings.
Although they were revered in by indigenous people of the Andean territories of modern day Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, who regarded them as messengers between people and the gods, the giant raptors were pushed to the brink of extinction in the 20th century.
But in recent years the condor has made a remarkable comeback, and thanks to a conservation project that has released hundreds of the birds back into the wild, the Santiago region has become one of the best areas in the country to see these birds in the wild.
Condors can be seen at steep inclines and cliffs which provide the updraughts on which they soar. Because they can fly to great heights, binoculars are recommended for a condor sighting trip, but if you want a close up viewing the best place to be is around the snow-line, were the birds feed on the frozen carcases revealed by the melting ice.
One of the best ways to see the Andean condor up close and personal is to take a hike in the Sierra de Ramón mountain range which looms over the city, can be reached by public transport or car, and offers many day trips or longer hikes.
Also on offer are a range of tour companies that offer trips into the mountain in search of a condor sighting.
Another attractive option is to hire a car and head to one of the mountainous getaways, like Cajón del Maipo, that can be reached in under an hour’s drive from the capital.
Aside from condor spotting, this option lets you take the back roads and stop at roadside restaurants and stalls where farmers sell produce, from fresh fruit to home-made peanut butter.
In summer months, condor spotters should take the Ruta G-25 to the higher mountains of the Cajón del Maipo. The peaks of El Romeral and El Volcán, which offer spectacular views of the valley below, are also great places to see condors.